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Indepth Arts News:

"presents Conversations Between Shadows and Light: Italian Cinematography"
2001-04-06 until 2001-07-28
Guggenheim Museum
New York, NY, USA

GuggenheimFilm, the Film and Media Arts Exhibition Program of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, presents Conversations Between Shadows and Light: Italian Cinematography, screening from April 6 through July 28, 2001. This program highlights the work of the 16 influential Italian cinematographers Luca Bigazzi, Tonino Delli Colli, Pasqualino De Santis, Franco Di Giacomo, Carlo Di Palma, Gianni Di Venanzo, Ennio Guarnieri, Aldo Graziati, Giuseppe Lanci, Otello Martelli, Armando Nannuzzi, Giuseppe Rotunno, Dante Spinotti, Vittorio Storaro, Aldo Tonti, and Luciano Tovoli.

Organized by guest curator Antonio Monda, Professor, Department of Film and Television, Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and Maria-Christina Villaseñor, Associate Curator of Film and Media Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, Conversations Between Shadows and Light examines the extraordinary history of post-war Italian cinematography and the important achievements of these artists in world cinema. According to John G. Hanhardt, Senior Curator of Film and Media Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, In acknowledging the significant contribution of the cinematographer to the art of film, Conversations Between Shadows and Light recognizes these artists not only in the formation of the Italian cinema, but also in the global economy of artists, informing the work of individual directors and cinematographers and other national cinemas.

In his catalogue introduction, Hanhardt argues that the privileged position afforded the director as auteur, as the artist primarily responsible for the production of a film, ignores the inherently collaborative nature of filmmaking. Noting that a film’s mise-en-scène is profoundly shaped by the lighting of the film’s narrative action and the construction of points-of-view through camera movement, framing, focus, modulation of color, and choice of film stock, Hanhardt underscores the pivotal role of the cinematographer in the filmmaking process.

Light, with its multiple connotations ranging from illumination to knowledge to pure energy, requires a deft interpreter, writes Maria-Christina Villaseñor in the catalogue essay Shadows and Whispers. The elusive nature of light . . . can intimidate the non-specialist who seeks to convey light’s emotive qualities. Thus cinematography is an art that few film writers, historians, and theoreticians have explored. The role of the cinematographer, as the one who controls the camera and exposes images onto rolls of light-sensitive film, is possibly the single-most essential role in filmmaking.

Villaseñor adds that, Vital to a cinematographer’s success is not only a mastery of technical aspects, but also a broad and well-versed knowledge of the humanities. The use of visual references to develop the look of a film are common, with concrete examples drawn from art history as well as film history and imagery drawn from popular culture. Italian cinematographers, steeped in a classical and contemporary dialogue of arts and culture, perhaps have an advantage as a matter of circumstance. The continual conversation of Italian cinematographers with the artistic and social histories of their country provides them with an important perspective from which to imbue their films with a stunning and masterful artistry, thereby contextualizing their medium within an artistic tradition. The conversation between shadow and light in these films and the symbolic use of color suggest a significant moral and artistic statement. These cinematographers immortalized the color and the black and white of their images, giving form to a vision. These painters of light are artists, says Antonio Monda.

Cinema is a global art form, shaped by the myriad forces of cultural tradition and change. Monda and Villaseñor have included a historical range of Italian and international films that exemplify a range of subject matters, shooting styles, and narrative techniques. Each of the 16 cinematographers in the series is represented by two films, with a juxtaposition of an Italian and a non-Italian film for each cinematographer, where appropriate. Juxtapositions are also made between color and black-and-white films. In addition, the series examines noted collaborations between cinematographer and director, as is the case with the contributions of four different cinematographers to the diverse oeuvre of renowned Italian director Federico Fellini. Finally, the series will feature the work of a new generation of Italian cinematographers, including Dante Spinotti and Luca Bigazzi.

During the course of his long and celebrated career, director Federico Fellini forged creative collaborations with a number of gifted cinematographers. Among them, and featured in the series, are Aldo Tonti (Le Notti di Cabiria/ Nights of Cabiria, 1956) and Gianni Di Venanzo (8 1/2, 1963) Also highlighted in the series is the work of Giuseppe Rotunno, a longtime collaborator with Fellini, whose work is represented in this exhibition with the splendid and innovatively-filmed Casanova (1976). Another noted longtime collaborator of Fellini’s was Otello Martelli. A spiritual confrontation is evident in the two features in the series filmed by Martelli: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960); and Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco Giullare di Dio/The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). The opening scene in La Dolce Vita–a statue of Christ flying over Rome–strikingly contrasts with the heavy rain that pours over a group of friars in the opening sequence of Rossellini’s Francesco Giullare di Dio. The sunny, almost overexposed whites of La Dolce Vita suggest a moral statement that is the opposite of the one made with the bleak, gray scene of Francesco Giullare di Dio.

The curators believe that nearly all of the cinematographers celebrated in this exhibition are in many respects indebted to the work of Aldo Tonti. His career, which started in 1938 and spanned over 40 years, reached its peak in his collaborations with Luchino Visconti (Ossessione, 1942) and Fellini (Le Notti di Cabiria / Nights of Cabiria, 1956). It would also be impossible to present a clear picture of Italian cinematography without celebrating the great Aldo Graziati. A regular collaborator of both De Sica and Visconti, Graziati (who often signed his films under the pseudonym G.R. Aldò) created some of the most influential black-and-white films of his time. He is, in many opinions, the greatest among the neorealist cinematographers, and his most miraculous achievement was to respect and portray the reality of life by maximizing the potential of the camera and lights. There are no effects in Umberto D (1952) and La Terra Trema (1948), yet the photography is alive as the camera follows the films’ protagonists and suffers with them through sea storms, sudden poverty, or the disappearance of a dog. Umberto D walks in the noble and poor streets of Rome: he is of them, but is no longer accepted by their ranks. In La Terra Trema, the fishermen are shot with respect and pride, but without glorification. They appear eternal like the sea, the rocks, and the poverty that surrounds them.

In the 1960s, Italian cinema shifted from a broad focus on social realities toward a more individual, psychological focus, and cinematographers played a strong role in working with directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Fellini to shape the depiction of subjective realities. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma’s groundbreaking work in Red Desert (1964) shows color as an abstract force that acts almost as another protagonist in the drama, playing against Monica Vitti’s alienated character. The post-war industrial boom of Italy is seen as a colonization of the Italian landscape––with the only colors in the grey and polluted landscape being the green of Vitti’s coat, a small patch of green lawn within the compound, and the noxious yellow of the gas emitted as factory waste. Inside the modernist homes and factory walls of Red Desert, blues and reds appear in brightly colored structural elements, often in the foreground of shots and acting as barriers—whether bedposts or factory gates—between the viewer and the film’s characters. In a more recent work, Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography for Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1986) is rich in texture, varied in palette, and steeped in painterly references from Norman Rockwell to Edward Hopper.

Among the extensive list of great works by Vittorio Storaro, the program includes Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). In Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Storaro devised the strategy of using painted backdrops in window scenes as an allusion to how the Fascists controlled the limited representation of Italy during their regime. Storaro also shot the first part of the film, which takes place in Mussolini’s Italy, in a shadowy near black-and-white, and it is not until the protagonists reach a free France that they are able to exist in a world of a full range of colors. Storaro’s ability to juxtapose two realities was once again put to use in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), an intensely grueling production that’s shooting realities legendarily mirrored the dramas embedded in the film. Once again, the juxtaposition here is between two different cultures, that of the Americans and of the Vietnamese. This is symbolized in opposing lights: the natural light of the villagers and indigenous tribes of Vietnam with their torches and lamps, and the blinding searchlights of the U.S. army helicopters and intense spotlights trained on the Playboy bunnies in their USO spectacles.

Another program highlight is a new generation of cinematographers such as Luca Bigazzi and Dante Spinotti. Dante Spinotti is one of the most recognized cinematographers working in his field today, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his most recent collaboration with director Michael Mann on the 1999 film The Insider. In the film, Russell Crowe plays a character privy to insider information but unable to abide by the large-scale deceit of the tobacco industry tycoons. The feeling of surveillance and a world closing in on Crowe’s character is emphasized by: the mise-en-abîme shots of the studio set, cameras, and instant playback of what is being filmed; the strong, consistently present cool blue cast of light as if from a glowing video screen; and, the high-angle shots that peer over the characters’ shoulders. These elements, along with the frequently handheld camera work that seems to nervously and obsessively scan each scene, give the sense that every aspect of the characters’ private lives are on view.

Luca Bigazzi has quickly amassed an impressive body of work and has demonstrated an artistic courage in selecting difficult projects. His light for Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica (1994) combines a sense of the epic with a use of realism to depict a devastated country that immediately calls to mind post-war Italy. Bigazzi’s light is a homage to neorealism and also a step forward. His creative use of filters, the density of his nocturnal and hellish sequences, and his strong contrast between interiors and exteriors create a cultured and impassioned vision of the story he was called to illuminate. His work is also on view in the film Lo Zio di Brooklyn/The Uncle from Brooklyn (1995) by Daniele Ciprì and Franco Maresco, with a striking use of black-and-white photography in a tough and provocative film. Bigazzi worked side by side with the two directors (themselves cinematographers) and rendered through framing, light, and a balance of visual emotions an unforgettable image of a land condemned to cynicism and detachment. It is of note that this exhibition concludes with Bigazzi, a young cinematographer expressing his talent in black-and-white cinematography. The difficulty and the rareness of his choice to shoot in black-and-white suggests a hopeful liaison between the glorious past and the rich potential for the future of Italian cinema.

The catalogue accompanying Conversations between Shadows and Light: Italian Cinematography includes essays by the exhibition curators as well as contributions from noted film critics Guido Fink and Michael Wood. Also featured are texts by selected cinematographers in the exhibition, such as Vittorio Storaro, Giuseppe Rotunno, and Franco Di Giacomo, as well as contributions by the celebrated directors Vittorio and Paolo Taviani and the noted film editor Robert Perpignani. The fully illustrated color and black-and-white catalogue offers a range of film and production stills, including photographs never before published. The catalogue also includes filmographies for each of the sixteen cinematographers in the exhibition series. Details: Eds. Antonio Monda and Maria-Christina Villaseñor; 72 pages; 23.3 x 32 cms; ISBN# 88-85982-59-x; $24.95.

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