Illuminating Pasolini with Pontormo’s light
Tonino Delli Colli

Interview by Alessandro Gatti (Translate by Susan Ann White)

Choosing art cinema

Many scenes that I have filmed during my career are important to me. One is the exterior in Mamma Roma in which Anna Magnani runs with her handcart, frantically looking for her son whom she finds dead. It was difficult to visually represent the torment and emotion of the character. Her son dies in prison, tied to a battered table. We were inside and Pier Paolo Pasolini wanted the lighting and composition of the frame to resemble a painting by Pontormo.

He asked my to recreate the play of contrast between the spirituality of a dead body in the darkness, and a mother’s desperate race outside.

If I had to shoot that scene again, I think I would do it exactly the same way. I worked a lot with Pasolini and there were countless important scenes: another one that stands out in my mind is the crucifixion in Il Vangelo secondo Matteo.

Cinema is changing

I started work at Cinecittà a year after it opened, in 1938, when I was eighteen. I did my apprenticeship - something that no longer exists today. The process has been facilitated and people sign the photography much younger. As with all artistic crafts, you have to start at the bottom, watching others and hoping for a good teacher; then, you can express something of yourself, but only later.

Cinema has certainly changed, but I remain anchored in what you might call the old cinema, that of 30 or 40 years ago, the so-called cinema d’auteur. Now there are various authors. Once there was the person who wrote the story, the director and the cinematographer who told the story in images - and it was a privilege to be able to be part of an auteur film. Nowadays other factors come into play during post-production which can somewhat falsify the author’s original idea; consequently a film becomes the work of more than one author. Cinema has changed in this sense.

I can’t relate to the new digital filming systems, or rather I have no desire to learn these new techniques even though everything is changing and the evolution of technologies will make filmmaking even more immediate.

The new technologies

The way I see it, electronic cinema is more technical than artistic. I would like to know if, in 40 years time, it will be considered auteur cinema, since this is a goal that no one seems to aim for nowadays.

The new technologies interfere with the author’s work. It wasn’t like that in the past, when Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti created special effects, albeit artisanal or home made, with a great feeling for photography; in fact, they were also cinematographers.

The argument concerning modern technologies is also valid for the rushes: I prefer to watch them on film in a screening theater, even if I don’t print them all. I need to see the effect in the theater to understand what corrections I have to make or how I should proceed with shooting.

Film at the cinema

Grain, focus and sharpness are three characteristics of film, and you won’t find them in electronic or digital material when it is projected. I find the experimental transmission of a film, via satellite, to movie theaters in America somewhat disturbing because the signal arrives with the same procedures used in television and not via a film projector. It is not reassuring news, although I know it is only an experiment. It puts the wind up me, just like when I see my films on TV and you never know what kind of tones and colors you’re going to get on the screen. I was very disappointed when I saw on television The Name of the Rose, one of my most popular films; it was broadcast during prime time, and the photography was below par, the images were faded. I spoke with the technicians responsible for the broadcast and discovered that the bad quality was caused by a human error: the wrong tape had been used. This says a lot about the attitude towards our work, which is seen at its best at a regular screening carried out by scrupulous technicians.

Fellini and special effects

The special effects we used to create, call them artisanal if you want, have nothing to do with those of today.

Federico Fellini didn’t want to know about special effects; he always used to say to me: If we can create the effects ourselves, with what we have, it’s OK by me, but if someone else has to intervene it’s not OK by me. From this I understood that Fellini didn’t want anyone interfering with his work during post-production and altering the way he had conceived it. I remember that the most we would do was place painted glass in front of the camera, that we matched with the real scene. It was pure invention.

Technology is always evolving

The technological aspect of cinema has evolved constantly, year after year. When I shot Totò a colori, the first color film to be made in Italy, the negative I used was 6 ASA; today we have arrived at 800 ASA, and a quality heretofore undreamed of: this is an advantage in every sense. All film has improved: from positives to internegatives and interpositives. This improvement in the technologies, ie, the medium, which does not touch the director’s work, makes filming easier and produces better results. In my opinion, digital cinema is still at the experimental stage, and is another string to be added to our bow. Like the Steadicam: we don’t even notice it if the cameraman is good, and it simply becomes a medium that contributes to the making of a film.

Special effects are created by a good screenplay

Duel was one of Steven Spielberg’s first films. It was a fine movie. Then he chose to create popular movies with a global reach, filled with wonders and effects, which broke all box-office records. However, it was only with Schindler’s List, a regular film without special effects, directed at an adult audience, that he achieved critical acclaim and won prestigious awards. Hollywood uses electronic cinema and effects as merchandising tools, to launch products, in the same way that Disney turns its cartoon characters into toys.

It have no intention of diminishing Spielberg’s superlative qualities; he’s a great director, with or without special effects.

Restoration is not always possible

The fact that film restoration is a commonly used term is positive; people have understood that there is a need for it. However, if I had to compare what we’re doing in Italy with that undertaken abroad, I would point out that in the USA they work on individual frames, which puts the overall cost at one or two billion lire. Here in Italy, the negative is cleaned and retouched if it’s good, a print is struck, but it’s not possible to intervene electronically for financial reasons. Those responsible for restoration in this country have to be lucky enough to find a print in decent condition. There is a right way of preserving each film, and it is difficult to intervene beyond certain limits. I personally supervised the restoration of Mamma Roma and Accattone; it was a very lengthy business because we had to locate the best fragments and then reassemble them.

Choosing quality, in sixty years of cinema

I have also photographed a lot of commercial Italian and foreign films that earned me a mint. At a certain point in my career, I decided to go for quality; I could only do this when I started to become financially independent and could afford not to work for six months, in order to be able to make the right choice. I certainly reaped the benefits as regards quality and satisfaction.

If I had to select the best of my 178 movies I would choose, apart from Pasolini’s films mentioned above: Sergio Leone’s The Big, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America; Federico Fellini’s Ginger e Fred, Intervista, La voce della luna; Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien; Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden, Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella.