Jarman's film is involved with the love triangle of Caravaggio (Nigel Terry), Lena (Tilda Swinton) and Ranuccio (Sean Bean) and dwells upon Caravaggio's use of street people, drunks and prostitutes as models for his intense, usually religious paintings (see the article on the painter for examples). As with Caravaggio's own use of contemporary dress for his Biblical figures, Jarman depicts his Caravaggio in a bar lit with electric lights, or another character using an electronic calculator.
The film is notable for its texture and attention to detail, the intense performances and the idiosyncratic humor. By presenting Caravaggio as one of the founders of the chiaroscuro technique, it helped give expression to the legend that was beginning to form around him. Jarman's Caravaggio also suggests that his legend ultimately eclipsed his enormous talent.
Caravaggio was the first time that Jarman worked with Tilda Swinton and was her first film role. The film also features Sean Bean, Robbie Coltrane, Dexter Fletcher, Michael Gough and Nigel Davenport. The cook Jennifer Paterson was an extra. The production designer was Christopher Hobbs who was also responsible for the copies of Caravaggio paintings seen in the film.