Equally adept at large-scale epics and intimate chamber pieces, black and white and colour, Academy ratio and cinemascope, Giuseppe Rotunno was best known for his long collaborations with Italian masters Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini between the 1950s and 80s. These films alone were enough to cement his reputation as a world-class cinematographer, but his rich and varied filmography also took in collaborations with the likes of Vittorio De Sica, Mario Monicelli, Lina Wertmüller and Valerio Zurlini, as well as US filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Alan J. Pakula, Mike Nichols and Bob Fosse.
Born in 1923, Rotunno entered the film industry while still in his teens. He started as a stills photographer, before working his way up the camera department ranks. Aged only 19, he landed the job of camera operator on Roberto Rossellini’s Ukraine-set war drama The Man with the Cross (1942). “[It] was the first time I really put my eye to the camera’s viewfinder,” Rotunno told American Cinematographer’s Ron Magid in 1999, explaining how his problem-solving endeared him to the director.
Rotunno – like other DPs of his generation such as Henri Decaë and Raoul Coutard – served as a war photographer. After the war, he found himself having to start essentially from scratch in the film industry. One of Rotunno’s most important meetings during this period was with G.R. Aldo, the established cinematographer who, while Italian by birth, had spent most of his professional life in France. It was through Aldo that Rotunno got to know Visconti, who would entrust him with shooting some key sequences for his 1954 Technicolour period drama Senso. At the time, Rotunno was one of a handful of Italian cinematographers who had experience filming in colour and he would also be one of the first to use cinemascope (in Dino Risi’s sun-soaked 1955 comedy Scandal in Sorrento).
Visconti called upon him again for Fyodor Dostoevsky adaptation White Nights (1957) starring Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell, a key film for Rotunno and his most challenging assignment up to that point. Visconti wanted a dream-like atmosphere without retreating completely into fantasy, so full-scale sections of an Italian town were built in the studio, complete with artificial wind, rain, fog and snow.
No less demanding for Rotunno were Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963) – the latter featuring some opulent set pieces and hundreds of extras. These large-scale projects served as important preparation for Rotunno’s breathtaking studio-based films with Fellini (Satyricon, Roma, Amarcord, Casanova, City of Women, And the Ship Sails On). His Hollywood work ranged from intimate character drama Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971) to musical All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979), to sword and sorcery epic Red Sonja (Richard Fleischer, 1985).
Rotunno shot his final feature – Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome – in 1996, but he remained active well into his tenth decade, teaching at Rome’s film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, until 2013 and supervising the restorations of several of his major films.
- Giuseppe Rotunno, born 19 March 1923, died 7 February 2021.
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