It’s All About the Lighting


In the 1986 film Caravaggio, director Derek Jarman achieves the nearly impossible—he turns the juicy, scandalous story of the rowdy, licentious, murderous, bisexual, drunken 17th-century Italian painter Caravaggio into a stupefying bore. It’s a sign of a real cinematic stinker when you can’t wait for the paintings to appear. When they do, you can see how Caravaggio performed magic with light and shadow to yank us right into his canvases. In Death of the Virgin, the corpse of Mary, swollen and stiff with rigor mortis, is illuminated from above, as if God is shining goodness on her. The scene is blasphemous and profane, even to our 21st-century sensibilities (the model is said to have been a prostitute), but it’s hauntingly spiritual, too.

Writing “Caravaggio Is My Homeboy,” about Caravaggio and his influential lighting techniques, gave me an excuse to look at a lot of great art. One exemplar is Annie Leibovitz’s nude portrait of Lance Armstrong, in which our eyes are drawn right to the subject’s thigh. Light and shadow play off the sinewy muscles to suggest raw power. Given what we now know, the dark image is disturbingly ominous, an omen of what lay in store for the defrocked cyclist.

But back to the movies. Director Martin Scorsese says he takes a lot of his lighting cues from Caravaggio. To see a good example, watch the bar scene from Mean Streets, the one where Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) walks through a smoke-shrouded crowd toward Charlie (Harvey Keitel). Then check out Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew—same lowlife crowd, same dingy, dark surroundings, just fancier clothes and about 500 years earlier.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon is right up there with Caravaggio as a surefire cure for insomnia. One of my favorite commentaries comes from a Mad magazine riff, “Borey Lyndon,” in which a character says, “Stop that fighting this minute! You want to wake up the audience?!!” Try to stay awake long enough to see the play of candlelight in the film’s gaming scene. You might notice that the characters are lit like the officials in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. You can’t quibble that even through Kubrick’s layers of 18th-century finery Marisa Berenson and Ryan O’Neal look beautiful and sexy. As every good painter and film director knows, it’s all about the lighting.

Photo courtesy of Everett