Beyond neorealism

Delli Colli's postwar work expands language of cinema

What: 19th Annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards Gala
When: Feb. 13; 5 p.m. cocktails; 6 p.m. dinner; 7:30 p.m. awards ceremony
Where: Grand Bollroom at Hollywood & Highland (5th Floor), 6801 Hollywood Blvd.
Wattage: Presenters include Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda, Poppy Montgomery, Debbie Allen

ROME — By the late 1950s, Tonino Delli Colli was earning handsomely, working on run-of-the mill crowdpleasers such as Dino Risi’s “Venice, the Moon and You” and the English-language “Seven Hills of Rome” with Mario Lanza.

But instead of staying on that secure course, Delli Colli, the American Society of Cinematographers international achievement honoree, strongly desired to be part of Italy’s burgeoning postneorealist wave of daring filmmakers. While working in Africa on the Italo-U.S. genie-in-a-bottle pic “The Wonders of Aladdin,” Delli Colli heard that Pier Paolo Pasolini, then a young poet and writer, was preparing to shoot his first feature, about a pimp in Rome’s subproletarian periphery.

The well-paid lenser promptly volunteered his services to work on “Accattone!” for scale, marking the start of an 11-film, 15-year collaboration that ended shockingly with Pasolini’s still mysterious 1975 assassination.

“We provoked a minor revolution on a technical level (by using) a lens which nobody wanted at the time, a 35-140mm (with a small zoom ratio of 4:1), joined to an Arriflex, a camera that wasn’t used in Italy,” recounts Delli Colli in “Making Pictures: A Century of European Cinematography” (Abrams). “We certainly inaugurated a very distinctive photographic style.”

Pasolini at first had no technical film knowledge. “I had to explain to him what lenses where,” adds Delli Colli.

But the poet-turned-helmer learned quick. Soon, in what Delli Colli says was the biggest turning point in his career, the pair were busy exploring possibilities. First in black-and-white with — among other pictures — the Caravaggioesque chiaroscuro canvas created for Anna Magnani starrer “Mamma Roma,” and the clean monochrome of “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” a seminal film that Mel Gibson recently drew inspiration from for “The Passion of the Christ.” The cinema verite style of these films went even further than neorealism, says Delli Colli.

Working during the 1970s with Pasolini and a team comprising ace set designer Dante Ferretti (“The Aviator”) and the late great costume designer Danilo Donati (“Life Is Beautiful”) on Pasolini’s adaptation of Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” Delli Colli turned out a bright and multicolored palette inspired by Renaissance frescoes. Colors for Pasolini’s “The Canterbury Tales,” shot in England, were much more subdued, with plenty of mist and gray skies.

By the time of Pasolini’s last feature release, the controversial “Salo” (or “120 Days of Sodom”) in 1976, Delli Colli had already amassed more than 100 credits, and a fruitful run that would include collaborations with Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski and Roberto Benigni on the Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful” was yet to come.

“Tonino has an innate gift,” says director Lina Wertmuller, with whom Delli Colli worked on 1975’s “Seven Beauties.” “He is one of the great Italian directors of photography, because he never gets on a high horse, nor has he fallen for phony intellectualism.”

As recipient of the ASC’s international achievement honor, Delli Colli follows in the footsteps of countryman Giuseppi Rotunno and such European masters as Jack Cardiff, Henri Alekan, Raoul Coutard and Miroslav Ondricek.

Born in Rome in 1923, Delli Colli started in the trade at 16, during Italy’s preneorealism days of so-called “white telephone” melodramas. Not a studious type, he quit school after junior high and, in dire need of work, managed, through family connections (his father worked in a film lab) to get hired at Cinecitta Studios in 1938, one year after the famed facility was founded.

Select Filmography
“Life Is Beautiful” Roberto Benigni (1997)
“Death and the Maiden” Roman Polanski (1994)
“Bitter Moon” Roman Polanski (1992)
“The Voice of the Moon” Federico Fellini (1990)
“Intervista” Federico Fellini (1987)
“The Name of the Rose” Jean-Jacques Annaud (1986)
“Ginger and Fred” Federico Fellini (1986)
“Once Upon a Time in America” Sergio Leone (1984)
“Tales of Ordinary Madness” Marco Ferreri (1981)
“Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom” Pier Paolo Pasolini (1976)
“Seven Beauties” Lina Wertmuller (1975)
“Lacombe Lucien” Louis Malle (1974)
“The Canterbury Tales” Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972)
“The Decameron” Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971)
“Once Upon a Time in the West” Sergio Leone (1968)
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” Sergio Leone (1966)
“Hawks and Sparrows” Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966)
“The Gospel According to St. Matthew” Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)
“Accattone!” Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961)
“Where Is Freedom?” Roberto Rosselini (1954)

As it turned out, Delli Colli’s lifelong love affair with lensing was sparked purely by chance. “They asked me if I wanted to work in the sound department, or with the cameramen,” he recalls. “I said with the cameramen, even though I knew nothing about what that meant. I had no idea that those few words would determine the course of my life.”

Several lucky breaks helped shape Delli Colli’s career early on. Still a teenager, he became assistant to overworked lenser Mario Albertelli, who suffered from ulcers and began to let him set up shots solo.

In 1952, Delli Colli was under contract with producers Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis when he was assigned lensing duties on Italy’s first color pic, comedy “Toto a colori.” Delli Colli says the transition to color required new types of lighting and affected basic concepts of costume and production design. “There is no doubt the cinema has gained something from the advent of color,” says Delli Colli, “but I think it lost a lot. Black-and-white made it possible to create unique atmospheres.”

Meeting Sergio Leone in the ’60s sparked another crucial career phase for Delli Colli. The lenser’s execution of the meticulous spaghetti Western chef’s groundbreaking supersaturated vision on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and, much later, “Once Upon a Time in America” are among his most memorable compositions.

These ’60s landmark Westerns did much to revive the genre, as Delli Colli captured a bold mixture of extreme close-up and wide shots. “Leone paid attention to everything he did,” Delli Colli recalls. “He wanted me to light long shots so the audience could see details on screens of all sizes. He wanted them to see individual hairs in each character’s beard, as well as their eyes.”

Carrying out Fellini’s creative demands required more instantly inventive skills. For Fellini’s last film, the nocturnal 1990 “The Voice of the Moon,” Delli Colli had to rapidly devise lighting to simulate fireflies, which the whimsical helmer wrongly thought would be readily available. Delli Colli immediately had minuscule lamps made that he dangled from fishing rods in front of the camera.

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco’s medieval murder mystery “The Name of the Rose,” lit entirely by candles, torches and lanterns, and Roman Polanski’s vivid 1994 film version of the stage drama “Death and the Maiden” — which takes place largely at night in a house with no electricity — posed similar masterfully resolved lighting challenges.

“In my work I’ve always tried to ‘illuminate’ the stories that are being told, using the simplicity of my feelings and the instinct that has guided me,” says Delli Colli.

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