The only thing more consistent than the quality of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography is the routine variance of his work. Though his most prominent titles were primarily those done in collaboration with two key directors—Michelangelo Antonioni and Woody Allen—what he demonstrated over the course of his career, in these films and dozens more, revealed a remarkable exhibition of visual range. His decades-spanning career produced a gallery of fluctuating colors, lighting techniques, temperatures, movements, and tones. And more often than not, what he refined in this richly varying field proved to be a directly corresponding realization of profound psychological consequence.
Born April 17, 1925 in Rome, the son of a camera repair man, Di Palma’s cinematic commencement went from focus operator on Neo-Realist essentials like Rome, Open City (1945) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) to serving various capacities on largely subpar Italian fare. A turning point came in 1960, with the success of It Happened in ‘43, his third film as cinematographer, but a seismic shift occurred in 1964. That was when Di Palma began work on Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert. That was when, as Francesco Rosi recalled at the time of Di Palma’s passing, the cinematographer’s innovative use of color “opened a new chapter in the history of the cinema.”
With Red Desert, one sees the first discernible instance of not only Di Palma’s distinct filmic imprint, notably his keen ability to imaginatively render the deepest of emotional states, but also how cohesively he and a respective director could work in tandem to a common thematic and stylistic aim. Although it took some convincing to get Antonioni to agree to color (Di Palma conducted tests to make his case), the already legendary filmmaker acquiesced and Di Palma knew the venture would be something special. “I felt this would be the most important picture of my life,” he later stated. “For the first time, there would be the color of feelings on the screen.” Originally titled “Pale Blue and Green,” Red Desert was indeed a bold vision, an abstract and poetic feature giving pictorial release to ambiguous internal responses. Di Palma instantly grasped what Antonioni had earlier put forth with his symbolic-expressive use of setting in Il grido (1957), L’avventura (1960), and L’eclisse (1962), but here, he took such location prominence and applied what he regularly displayed with transfixing, revelatory imagery. It was a model meeting of the minds, an accomplished mutual formula utilizing the environment to suggest that which lay deep within a troubled main character, while also accentuating an ecosystem directly affected and afflicted by its human inhabitants.
As far as its topical core is concerned, the impetus for Red Desert grew from the industrialization Antonioni witnessed throughout Italy, particularly in and around the town of Ravenna, where the film was ultimately shot. It was an invasive setting, a pervasive setting, one shown to be brilliantly and hauntingly oppressive by Antonioni and Di Palma. Beginning with the opening credits, under which an out-of-focus industrial landscape—barren, bland, lifeless—suddenly explodes with a swelling orange-red flame, Red Desert becomes a careful orchestration of emotive color and manipulative atmosphere. Dominating the murky milieu is a petrochemical plant, the nerve center of this effusive backdrop. Its impact is tangible and omnipresent. The landscape lies beneath a diffused sky, occasionally given animated punctuation from pillars of smoke emanating above bellowing factories. The world is sterile and mechanical, not a location typically conducive to pictorial delicacy, but this is exactly what Di Palma brings to the picture: a fastidious, florid illustration of subtle shifts and powerful juxtapositions.
It’s an unglamorous environment to be sure, yet what Di Palma and Antonioni achieve in terms of Red Desert’s striking imagery is in fact codependent on this unorthodox composite. Given its stress on that which is human-generated—the grinding factory, the residences sprung from the melancholy no-man’s-land—it is fitting that Di Palma and the production team, at Antonioni’s behest, engineered the scenery to compliment, contrast, and enhance the site, and to induce an emphatic sense of subjective experience. It is primarily the tormented mental state of Giuliana (Monica Vitti) that seems to generate the most influence on this figurative locale. She is suicidal, depressed, and overwhelmingly neurotic. On one level, she is struggling to maintain the romantic relationships in her life, first with her alienated husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), then with his business associate, the temporarily more understanding Corrado (Richard Harris). On another level, part of Giuliana’s despair is clearly a result of her less-than-hospitable surroundings, and what is seen, and what she sees, becomes a symbolic symptom of her anxious psychology, given external representation by Di Palma and Antonioni.
While making Red Desert, Di Palma struck up a relationship with Vitti. Their association led to his directorial debut, Teresa the Thief, in 1972, and they again worked together as director and actress on Blonde in Black Leather (1975) and Mimì Bluette... fiore del mio giardino (1976). Di Palma also reunited with Antonioni on Blow-Up (1966) and Identification of a Woman (1982). Then, a year after directing the 1984 documentary L’addio a Enrico Berlinguer, Di Palma moved to the United States, where he entered into his most prolific and most proficient partnership, acting as cinematographer on Hannah and Her Sisters, the first of 12 films made with Woody Allen. Di Palma’s work with the equally inexhaustible Allen runs the dramatic gamut, and while his own favorite title was 1987’s September, his work on Allen’s 1992 feature, Husbands and Wives, may stand as the most pronounced deviation from what he achieved with Red Desert. As studied and fabricated as Red Desert is, Husbands and Wives is by comparison a naturalistic, spontaneous work of radical departure for Allen and Di Palma. Setting, while important (this was still firmly within Allen’s strict New York City period), is nevertheless secondary to the uninhibited camera, a vibrant tool of visual and emotional engagement.
With Husbands and Wives, shaken romances are again central. Here, for this story of two Manhattanite couples—Gabe and Judy Roth (Allen and Mia Farrow, their last of 13 films together) and Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis)—Allen and Di Palma adopt an aggressive nearness, far more enlivened and restless than what Di Palma and Antonioni utilized in Red Desert. Allen had previously worked with Gordon Willis on several prior films, including 1979’s Manhattan, which may still be the director’s most beautiful production, but Willis’s methodology was considerably different than what Di Palma brought to the auteur’s canvas, especially with Husbands and Wives. Willis tended to highlight the static and precise, and though Di Palma himself dabbled in the deliberately formalistic—the sumptuous black and white of Shadows and Fog (1991), the climate controlled September, the colors of nostalgia that permeate Radio Days (1987)—Allen employed the cinematographer to lend Husbands and Wives a nearly violent vitality. They denounce rigid exactitude, purposefully rejecting conventional rules of “proper” filmmaking: continuity editing, sharp focus, compositional balance, et cetera. Allen may have abandoned his initial desire to shoot in bristly 16mm, but he and Di Palma still managed to retain a jarring hand-held camera, bouncing around jump cuts and erratic movements.
Low-key frontal sequences, self-conscious interview/therapy sessions, intermittently bleed Husbands and Wives of its physical potency, but otherwise, the picture basks in warm indoor lighting, earth-toned attire, and a camera so lively it seems to lose characters as they move amongst the concentrated New York interiors. Walls, beams, and decorations block the camera’s position, obscuring figures and leaving the viewer with a structurally stymied vantage point, forcing active curiosity as the camera can’t quite keep up with the chaos. Unlike the mannered performances of Vitti, Chionetti, and Harris, the performances in Allen’s feature are raw and impassioned, and the shaky camera reacts with a corresponding anxiety. As boisterous as Antonioni’s characters are muted, Allen’s quarreling lovers are confrontational, angry, and acerbic. When Gabe references the writing of his prize student as “stormy and tempestuous,” those same terms suitably describe Allen’s own movie. Di Palma’s work on Red Desert underscores the inevitability of the rigorous image; his work on Husbands and Wives suggests unhinged and unlimited potential. As his camera ruptures with candid intensity, the apparatus pans and zooms and prowls during disputes, roaming voyeuristically like an eavesdropping observer. Di Palma indiscriminately surveys a party with no apparent direction, and like its emotionally drained couplets, by film’s end, the picture itself feels sapped of its energy.
When the screen of Red Desert isn’t inundated in shades of mechanized grey, it is relocated to a space of austere modernity, where even domestic arenas are sparse and cold, where a child’s primary entertainment consists of industrial reflective robots and chemistry sets. Mankind has spawned the inescapable; scientific inventiveness and streamlined ambition is felt everywhere. Nature is coated in manufactured excrement, and that which was at one point innately picturesque and unspoiled is now stricken by jutting radio telescopes, factory waste that drenches the soil and pollutes the waterways in grey-black muck, and desaturated skies that are only treated to color by way of poisonous yellow smoke. If there are traces of brightened boldness—slight glimpses of blues, reds, and greens—these accents are usually discovered in the form of industrialized piping. In other words, what color there is, is only there as man dictates (be it the designers of the factory or those behind Red Desert the film). In this situation, color has to be created. Yet a green jacket or purple dress struggles to stand out from the oily haze. The setting, hostile to human existence, goes so far as to mark the pasty pallor of character faces, exposing scant traces of the same grey that mars the architecture and covers ashen produce. Subsequently, these individuals blend with their surroundings—if not mentally, at least physically—often becoming absorbed into the landscape and donning the same sickly shades in a shared palette.
Antonioni had the landscape of Red Desert painted to match a certain gradation—spray painting buildings, trees, the grass, etc.—and even the smoke was artificially tinted (such manipulation continued with Blow-Up). The Ravenna region reeks of desolation and man-made decay, but it is not just a matter of industrial influence. These attributes exploit a corresponding falseness to the picture generally, one characteristically linked to Giuliana’s condition. Its images are tactile yet fluid; it is painterly, hallucinatory, and filtered to reflect her psyche. Something like the enveloping fog may be a naturally occurring phenomenon, but with Antonioni and Di Palma, it is also something more. It settles in and obscures, blurring her perception, the perception of others, and the viewer’s insight. Depth disappears. As if to draw an explicit point of distinction to this realm of exaggerated anguish, the glaring exception in the film is a sequence where Giuliana’s bedtime story comes to life. Set against a lush seascape, this is the only potion of Red Desert where the color was not in some way manipulated. Normally, though, the film assumes emblematic modes of representation, as in the asylum white of Corrado’s apartment building hallway, a path that leads to Giuliana’s breakdown.
In Husbands and Wives, there is little superficial flourish, no artificial embellishment to that which actually exists. Compared to Red Desert’s illustrative distortions, to say nothing of the distortions generated by the neighboring factory framework, Husbands and Wives is patently less contrived. Allen and Di Palma record street-side interactions from a passing car, while inside, the rage of the embattled lovers induces constant movement, uneasy and instinctive. Red Desert, on the other hand, is built on solidly implanted compositions, severe positions to mimic Giuliana’s unadaptable reserve. Inside a dilapidated shack, a vivid red room (the film’s most conspicuous use of interior color) becomes an enclosed space that forces interaction due to its density. There is a precarious poise of sexual tension, but there is also on this very rare occasion warmth, if nothing else caused from the proximity of crammed body parts. Elsewhere in Red Desert, however, Di Palma and Antonioni accentuate the bare spaces between people, an emotional and literal gulf further flattened by the occasional telephoto lens. There is no such geographical reprieve in Husbands and Wives, where the frame is repeatedly fit to burst.
Other differences between Red Desert and Husbands and Wives are obvious. While the former film is a conceptual introspective experience, the latter is a kinetic and almost physical tour-de-force. The editing by Eraldo Da Roma on Red Desert maintains a seamless flow despite Antonioni’s oblique arrangements, while Susan E. Morse capably merges Allen’s dissonant, jagged transitions. All the same, evident in both films is Di Palma’s technical daring and pictorial aptitude. Transcending differences in spatial and temporal construction is his penchant for long takes, textual connections, and a prevailing aesthetic ambience. In both films, Di Palma’s camera tries to escape, to meander along on its own trajectory, at times moving independent of the characters, detaching from their point of view and their very presence. His work is a continual case study in the form and function of disorientation versus contiguous space, and the photographic, tonal difference between closeness and intimacy.
Di Palma said his collaboration with Allen was the most enjoyable period of his career, a career that finally concluded with the obscure multi-director documentary Another World is Possible in 2001. Eager to start feature film work after a six-year absence, he was hired to shoot Allen’s 2003 comedy Anything Else, going so far as to scout locations, but after he failed the insurance physical he was replaced by Darius Khondji. Carlo Di Palma passed away back in Italy, on July 9, 2004.
Red Desert and Husbands and Wives will both be shown as part of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series, “Shot by Carlo Di Palma, from Rome to New York,” running July 28-Aug. 2.