Shot by Carlo Di Palma, from Rome to New York
Carlo Di Palma was one of Italy’s best cinematographers. He’s up there with Vittorio Storaro, Luciano Tovoli, and Mario Bava. A good director of photography is flexible, meeting the various demands from director to director. The DP blends his sensibility with the director’s to create a film’s “look.” A great director does this and manages to put their personal stamp on a film. You know a William Fraker-shot film by its heavily diffused lighting, a Gordon Willis film by its deep, dark shadows, and a Vilmos Zsigmond film by its “flashing,” exposing the negative to a small amount of light before shooting. Dedicating a week to his work, Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Shot by Carlo Di Palma, from Rome to New York,” provides proof of the DP’s talent.
Unfortunately, however, the occasion for the retrospective is the recent documentary devoted to Carlo Di Palma’s work, Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, the Colours of Life (2016). Produced by Di Palma’s partner, Adriana Chiesa Di Palma, the documentary underwhelms. It doesn’t even succeed on a fundamental level, that of being informative. Besides key biographical points, you know nearly as much about Di Palma and his working methods as you did before watching the film, which is next to nothing. Di Palma grew up in a filmmaking family; his father was a camera operator for a number of Italian studios. Di Palma worked his way up the hierarchy of technicians, finally becoming a DP. He worked on Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (1946), and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948)—key Italian Neo-Realist films—as an uncredited focus puller. The documentary goes through his work with Michelangelo Antonioni, Ettore Scola, and more, before coming to the US and collaborating with Woody Allen on twelve films, including the TV movie Don’t Drink the Water (1994).
Water and Sugar opens with Adriana Chiesa Di Palma preparing a kind of investigation in which she looks at paper material and archival footage related to Carlo.. Besides her presence throughout the film, this framing device is unnecessary, for Water and Sugar becomes virtually a conventional talking heads documentary afterwards. While some of the people interviewed are Di Palma’s collaborators (Bernardo Bertolucci, Allen, Scola), others are random. Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, Abel Ferrara, Volker Schlöndorff, and Nikita Mikhalkov all have nice things to say about Di Palma, but offer no substantial insights on his working methods. What we do learn comes directly from the cinematographer in archival footage: eliminating color from The Red Desert (1964), the lunch scene with the sisters in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and the handheld, crude camerawork in Husbands and Wives (1992). Water and Sugar is a documentary with a lot of anecdotes and few facts. It’s more of a warm tribute to an artist (a label Di Palma would surely and modestly deny) who contributed to the look of many seminal films.
Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography is not overbearing. Although he could saturate colors and steep a film in exuberant expressionism, such as in Woody Allen’s period or fantastical films like Radio Days (1987) and Shadows and Fog (1991), Di Palma’s lensing is subtle. Yes, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Dessert is known for its color, but that’s because Di Palma eliminates many colors, thereby accentuating those that are still in the shots. The remaining reds, blues and whites take on an importance, becoming associated with emotional states and characters in a film in which Antonioni and Di Palma configure the world to a woman’s dissolving mind, and in which people and things become first inviting, and then threatening. In Hannah and Her Sisters, his first collaboration with Allen, Di Palma creates a dampened color palette. It’s muted and flat, yet not uninviting or dreary, but rather organic. As Peter Tonguette notes in his appreciation for Senses of Cinema, Di Palma shared similar shooting methods with Gordon Willis, with whom Allen had a fruitful collaboration before Hannah. They both used master shots; Di Palma, however, used imperceptible zooms while moving the camera to capture details in a scene without cutting. In the lunch scene mentioned earlier, with just a few cuts, Di Palma let’s the camera hover and rotate around the three women seated at the table. The movements of the camera emulate the turbulent emotions buffeting them. Di Palma would extend such a scene to an entire film with Husbands and Wives. Here, Di Palma uses deliberately clunky handheld shots to convey a vérité aesthetic. It’s as if a camera crew were documenting two couples confronting one another.
Thus Di Palma’s cinematography is sensitive and pliant, as it pans and zooms, with the right amount of balletic grace. His camerawork is never a spectacle by and for itself. It moves in a silent way.