The sign is double. On the one hand, there are the stories that are told, on the other, the light that fixes them on the screen. In the middle, there is the complex cinema machine, linking the two: a powerful machine, an industry, a culture. And there is also an immediate discrepancy: the machine works, well or badly, according to whether the stories are good or bad, interesting or boring, inspired or pointless. But it always works, whether well or badly, because the light has been captured by the lens and fixed on the film in such a way that it can be transferred onto the screen, in that great collective rite – the most sensational rite of the modern age – known as film projection.
If you really think about it, the secret of the cinema is a paradox. The stories can be bad, uninteresting, confused, dreary or even nonexistent (how many movies are based on narratives that don’t narrate anything?). The light, which is necessary to imprint the mark of humanity and the world on the negative, could also be bad, but it actually never is. It cannot be, because if it were the film’s raison d’être – hence, its very existence – would be destroyed. The photography can be more or less adequate (brilliant, successful, expressive or creative). But not below this minimum standard. It is inconceivable, and has been from the very beginning, that the lighting for a film should not do its job.
Before being told with images, the story is related in words. American story analyst Christopher Vogler, a man of fine intellect and sound reason, reminds us that when we teach children to spell, when they spell a word correctly, they are in fact casting a "spell," filling abstract, random symbols with meaning and power. From the manipulation of these "abstract, random symbols" stories are born – both in literature and in cinema – and they can prove to be good or bad. Light, on the other hand, is neither abstract nor random, even though it can cast a greater spell than words. Film images are created with light, and they have only one alternative: they either come into being or they don’t. There is no need to imbue them with meaning or power because they already possess both when – if you’ll excuse the pun – they see (if they see) the light of day. Concreteness as opposed to abstraction, in other words.
What cinematic model could be more concrete than the pioneering Neorealist film entitled "Roma città aperta," which was made towards the end of the Second World War and released in 1945? Ubaldo Arata’s photography was nothing short of a miracle worked by skill, courage and sheer madness: the light was created by siphoning off electricity from an Allied headquarters for makeshift lamps; the negative on which that light impinged was composed of lengths of film, which had mostly expired, gleaned from warehouses; the interiors, filmed in a betting shop in Via degli Avignonesi in Rome, could not have been less suitable for shooting a film with unwieldy movie cameras and equipment (the lighter systems still had to be invented).
Although the story of Father Pietro, Manfredi, Pina and Major Bergman seemed to portray a real episode of the Resistance struggle in Rome, it was improvised and combined tragedy with farce, as if the authors (Roberto Rossellini, Sergio Amidei, Alberto Consigli, Federico Fellini) did not know exactly what they wanted to express with the movie. It turned out to be a masterpiece. For many reasons. Because Rossellini, or rather Rossellini’s vision, created a perfect balance between the various narrative elements, which he maintained, with great tenacity and firm conviction, from the beginning to the end. Hence, a story that was neither good nor bad was redeemed on the screen and became one of the most unforgettable films in Italian cinema.
Regarding the technical aspect, Arata worked a miracle because he not only succeeded in making the light come alive, despite the fact that he was obliged to work with rudimentary equipment, but also in applying his own concept of cinematography, as a professional of the old school who had trained in silent cinema in the twenties, a period that was crucial for both technique and style. It was then that he had mastered the Expressionist aesthetic, which he first exploited in his pièce de résistance ("Rotaie" (1929) by Mario Camerini) and later when he collaborated with Max Ophüls ("La signora di tutti" (1934) and Guido Brignone ("Passaporto rosso" (1935)). The cramped interiors in "Roma città aperta", where the Germans torture Manfredi, also have an Expressionist feel (one image shows the warped shadow of a press projected on the wall), evincing Arata’s faithfulness to his own origins and his stylistic sensibility that are in complete harmony with the meaning of the story and the director’s vision. When this happens, the "concreteness" of the light enhances the result and absorbs any defects that may exist in the story.
It is common knowledge that Italian wartime cinema (enough to mention "La peccatrice" (1940) by Amleto Palermi, photographed by Vaclav Vich; "Piccolo mondo antico" (1941) by Mario Soldati, photographed by Carlo Montuori and Arturo Gallea; "Fari nella nebbia" (1942) by Gianni Franciolini, photographed by Aldo Tonti; "Quattro passi fra le nuvole" (1942) by Alessandro Blasetti, photographed by Vaclav Vich; "Ossessione" (1943) by Luchino Visconti, photographed by Aldo Tonti and Domenico Scala) prepared the way for the movement known as Neorealism, and contained the vital seeds of a "revolution" that was not only ideological but also figurative and linguistic. A revolution that was to become, first in black & white and then in color, one of the most remarkable phenomena of the second half of the twentieth century. The actual consistency of the light changed, as ideas and stories evolved (and photographic techniques and technology developed).
The entire process was always dominated by the director-cinematographer duo. Otello Martelli hit the nail on the head when he said: "In ‘La dolce vita’ Fellini used the lenses that he wanted, going against the principle according to which you have to use certain lenses for certain shots. The truth is that I am like Fellini, I like trying out new things. Federico always wanted long-focus lenses and he didn’t pay any heed to depth of focus. When I pointed this out to him, he replied: ‘What do we care?’ He was perfectly right." There is a dictum that applies to cinematography as much as any other art, and that is: rules are fundamental but they are made to be broken. The entire history of film is a succession of violations, which are sometimes fruitful and at other times damaging or catastrophic. But never in vain.
The rules had been violated last in 1941, in the United States, by the accomplished Gregg Toland. Earlier, Toland had carried out a number of experiments with William Wyler on "The Little Foxes" (1941), but it was only in Orson Welles’ first movie, "Citizen Kane", that he pushed deep focus to the limit, allowing Welles to adopt new narrative solutions. Like all important innovations, the technique was not an end in itself. By using wide-angle lenses and closing the diaphragm to the maximum when there were strongly lit areas within the frame, Toland kept in focus the various planes of the space in which the action was taking place, so that the narrative flowed without cuts and the actors looked natural while moving in any direction.
This is exactly the opposite of what Fellini and Martelli achieved by using long-focus lenses and neglecting the depth of field in "La Dolce Vita", as they were determined to go against the usual practice (Toland and Welles had set the style) and to make this "violation" work for them – and the film. Roberto Rossellini and Carlo Carlini also broke the rules that same year by introducing in "Era notte a Roma" the Pancinor process that originated in France and was popularly known as the "zoom." The changeable length of focus permits a smooth transition from the short lens to the tele lens (and vice versa), thus favoring the movement of characters along an axis, preceded or followed by "virtual" tracking – which is handled beautifully in the above film in the scene where the three prisoners of war, who have escaped from the concentration camp, are hidden in an attic by a working-class woman. Unlike real tracking, obtained with the use of a single lens applied to the moving camera, the zoom tends to blur the outlines when it is in the tele-focus position and distort them when it reaches the wide angle. It is the cinematographer’s task to harmonize the contrasts and to exploit all the possibilities – flowing movements and deeper penetration of the space – that the zoom offers.
Carlini succeeded in doing this by working closely with a director for whom cinematic technique held no secrets (he had built and used the most varied filming and editing devices). Therefore, the arrival of the prisoners (Sergei Bondarchuk, Leo Genn, Peter Baldwin) in the attic belonging to Esperia (Giovanna Ralli) expresses in soft, flowing images the feeling of liberation and relief experienced by the characters in that situation. As always, technique challenges the powers of invention of those who use it; namely, the person who gives the story a structure and the cinematographer who uses the light to bring it alive on the screen.
In the postwar years Italian culture was marked by both confusion and enthusiasm. It was a brief period in which the combined effect of the blackest moment (an incapacity to understand what the transition from fascism to democracy meant in a country ravaged by war) and the brightest moment (new ideals, the discovery of other cultures that for a long time had either been wiped out or rejected by the regime) prevented the country from imposing order on such a chaotic reality. Many beliefs collapsed, some people clutched like drowning men at prevailing ideologies (Marxism, existentialism, spiritualism), while others became skeptics and embarked on every experience without asking themselves why. The great period of Neorealism gave birth to a healthy empiricism that was sometimes powerful and aggressive. The destiny of Italian culture, and above all cinema that was its most vital component, was decided in a climate of stability and instability, illusion and ferment, stern resolutions and joie de vivre.
The men who belonged to the varied category of technicians were best able to deal with this dilemma, because they faced it boldly. They were always prepared to take risks – like Arata who filmed with expired negative and in dangerous conditions – but never forgot the harsh demands of reality, which they met with masterly technique. They also revealed, when confronted with the worst kind of presumption, the innate modesty of the true professional who is solely concerned with successfully performing the service he is rendering to the film. Later, there were a few shows of vanity (which is only normal) but they did not become the rule.
A preference, and also a need, for concreteness would also save them from succumbing to the sophistry with which the critics amused themselves during the controversy over Neorealism and Realism, when "Senso" (1954) was released. As Fate – which is never kind – would have it, Visconti’s movie (photographed by G.R. Aldò and Robert Krasker) was released at the same time that "Metello", one of the most important works by the "Realist" Pratolini, went on sale in bookstores. Carlo Salinari (an Italian critic) observed that the literary work, which was so precise in its historical references and settings and so typical of a well-defined world, marked "the end of Neorealism and the beginning of Realism," occupying "the same place that Visconti’s ‘Senso’, despite many conflicting opinions, will occupy in the most recent history of our cinema" (Il contemporaneo, February 12, 1955). Critic Luigi Chiarini insisted that the film, based on the theatrical and figurative concepts of the genre, was more like a play and diverged from the realistic aims of cinematic language, and that it betrayed Neorealism. While another critic, Guido Aristarco, simply said: "It is realism."
If we put aside the ideological polemic and look at things in the cold light of reason, we realize that comparing "Senso" to the theater does not help us to understand the innovative quality of Visconti’s movie which was certainly theatrical (and great theater at that), but expressed in film language. To understand just how innovative, we must enter into the merits of the language that creates a subtle play of reflections and visual illusions; that builds up the psychological tension between Livia and Franz and causes it to explode through the dramatic use of color: from the whites and glittering golds of La Fenice to the blacks and blues of the Venetian calli; from the soft green of the fields surrounding the villa in Aldeno to the strong contrasts of the vivid reds, muddy yellows and blackish halo effects during the Battle of Custoza; from the dark red of Franz’s apartment in Verona to the Austrian uniforms reduced to small white dots moving against a violet background in long shot, and the flashing yellow of the torches in the firing squad sequence.
It is the color in "Senso." The fact that it is realist is secondary. The film is certainly a melodrama, to which the magnificent palette of G. R. Aldò and Robert Krasker adds an essential degree of concreteness. The photography embodies the director’s aims and narrative style. Whatever the ideological concepts may have been, whatever contribution the director’s culture (a product of nineteenth-century realism, decadentism, Italian naturalistic painting and his passion for opera) may have made, it is the vision, the sensibility and the technique of the cinematographers who transformed the light into images that bring the film alive. There is no room for formulae and prejudices in the mind of the lighting cameraman because he has to keep to the facts and faithfully reproduce them on film. It makes no sense to him, while using the tools of his profession, to join in the dissonant chorus of sophists who neglect the fundamental aspect of film language to build their theoretical houses of cards. Houses of cards that are easy to "demolish" – all it takes is a puff of wind – while nothing can destroy, except the wear and tear of time (but we shall find something to stop it), the substance of images created with light.
Out of curiosity, but also for many other reasons, it is worth recalling the contribution Giuseppe Rotunno made to "Senso," when he was called in by Visconti to photograph the episode in which Franz is executed by shooting. The scene was not filmed in Verona but on the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, and Rotunno had to use all his ingenuity to make it seem as if the torches held by the soldiers surrounding the firing squad were the only source of light. Not only did he have to hide the spots – which wasn’t easy in that open space – but he also had to prevent any cross lighting or backlighting from altering the realistic (and faint) front lighting. The first person to be amazed by his ingenuity was Visconti, who at first couldn’t tell where Rotunno had hidden the spots.
It is interesting to see how relationships vary between directors and cinematographers. Sometimes they form lasting partnerships, but more often it is a case of brief associations during which one or two films are made, and which are sometimes taken up again later. There are many reasons for this, the most frequent being that simply their commitments do not coincide and dates are incompatible, which makes the much-hoped for collaboration impossible. An example of "faithfulness," probably unique, is the partnership between Tinto Brass and Silvano Ippoliti that lasted for many years: a perfect understanding that produced polished, erotic images.
The association between Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro was completely different. Their lasting collaboration began in 1970 with "La strategia del ragno" and "Il conformista"(for which Storaro won the Gianni Di Venanzo award), and continued with the famous "Ultimo tango a Parigi" (1972), the epic "Novecento" (1976) and "La luna" (1979). After a long break, they teamed up again in 1987 to make another epic ("L’ultimo imperatore") in which the photography plays a dominant role – one of the most memorable images is the yellow curtain being lifted as little Pu Yi is presented to the crowd of dignitaries lined up on either side of the steps –, and their collaboration gained further impetus from "Il tè nel deserto" (1990), a film bathed in the fierce African light, and "Piccolo Buddha" (1993) an unsophisticated, quasi-religious movie.
Otello Martelli and Federico Fellini also proved to be an interesting duo. Their partnership, which produced such excellent movies as "I vitelloni" (1953), "La strada" (1954), "Il bidone" (1955) and "Le notti di Cabiria" (1957), reached its zenith with "La dolce vita" (1960). There are many more examples, ranging from the excellent team of Marco Bellocchio and Giuseppe Lanci ("Salto nel vuoto" (1979), "Gli occhi e la bocca" (1982), "Enrico IV" (1984), "Il diavolo in corpo" (1985), "La visione del Sabba" (1987) – which was perhaps the most convincing of their joint efforts – "La condanna" (1990)), to the intriguing attempts by the anticonventional, and sometimes confused, director Aurelio Grimaldi and cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi to create surreal atmospheres in a hyperrealistic context ("La discesa di Aclà a Floristella" (1991); "Le buttane" (1994); "Nerolio" (1996).
These examples, and all the many others, enable us to verify an obvious fact that is often overlooked by the critics. Put simply, and perhaps provokingly, it is that the success or failure of a film cannot be determined, nor even understood, without analyzing the relationship that is established, – before and after shooting –, and that gradually develops between the director and his cinematographer, not so much to show their relative merits (and defects) as to determine the degree of fusion between two cultures, two sensibilities, two technical viewpoints, two styles and two ways of interpreting audiovisual language.
Strangely enough, genre movies – although they require continuity and stability – rarely foster lasting partnerships and, therefore, do not allow us to determine the degree of fusion between a director and cinematographer. At the start, the strongman genre (which the French dubbed péplum) saw Mario Bava – when he dedicated himself to and excelled in photography and special effects – working with director Piero Francisci on a film that established the trend ("Le fatiche di Ercole" (1958). Then Amerigo Gengarelli photographed "Orazi e Curiazi" (1961) by Ferdinando Baldi; Carlo Carlini created the compelling images for a film directed by Vittorio Cottafavi ("Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide" (1961) that was not only opulent but also intelligent, and Enzo Barboni collaborated with Sergio Corbucci on "I figli di Spartacus" (1962).
With the exception of silent epics, the Italian cinema always embarked on mythological or pseudo-historical excursions without any specific aims and on the initiative of individual producers who were only concerned with making epics that were box-office hits, as happened in 1941 with "La corona di ferro" by Alessandro Blasetti (photography by Vaclav Vich and Mario Craveri) and in 1947 with "Fabiola", also directed by the magniloquent Blasetti (cinematography by Mario Craveri and Ubaldo Marelli).
The Italian comedy was also marked by various photographic styles. Tonino Delli Colli collaborated on "Poveri ma belli" (1956) by Dino Risi, while "Una vita difficile" (1961) and "Il sorpasso" by the same director were photographed by Leonida Barboni and Alfio Contini, respectively. "I soliti ignoti" by Mario Monicelli was enhanced by the photography of Gianni Di Venanzo, and Luigi Comenicini’s "Tutti a casa" (1960) by that of Carlo Carlini. Luciano Salce proved to be a rare exception: "Le pillole d’Ercole" (1960), "Il federale" (1961) and "La voglia matta" (1962) were all strengthened by the photography of Enrico Menczer, who had been Gianni Di Venanzo’s longtime cameraman.
One could also argue that a genre such as the Italian comedy – which pivots mainly on dialogue, interaction between the actors and a fast pace – does not require a particular photographic style, as it is sufficient for the images to complement the snappy pace of the comedy itself. In one of the later products of this genre – "Speriamo che sia femmina" (1986) by Monicelli – the images move at the required speed but do not evoke a precise setting (we are in Tuscany but we could be anywhere).
It must be further pointed out that, while in some genres (like the Italian comedy) a director does not need to work in symbiosis with whoever is creating the images, in others it is essential. A case in point is that mannerist masterpiece known as the Italian western (or "spaghetti western" as the Americans disparagingly referred to it, but with a touch of admiration) which found in Sergio Leone its mentor rather than author. Leone’s most important westerns were photographed by Massimo Dallamano ("Per un pugno di dollari" (1964) and "Per qualche dollaro in più" (1965)) and by Tonino Delli Colli ("Il buono, il brutto e il cattivo" (1966) and "C’era una volta il West" (1968)). The photography in Leone’s movies has an overall look, and he demanded that his style of shooting (low angle shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups, frustratingly slow camera movements, dizzying zooms, distance shots) be reflected in the intense, blazing colors of the images; therefore, he felt a need for the ongoing creative support of the person who produced those images.
Sergio Leone collaborated with Tonino Delli Colli again in 1984 on the gangster saga entitled "Once Upon a Time in America". Fascinated, skeptical, ironical and serious by turns, Delli Colli gave everything he had to the megalomaniacal fantasy of a director who identified himself with the cinema. The action is interrupted, altered and recomposed in a way in which Joyce or Virginia Woolf dreamed of doing, but were unable to achieve with literature. Leone intersperses the images of the present (Noodles, the gangster who has had his day, seeks oblivion in the opium den that Delli Colli renders suffocating by ingeniously exploiting the candlelight) with those of the different eras in which action spanning fifty years takes place, and makes them interact with each other. The movie is a vehicle for memory (and also for history and dreams) as well as a monument to the American culture that produced it. "Once Upon a Time in America" combines all the Hollywood genres (gangster, drama, horror, comedy, thriller, melodrama), placing them in a temporal structure involving staggering leaps that not even Welles or Kubrick would have dared to make.
Now let’s look at the cinematographer-director partnership from the point of view of the latter. There is only one explanation for Rossellini’s "infidelity": his artistic career was so unpredictable that he was unable to enjoy the stability of a long-standing association. The intrepid Ubaldo Arata of "Roma città aperta" was followed by the unconventional Otello Martelli who did the six episodes of "Paisà" (1946); Roberto Jullard who photographed "Germania anno zero" (1947) and "Amore" (1948); and Tino Santoni, the cinematographer on "La macchina ammazzacattivi" (1948). Martelli was a case apart, however, because he returned to collaborate on "Stromboli, terra di Dio" (1949) and "Francesco, giullare di Dio" (1950), although he had already started working with Giuseppe De Santis, and was about to become Fellini’s cinematographer. Later there were further exceptions; namely, Carlo Carlini who photographed "La paura" (1954), "Il generale Della Rovere" (1959) and "Era notte a Roma" (1960), and Luciano Trasatti, the cinematographer on "Viva l'Italia" (1960), "Vanina Vanini" (1961) and "Anima nera"(1962); but Rossellini’s movie career was coming to an end and he was about to embark on television projects, with Mario Fioretti as his skillful and unassuming assistant. After the inconsistent "Europa 51" (1952) and "Dov'è la liberta?" (1953), photographed by the indomitable Aldo Tonti who rashly followed Rossellini to India three years later, Enzo Serafin proved to be the director’s perfect "partner" on "Viaggio in Italia" (1953), an extremely complex movie with a strong anthropological impact.
Vittorio De Sica was as "unfaithful" as Rossellini – the situation in the Italian cinema did not permit otherwise – but after "Ladri di biciclette" (1948), photographed by the versatile Carlo Montuori, De Sica was lucky enough to work with G.R. Aldò, a cinematographer with a strong personality, on three important films, including his masterpiece "Umberto D." (1951) The other two were the biting fairy-tale "Miracolo a Milano" (1951) and "Stazione Termini"(1953), the first compromise made by De Sica in the vain hope of combining a popular approach, realism and the star system.
G.R. Aldò (AKA Aldo Graziati) had already photographed his first film, "La terra trema" (1948) by Visconti, and possessed a rare luministic sensibility that enabled him to bring a light, airy touch to the story about the Milanese vagrants portrayed in "Miracolo a Milano." The nastiness, meanness and egoism of a decadent humanity is pitched against the forthrightness of the good, and the struggle takes place on the edge of the city where the abusive buildings are still surrounded by fields and the light accentuates the contrast, vanishes into the mist, is tinged with melancholy (Mrs. Lolotta’s funeral with the coffin followed only by Totò is a superb page of cinema), comes alive when a ray of sun finally pierces the clouds, and explodes as the vagrants march triumphantly to the cathedral square from whence they fly off to utopia.
A gray light similar to that of the Milan shantytown fills the gloomy rooms of the pensione in "Umberto D." where De Sica stages the tragedy of an old man lost in an indifferent world. The photographic style does not change but simply darkens; De Sica’s approach is ruthless rather than kind. The story is objective, but nevertheless reveals man’s egoism in all its monstrosity. The classic, linear structure is as detached and cold as a police statement. Hence, De Sica and screenwriter Zavattini’s ideas were "wasted" in the sense that they did not succeed in making any inroads into the market at that time. They were therefore obliged to pander to current tastes with "Stazione Termini" (Indiscretion of an America Wife) (1953), the story of a banal affair between Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift, and neither the evocative train station setting nor the photography filled with effects by Aldò was able to give it any substance.
The six episodes of "L'oro di Napoli" (1954) – five in the version shown in the movie theaters because "Il funeralino" was cut by the distributors – saw the return of Carlo Montuori, who remained with De Sica for the Late-Neorealist "Il tetto" (1956) after which he was succeeded by Gabor Pogany who did the black & white photography for "La ciociara" (1960), which had a number of good points, and the color images for "Il giudizio universale" (1961), a confused and weak satire. What came after added little to the cinema created by De Sica and his cinematographers (Roberto Gerardi, Armando Nannuzzi, Giuseppe Rotunno, Jean Boffety, Leonida Barboni, Christian Matras, Pasqualino De Santis, Ennio Guarnieri).
G.R. Aldò had proved such an invaluable collaborator in the making of "La terra trema" that Luchino Visconti exploited his profound pictorial sensibility in "Senso" (1954) [unfortunately the cinematographer died in a car crash halfway through the film and was replaced by Krasker and Rotunno, Ed’s note], a perceptive fresco of the Risorgimento that defined the conflicting tensions in the director’s style, created on the one hand by the strong emotion of melodrama and on the other by rigid ideology. In this case with positive results, which can be seen in the brilliant imagery and powerful, persuasive narrative.
Visconti’s next films were photographed by Rotunno who made his debut, so to speak, on the scene in "Senso" where Franz is shot by the firing squad. His black & white images for "Le notti bianche" (1957), a contrived adaptation of a short story by Dostoevsky, is both brilliant and soft, while that of "Rocco e i suoi fratelli" (1960), a melodramatic social inquiry, has a sharpness and contrast that is highly effective. In 1963, he progressed to color, creating the harmonious tones of "Il Gattopardo", which takes up the historicist theme of "Senso" and allows the director to reiterate through splendid imagery all the echoes, nostalgia (for a noble and irretrievable past) and conflict that have always characterized his filmography.
After a brief collaboration with Armando Nannuzzi, who skillfully created the atmospheres for the mediocre "Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa" (1965), Visconti brought Rotunno into the picture again, but even his superb handling of color could do little to enliven a story as flat as that of "Lo straniero" (1967) based on Camus’ novel "The Stranger." Visconti’s last films, some of which are distinguished by an extremely intense narrative, were divided equally between Armando Nannuzzi and Pasqualino De Santis. "La caduta degli dei"(1969), which narrates the advent of Nazism, is immersed in a heavy Wagnerian atmosphere, while "Morte a Venezia" (1971), based on Thomas Mann’s novel "Death in Venice", admirably captures the feeling of the early twentieth century by creating a portrait of a homosexual composer during a cholera epidemic in a Venice paralyzed by fear. The first was photographed by Nannuzzi and De Santis, the second by Nanuzzi only (with whom Visconti would collaborate again in 1973 on his incoherent and grandiose "Ludwig").
Michelangelo Antonioni was extremely coherent, and the antithesis of Visconti. The latter had a penchant for the staginess of melodramma, while the former was concerned with the inertia caused by repressed feelings. In fact, Antonioni does not portray physical but spiritual inertia, and a number of intelligent cinematographers (Enzo Serafin who partnered him on his first three films; Gianni Di Venanzo who photographed the middle group in black & white, with the exception of "L'avventura" (1959) for which Aldo Scavarda created the impeccable images; Carlo Di Palma, Alfio Contini and Luciano Tovoli, who were responsible for the color) helped him to express this in a series of frames that seems like a single frame. "L'avventura", "La notte" (1960) and "L'eclisse" (1962) form the trilogy based on the concept of "incommunicability" (a word that perhaps does not fully indicate the importance of the films), which is a prose poem that tells of the wanderings of confused men engaged in a search that leads nowhere. Image after image of the "moving" black & white photography by Di Venanzo, who had previously collaborated with Antonioni on "Le amiche" (1955) and "Il grido" (1957), portrays the protagonists of an Italian scene that is changing against a confused backdrop of history and tradition. The gray tones allow Antonioni to reveal, dispassionately, what the bourgeoisie did not want revealed (their indecision, cynicism, lust for power).
When Antonioni started to use color in "Deserto rosso" (1964), his arguments were strengthened by the use of bold shades, as if he were expressing himself in stronger terms not by developing the narrative but by giving the images greater impact in a psychological, ambient and polemical sense. The analysis of the protest movement in America ("Zabriskie Point" (1970) photographed by Alfio Contini) and in a Europe troubled by political intrigue ("Professione: reporter" (1974) photographed by Luciano Tovoli, to whom we owe the famous 7-minute sequence shot at the end) shows that it is possible to communicate, with controlled anger, the complexity of society and to determine its effects on the psychology of individuals who meekly submit to it.
L'avventura was released virtually at the same time as La dolce Vita (1960) by Fellini. These two films mark the transition from Neorealism to a type of cinema that was more exhaustive and reflective, but less immediate. Antonioni and Fellini were the two filmmakers who were most aware of this transition. After dealing ironically and compassionately with the aspirations of provincial males in I vitelloni and making some touching observations about the destiny of the weak and the dross of society in La strada, Il bidone, Le notti di Cabiria, Fellini studied the emergent society of a chaotic Italy during the economic boom to relate the squalid yet meaningful story of a man who "doesn’t exist," a wily reporter with nothing but his illusions. Otello Martelli’s photography gives La dolce vita a far-reaching quality and a narrative clarity that carry the forced elements and transform them into glimpses of an absurd life (the life, in fact, of a country striving for success). In 8_ (1963) Fellini distorts rather than depicts reality. With the complicity of an unusually artful Di Venanzo, he analyzes the torments, part real and part imaginary, of a movie director who symbolizes the modern intellectual, and reveals his superficiality in a wicked but also sympathetic way.
Next came Fellini’s scintillating diversions in color that exposed the bad, often ridiculous and sometimes disgusting behavior of the Italians. Once again it was Di Venanzo who created fanciful images for Giulietta degli spirit (1965), while Giuseppe Rotunno had the task of creating lighting that was both libidinous and baroque for Fellini-Satyricon (1969); fantastic for Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973); sensual for Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (1976); disturbing – and masterly – for Prova d'orchestra (1979); evocative for La città delle donne (1980), one of Fellini’s most inconsistent films, and E la nave va (1983). When the partnership with Rotunno (one of the most enduring and positive examples of "faithfulness") came to and end, Fellini chose to work with Tonino Delli Colli on his last three movies (Ginger e Fred, Intervista, La voce della luna), which were made between 1985 and 1989, with varying degrees of success.
Tonino Delli Colli had many memorable experiences, the most important of which was his collaboration with Pier Paolo Pasolini, from which they both benefited. Delli Colli photographed all Pasolini’s black & white films and several in color; namely, Il Decameron (1971) and I racconti di Canterbury, (1972) which were sumptuous in the extreme, and Salò o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma (1975), whose images and narrative structure were equally oppressive. The photographic texture and the "grainy" images of Accattone (1961), Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) and Uccellacci e uccellini (1966) are enough to indicate the degree of understanding reached by the two men, mainly due to the fact that Pasolini, who had just started directing, provoked Delli Colli, albeit somewhat excessively, and spurred him on.
Something similar happened to Mario Vulpiani who had to deal with the eccentricities of a director like Marco Ferreri who believed that rules were made to be broken and who, initially, chopped and changed cinematographers, although he obtained some excellent results with Aldo Tonti on La donna scimmia (1964) and L'uomo dei cinque palloni (1965). Of the many films Vulpiani and Ferreri shot together, the two most outstanding were the bizarre Dillinger è morto (1969), whose photography was equally bizarre, and the claustrophobic La grande abbuffata (1973) on which the photography laid a pall of somber colors that perfectly evoked the morbid quality of the story. Luciano Tovoli drew on this to create the photography of the desperate and sarcastic Ciao maschio (1978), using Ferreri’s New York to create the various moods deriving from a nihilistic rejection of modern society, and playing on this with a rich display of formal invention.
Ettore Scola is another author who has always attributed great importance to form, rigorously adopting an individual approach at a theoretical and figurative level, first with Alessandro D’Eva, who photographed Se permettete parliamo di donne (1964), La congiuntura (1964) and the episode entitled "Il vittimista" of Thrilling (1965), then Aldo Tonti, the cinematographer who could adapt to any situation, for a brief period, and later Claudio Cirillo, Carlo Di Palma, Pasqualino De Santis, Dario Di Palma, Tonino Delli Colli, Claudio Ragona, Armando Nannuzzi and Ricardo Aronovich. The two cinematographers who made a particularly important contribution to Scola’s varied but consistent output, were Cirillo, who infused the bitter story of C'eravamo tanto amati (1974) with soft colors, and Claudio Ragona who "ruined" the face of the female protagonist in Passione d'amore (1981) and exploited her ugliness to bring out the full meaning of the story (the actress heroically submitted to being photographed in the most unflattering way and Ragona tells us how he did it: "When she appeared on screen for the first time, I heightened the impact of her ‘ugliness’ with certain lenses, with lighting that accentuated her slightly hooked nose, ‘her forehead like a knee’; instead of softening Valeria D’Obici’s defects I enhanced them." By contrast, Aronovich’s fine photography is delightfully flirtatious in Ballando ballando (1983) and dark enough to create the perfect atmosphere in La famiglia (1987). The latter is a slow-moving bourgeois saga in the grandiose style of the American cinema of the forties and fifties; an elegy in the best tradition of a "committed" director, nicely interpreted by Aronovich.
The partnership formed between Leonida Barboni and Pietro Germi at the beginning of the postwar Neorealist movement is worth mentioning, because it shows how much the times and styles had changed. They first teamed up on In nome della legge (1948) and continued to work together until Divorzio all'italiana (1961). This was the most significant period in both their careers, during which they also shot Il cammino della speranza (1959), Il ferroviere (1955) and Un maledetto imbroglio (1959). Barboni was a professional who brought compositional and lighting skills rooted in tradition to each story: there was no Neorealist improvisation in his polished black & white photography filled with effects, and every detail was crystal clear (he was the one, therefore, who created that atmosphere so reminiscent of the epic western which pervades not only In nome della legge and Il cammino della speranza but also the grotesque Divorzio all'italiana). Germi ran counter to the Neorealist trend, using a narrative language that favored the development of the plot and created dramatic build-up. Barboni backed him with painstaking precision because he shared Germi’s "classic" concept of cinema.
Anxious to break with narrative tradition, but uncertain which direction to move in and inclined to succumb to the charms of the fairy-tale, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani oscillated between political commitment in Un uomo da bruciare (1962) and I fuorilegge del matrimonio (1964) and somewhat stifling allegories like Sotto il segno dello scorpione (1969) photographed by Giuseppe Pinori. Only in San Michele aveva un gallo (1971), photographed by Mario Masini, did they succeed in developing exactly the right narrative and figurative style and in creating a "timeless" atmosphere around the protagonist, an Italian revolutionary and idealist who lived in the nineteenth century. Masini also worked with the Taviani brothers on Padre padrone (1977), in which realism merges with the fairy-tale. The film is only partially successful, because the brothers do not really get to grips with the intense, dramatic material (the relationship between a tyrannical father and a rebellious son, trapped in an archaic peasant society).
The Tavianis finally achieved a balance in the movie that is considered their masterpiece: La notte di San Lorenzo (1982). The screenplay co-written by Tonino Guerra in an unusually simply style, the perfectly cast protagonists and, above all, Franco Di Giacomo’s crisp photography that accentuates the action, the settings and the light – from the "magical night" of August 10 to the cornfield beneath the blazing sun during the clash between the fascists and partisans – allowed the filmmakers to overcome the obstacles they had encountered in earlier movies and to bring out the meaning of a fairy-tale that attenuates the horrors of war and Nazi brutality, without neglecting the ideological and anthropological overtones of this beautiful story set in Tuscany.
This same light touch is to be found in Kaos (1984), particularly in the nocturnal episode entitled Mal di luna, photographed by Giuseppe Lanci; however, it is less evident in Le affinità elettive (1996), on which Lanci was also the cinematographer, an ambitious, refined, but somewhat rigid, film inspired by Goethe’s novel. The Taviani’s have changed tack repeatedly during their career because it is the expression of a complex culture, which does not always permit them to achieve their aims and obliges the cinematographer to make constant adjustments. In fact, it is difficult to cultivate the fairy-tale and allegory when one is the product of a rigid political ideology.
During the 1980s and 1990s, cinema experienced a transformation that was not only thematic and cultural, but above all linguistic. Hence photography – inevitably in color, except for the occasional snobbish use of black & white – has been the instrument of change but has also suffered the consequences (the massive invasion of electronic and digital effects has both penalized and benefited cinematography). One could say, and indeed it is being said from many standpoints, that the silver screen has changed its image. One could also say that cinematography in general has "mellowed."
This is evident when one thinks of the violent images Gatti created for Pontecorvo’s La battaglia di Algeri (1966), in which the just rebel against injustice, and the overexposures, blinding counter-light, harsh "newsreel" images and frenetic hand-held camera movements give the struggle for liberation an overwhelming force. And then Blasco Giurato’s delicate images for Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988) by Giuseppe Tornatore – a film that was already sentimental and cloying –; the soft light that envelopes the city of Milan in L’aria serena dell’Ovest (1990) by Silvio Soldini; and Nanni Moretti’s first film, Ecce Bombo (1978), shot in Rome and Ostia with Giuseppe Pinori behind the camera, in which he avoided anything harsh and oscillated between harmless eccentricities – and, of course, the photography expressed this as best it could.
They say the director and cinematographer now think mainly in terms of color. This is partly true. But really what we are witnessing is less of a desire to experiment, almost as if cinematography were pandering to the majority of movie-goers and their mediocre taste – rampant among television audiences – which demands pleasing, rich, "glossy" images that are simply evocative. Naturally, there are exceptions. It is no accident that they are to be found in areas that have either suffered economic depression or have been neglected for years, which find the strength to emerge from their isolation by rebelling against – old and new – conventions. For example, the so-called "Neapolitan school," to which directors like Mario Martone, Pappi Corsicato, Antonio Capuano and Pasquale Pozzessere belong.
It is not only a thematic "revolution." When Martone decided to work with Milanese cinematographer Luca Bigazzi on Morte di un matematico napeoletano (1992) and L’amore molesto (1995) and then – after getting the hang of things, shall we say – went on to collaborate with a Neopolitan, Pasquale Mari, on Teatro di guerra (1997), he demonstrated an awareness of the need to change, above all, the form and color of film, to make it more raw and incisive. This is clearly visible in Teatro di guerra, in which the backstreets of Naples, the houses, the places where the actors rehearse the classical drama they are going to perform in Sarajevo, the theaters, and the night that often envelopes the action are all bathed in a cold light that makes no concessions to picturesque Neapolitan folklore. The same can be said for Pozzessere and the photography created by Bruno Cascio for Verso sud (1992) and Padre e figlio (1993); for Capuano and cinematographer Antonio Baldoni who photographed Pianese Nunzio, 14 anni a maggio (1996); and for Pappi Corsicato, who is perhaps the most brilliant, with regard to Libera (1993) and above all Buchi neri (1995), photographed by Roberto Meddi and Raffaele Mertes, and Italo Petricione respectively. This disordered, lunar, unreal Naples, whose reality is clearly evident behind the grotesque mask, is distinguished by an absence of clichés and a great desire to experiment on all levels.
The first signs of a changing climate became evident at the end of the seventies, when another Neapolitan, Salvatore Piscicelli, took an unflinching yet understanding look at the "scandalous" aspects of Neapolitan life when he made Immacolata e Concetta (1979), on which Emilio Bestetti was the cinematographer, and Le occasioni di Rosa (1981), photographed by Renato Tafuri. There is no condescension, no tenderness. Neorealism is a thing of the past that the director can look at from a historical viewpoint. There are the bare fact, sometimes cruelly rendered, and lurid images encrusted with earth, dust and sweat; in other words, the tension that goes with experimentation. More than one director continues in this vein. More than one turns his back on television’s desire to please.
Where cinematographers are concerned, experimentation follows the same path as technology. And technology is often used to indulge individual whims. Color offers possibilities that were unheard of in black & white, and greatly enhances the appeal of certain genres. A typical case in point is the horror film, in which Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava excelled before Dario Argento arrived on the scene (with the help of Bava who handled light superbly). At first, Vittorio Storaro collaborated with Argento (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)), then other cinematographers like Menczer, Di Giacomo, Kuveiller and Albani took over. Argento was incredibly demanding, and liked to create as many spine-chilling effects as possible with the photography. Luciano Tovoli was the cinematographer who most enjoyed this challenge, bringing to stories that were over-the-top and far-fetched, as most horror stories are, a glowing palette created with gels of every color: Suspiria (1977) and especially Tenebre (1982) stretched the narrative tension to the limit and created the perfect nightmarish atmosphere ("Lateral tracking shots and acrobatic camera movements – comments Roberto Pugliese in Castoro dedicated to Argento – penetrate the space as if it were the wings of a stage: the vindictive, medative murderer of the two lesbians is filmed first from one roof and then another, from one window and then another.") The colored gels, the overexposure, the warped perspective obtained with the lenses and the frantic hand-held camera movements are pure experimentalism.
For a cinematographer, experimentation is not a fad but a necessity. A way of life. Not so much to assert his own personality (which also happens, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t) as to fully equip him to participate in the multifaceted art of filmmaking, of which cinematography is the cornerstone. He doesn’t always receive just recognition because critics have a habit, and hence everyone else, of focusing their attention on the director – even when the director has no personality – and then on the actors’ performance. When the cinematographer’s talents are recognized, as sometimes happens, one can hardly believe it. In 1961, while reviewing a low-budget film entitled Odissea nuda, directed by Franco Rossi – who had also proved himself a talented director on other occasions – the equanimous critic Filippo Sacchi wrote: "Everything that is beautiful, innovative and poetic about this film is the work of the cinematographer Alessandro D’Eva: the fairy-tale colors; the crystalline images; the mythical world with its lagoons and sea, where every movement seems to dance and every form is bathed in paradisiac light."
Another rare instance in which the cinematographer received recognition was Carosello napoletano (1953), a sumptuous and subtly evocative spectacular by Ettore Giannini, who adapted one of his most successful musicals, drawing on the rich imagination of the set designer Mario Chiari, the costume designer Maria De Matteis, the great choreographer Léonide Massine and, above all, the cinematographer Piero Portalupi who had just finished two rewarding films in black & white: Non c’è pace fra le ulivi (1950) by Giuseppe De Santis and Bellissima (1951) by Luchino Visconti. The film tells the moving story of the ballad singer Salvatore Esposito (rendered most sympathetic by Paolo Stoppa) through a series of famous songs presented with great style. If the film had stopped there it would have been just like any other Hollywood-style musical, but the photography, which is delightful as well as functional and enhances the myriad colors dancing in front of the camera, adds a great deal. Everyone realized this, because the stunning images (and the superb rhythm) "leapt" off the screen.
This was the period when they were experimenting with color. Film was improving. As well as Technicolor, which was reliable but complicated to use, the monopack, a single film composed of three color layers, started to become popular. In Italy they began working with Ferraniacolor monopack, which was perhaps the most difficult to handle. But there were always cinematographers who were prepared to take chances, who risked flooding the sets and the poor actors with light, due to the very low sensibility of the emulsion. Tonino Delli Colli, who actually looked for trouble, photographed Totò a colori (1953) with Ferraniacolor. Mario Craveri chose to accompany journalist Gian Gaspare Napolitano to the Amazon forest where they filmed an exotic documentary entitled Magia verde (1953) that started a rather interesting trend in Italian cinema; then he accepted the challenge of photographing a film by Alberto Lattuada entitled La spiaggia (1954) that attacked the prejudices of a vulgar, emergent bourgeoisie. The action takes place in a coastal resort in Liguria. The sea, the sky, the sun, the sand, the bathers’ skin – not to mention the awful bluish outlines of the shadows – posed a continual challenge that Craveri met with the patience of a saint, obtaining some amazing results; in fact, the beach sequences, the white sand, the crystal-clear sea, the counter-light and the half-tones faithfully rendered the gentle irony of Lattuada’s satire.
The decades that separate us from the end of the Second World War, which were full of artistic experiment, radical innovations and continually evolving trends, have profoundly transformed all areas of filmmaking, starting of course with cinematography (negatives, equipment, lighting, developing and printing processes, the introduction of electronic systems, etc.) Everything has changed. Except for one thing: the incredible gap that exists between technical virtuosity as an end in itself and the intelligent use of resources to create a unified result that justifies making a movie. Any form of experimentation, even the most daring, is positive if it contributes to creating cinema. A movie can be a hundred different things – big or small, long or short, documentary or feature, scientific or experimental – and it can present itself in the most garish colors or exert the most subtle fascination, but it won’t be any good, so to speak, if it is not created with a common aim. If every filmic element has a precise meaning, and is not the product of individual notions or vanities, the movie will not meet with unfair criticism. On the contrary.
This is a golden rule that applies to cinematography as much as to all the other components of the cinema machine (and, naturally of literature, music, the figurative arts, theater and anything else that is a product of man’s creativity). The meaning may not immediately be clear, and may escape the inattentive and inadequate critic who is incapable of perceiving something new (how many times this has happened!); or the meaning may be crazy (as Surrealist and abstract art demonstrate), but it must exist. Until someone proves otherwise. Until someone breaks the rules.
Italian cinema is presently hovering between films that are either sentimental or funny. This is how it attracts audiences. It is moving and amusing by turn, and even convinces people when it is not at all convincing. It is seen all over the world when it hits on the right story, whether it gets off the ground or not: modesty and kindness make up for the lack of strong drama. The world applauds anyway, because it is the kind of cinema that portrays an image of Italy that is eternal, that everyone likes. A classic example is Il postino (1994) by Michael Radford and Massimo Troisi, which relates the death of Pablo Neruda by transferring the action from the Chilean village of Isla Negra to the Gulf of Naples. The harsh, terse style of the fine novel Il postino di Neruda by Antonio Skármeta, is watered down to match the melancholy expression of the postman played by Troisi and to induce Franco Di Giacomo to infuse the images of the film with warm colors. In this film Troisi, who died at the end of the shooting, is no longer comic but deeply touching. The success of Il postino, therefore, was a tribute to the likable Neapolitan actor, and everyone was taken by his disarming awkwardness, despite the fact that Philippe Noiret gave a first-rate performance as Neruda.
Another comic actor who achieved worldwide success – 300 billion Lire box office and a shower of Oscars – was Roberto Benigni, the irresistible protagonist of La vita è bella (1997). The protagonist and, like Troisi, the director. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli effects a smooth transition from a sunny Tuscan town to the gloomy dormitories of a Nazi concentration camp, where the protagonist Guido Orefice, his wife Dora and their little boy Giosuè, are deported. The film relates a sensitive fairy-tale, which has the laid-back quality and fast-moving pace that characterize Benigni’s work. The film, which made an impact on and moved audiences the world over, represents a curious novelty, in the sense that each of the authors – the director, the cinematographer, the actor – gives of his best, as if the whole film revolved around him. We are dealing with a rare case of "schizophrenia" – in moments of crisis the Italian cinema is capable of jumping through hoops –, which is proof that schizophrenia has its positive effects. It is like walking along the edge of a precipice without falling into the abyss, and the mischievous Benigni is the living proof that the trick can be pulled off. La vita è bella is not, as one might fear, a series of technical feats that are an end in themselves. If anything, it is a new way of interpreting and expressing a shared goal. A freak occurrence that cannot be repeated. When fusion is impossible, one resorts to individualism: the well-trodden escape route of Italian genius.
The future is uncertain, we are adrift on a sea of digital effects. We have arrived at the "point of no return." We are assailed by impositions, temptations and inventions on all sides, cinematic (and electronic) technology is developing at the speed of light. What do we do? Take refuge in the classic method of filming or accept the challenge of new ideas? Cinematography is about to fight its hardest battle.