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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
In the Italian Renaissance, a time and a place when geniuses were thick on the ground, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was one of the most incandescent. His art was extraordinary, and so in some ways was his life. The focus here is on the few years before and after he killed a man in Rome (probably in self-defence) and fled to Naples while waiting hopefully for a papal annulment of his death sentence.
Caravaggio (Riccardo Scamarcio) is a wild and uncompromising man, who not only loves to consort with outcasts and “wretches” – prostitutes, thieves and vagabonds – but uses them as the basis for figures in his work, Biblical characters included. A couple of the onscreen vignettes are Felliniesque in their portrayal of group debauchery.
There are potent scenes here, although at least one of them – his meeting with the great free thinker Giordano Bruno on the night before Bruno’s execution – is apparently invented. And titular ‘shadow’ (Louis Garrel), the papal investigator, is a fictional character.
Caravaggio’s Shadow has tendentious dialogue and a smattering of clunky exposition, but its strengths more than compensate for its flaws. It looks great, and the whole film has an appropriately painterly quality and a ‘palette’ which mirrors the shades, dark-and-light contrasts and earthy colours which so enriched Caravaggio’s own masterpieces. Most appealingly of all, the (largely) true tale it tells is a rollicking yarn, and will be all the more fascinating for those who knew little about him going in.