Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, the Colours of Life

Cert PG, 90 mins, ★★★)

There are, or there were, so many good classic Italian cinematographers that it is difficult, sometimes, for the layman to keep track of them. Those Aldos for example: don’t we need to distinguish Aldo Tonti from GR Aldo? Both were in charge of the photography of the same kind of films, at much the same period (the 1930s and 40s).

And there is an even more famous pair of directors of photography for the amateur fan of arthouse films to get muddled up about: Gianni Di Venanzo and Carlo Di Palma were born only five years apart (1920 and 1925 respectively). Both of them worked widely in Italian cinema, but owed their fame chiefly, perhaps, to their association with a single director, Michelangelo Antonioni – Di Venanzo in charge of the “look” of the great black and white films of the 1950s, Di Palma taking over in the mid-1960s when the enigmatic maestro moved into colour.

It is the younger of the two craftsmen we look at in this documentary. He was born in Rome of humble parentage (mother a florist, father a camera technician) and got into the industry at a very young age by being in the right spot at the right time. His early apprenticeship was with Visconti (Ossessione, 1941 – assistant to the aforementioned Aldo Tonti) while, subsequently, he teamed up with De Sica for a period. Other Italian directors, besides Antonioni, for whom Di Palma produced distinguished work include Pietro Germi (that marvellous film Divorce Italian Style), Francesco Rosi, Ettore Scola, Mario Monicelli and Bernardo Bertolucci. (The only prominent Italian he seems not have worked with was Fellini.)

Then, in the early 1980s, he was off to New York at the behest of Woody Allen. Over the next 20 years or so theirs was to be an enduring partnership: they made no fewer than 12 films together, among them – starting with Hannah and Her Sisters – some of Allen’s finest. Unsurprisingly, this film spends quite a lot of time on these masterpieces. But throughout the documentary the extracts in general are well chosen, concentrating on Di Palma’s mastery of colour.

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