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Goodbye Giuseppe Rotunno: the Master Who Transformed Photography into Reality

From Italy to Hollywood, he worked with the best directors of all time, making a meaningful contribution to the legacy of Italian cinema

Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (Photo: Gianni Pinnizzotto)

«He leaves behind the rigor of an extraordinary life, a lesson that will continue to foster the Great Beauty of cinematography that the entire world will continue to look up to Italy for.»

Giuseppe Rotunno, one of the greatest Italian directors of photography, died on the 7th of February at the age of 97. He took his last breath in Rome, the heart of cinematography. Revisiting his work is a necessary reminder to everyone who deeply wants to understand the art of fiction, pointing out the importance of a fine technique able to connect people with the soul of the set environment. Not everybody is familiar with lighting studies, at the same time everybody knows the feeling of a great movie where reality is one step closer. Just like a painter, Rotunno managed every shade of natural and artificial light, setting up a professional method followed by the most devoted cinema students.

From Cinecittà to Hollywood, he signed timeless masterpieces such as Amarcord, Il Gattopardo, Rocco e i suoi fratelli. Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, two of the most famous Italian directors, used to call him “the magician of light”. Magic is the right word to express a passionate ability to mix and create light. He started with black and white, ending up with an entire palette of possibilities.

From the film “Amarcord” di Federico Fellini (1973)

Rotunno was nicknamed Peppino. He was born on March 23rd, 1923. He started his great six-decade career as a still photographer before being employed as a cameraman with the Italian army. His story begins to take shape in the darkroom of Arturo Bragaglia’s photography lab in Cinecittà (Rome). Passion, observation and experimentation were the main ingredients of his training as a young electrician. It was 1938, after his father’s death,  he was looking for a job and Bragaglia was a tough master, too picky to hire people easily. Rotunno thought he could make it and they even became friends. During the weekends, Bragaglia used to lend him a Leica, so Giuseppe could develop the pictures on Monday and print them. That was the real start of his future vision, honest and passionate.

There is no better advice for an aspiring photographer than to take lots of pictures and get to know the real world in the streets. 

From the film “Rocco e i suoi fratelli” by Luchino Visconti” (1960)

The war came and Giuseppe was sent to the front line to make documentaries for the Italian army film unit. In 1943 he was captured during the German occupation of Greece and spent two years in Germany. Released by American troops in April 1945, Rotunno finally returned to Italy. Despite that bad experience, the years of war brought drama closer to people and their stories: neorealist cinema took over from the so-called “white phones” sub-genre.

After the war, he got his first work as a cinematographer on Dino Risi’s “Pane, amore, e…” (1955), a movie starring Vittorio de Sica and Sophia Loren. Fame and talent consolidated in the collaboration with the master Luchino Visconti (Rotunno said Visconti has been his greatest mentor) on “Le notti bianche” (1957), “Rocco e i suoi fratelli” (1960), and “Il Gattopardo” (1963).

Drama needed shapes, zoomed visual expressions, deep and real emotions. Rotunno used lights to create nostalgic and eternal atmospheres, where stories became history. Working for movies based on great literature (Tomasi di Lampedusa, Dostoevskij) was as challenging as setting up the lights for a more realistic one. Rotunno’s talent largely consisted in managing every kind of movie genre, giving importance to any kind of framing lighting, from a close-up to a wide shot.

From “Il Gattopardo” di Luchino Visconti (1963)

Rotunno worked with some of the greatest masters of all time: Mario Monicelli “La Grande Guerra” (1959), Pier Paolo Pasolini “La terra vista dalla luna” (1967), Benigni and Troisi “Non ci resta che piangere” (1984), Dario Argento “La sindrome di Stendhal” (1966), Vittorio de Sica “Ieri, oggi, domani” (1963). Rotunno’s collaboration as director of photography for the Italian director Federico Fellini started with “Satyricon” (1969) and went on with “Roma” (1972), “Amarcord” (1973), “Casanova” (1976), “City of Women” (1980) and “And The Ship Sails On” (1983).

Rotunno’s talent was too precious for just one country; his career brought him overseas to Hollywood, too. In 1958 Rotunno worked as a cinematographer with Henry Koster, John Huston and Mike Nichols. He was even nominated for an Oscar for Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1980). He also won a BAFTA Award (British Academy Film Awards) in 1980 for the same movie. Moreover, he worked with Robert Altman, Terry Gilliam for the famous “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988), and Sydney Pollack.

His work in the United States contributed to the legacy of Italian cinematography abroad. In 1966, Rotunno became the first non-American member admitted to the American Society of Cinematographers. His last movie was a 1997 Marcello Mastroianni documentary called “I Remember, Yes, I Remember” directed by Anna Maria Tatò. In 1999 he was honored by ASC and by Poland’s Camerimage festival.

From the film “All That Jazz” di Bob Fosse (1980)

In 2013 he wrote an article on the Centro Studi Pier Paolo Pasolini, titled Is the movie still a piece of art?” Let’s consider the importance of his passion and knowledge and let’s reflect on the depth levels of visual drama. The cinema industry can rely on heritage. Heritage means that people can improve their skills and sharpen their eyes following a specific history. Every cinema course has a focus on photography and the study of light: it makes us aware of the shades and colors of reality, giving us the right tools to manipulate it for the sake of fiction. 2013 was his last year of teaching at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, where he had started his collaboration in 1988. 

Laura Delli Colli, president of the Cinema for Rome foundation, wrote a post on Facebook in honor of Rotunno: “He leaves behind the rigor of an extraordinary life, a lesson that will continue to foster the Great Beauty of cinematography that the entire world will continue to look up to Italy for.”

In a moment of so much crisis for the cinema industry due to the pandemic, masterful work needs to survive, so it will be probably one of the few things able to save creativity and hope for better times to come.

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