Tonino Delli Colli

Master photographer at the forefront of neo-realist cinema in post-war Europe
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One of the master photographers of Italian cinema, Tonino Delli Colli worked with talents as disparate as Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini, and he was noted for his ability to adapt his work to a director's style. He was part of the generation that pioneered neo-realist cinema after the Second World War, but his 60-year career extended until 1997, when he photographed the Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful.

Last year the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) awarded him their lifetime achievement award, presented annually to an individual "whose body of work has made an enduring impact on the global art form". In 1952, Delli Colli was entrusted with the task of photographing Italy's first feature film in colour, Totò a Colori (Toto in Colour), and he was responsible for the look of such lauded works as Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), and Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien (1974).

Born Antonio Delli Colli in Rome in 1923, he got into films almost by accident. According to his own account of his early life, he was not very studious at school, so his father suggested he leave college and find work. His father worked in a film processing laboratory, and a secretary at the laboratory was hired to work at Cinecittà when the studio opened in 1937. The following year she helped Tonino Delli Colli get a job there, "though I knew absolutely nothing about film-making".

He was made assistant to the cameraman Mario Alberti ("who was like a father to me"), working with him and learning for three years "by watching what the professionals were doing and valuing the advice they gave me". Delli Colli also credited himself with some natural instinct: "You must know the sun and the sea, the colours and the contrasts, and we Italians are masters at this."

After working as a camera operator, he gained his first credit as cinematographer in a 1942 feature, Il paese senza pace, and worked steadily thereafter, being at the forefront of neo-realism, which he described as "a child born out of necessity in post-war Europe, when black-and-white films were being produced on minimal budgets at practical locations. They were filmed in real environments, partially because the Cinecittà studio was filled with displaced persons. We used ambient light, and what came through the windows, as the starting point for our cinematography."

Delli Colli had photographed over 30 films before having the prestigious opportunity to film Totò a Colori. "There is no doubt the cinema has gained something from the advent of colour," he said later, "but I think it also lost a lot. Black-and-white made it possible to create unique atmospheres." He then worked on two films with Roberto Rossellini - Dov'è la libertà?, ("Where is Freedom?", 1952), and the "Napoli" segment of the film anthology Amori di mezzo secolo (1953) - and on several Italian-American productions, notably The Seven Hills of Rome (1957), the penultimate film of the temperamental tenor Mario Lanza.

Although extremely prolific, Delli Colli was not content. "I was earning a good living, but I realised that other young cinematographers were making names for themselves by working with talented new directors like Antonioni and Germi," he said. "I realised that I was losing unique opportunities to work with emerging directors in the new style of cinematography that was being developed." When the production designer of Le Meraviglie di Aladino (The Wonders of Aladdin, 1961), which Delli Colli was making in Africa, mentioned that he was next going to make a film with a new director, Pasolini, Delli Colli told him that he would be willing to take a salary cut in order to work with the director, and thus he photographed Pasolini's gritty portrait of Rome's idle youths, Accattone (The Procurer, 1961).

"I told them to pay me whatever they could, and that day completely changed my career," he said. "I did 15 films with him in 12 years. Pasolini respected everyone on the set, and he assembled a great group of artists." Accattone was followed by Pasolini's Mama Roma (1962), his segment of another anthology film, RoGoPaG (1962), which brought charges of blasphemy, and the contrastingly stark and serious Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St Matthew, 1964).

Later Delli Colli photographed the more ambitious and colourful Pasolini movies based on medieval stories, Il Decameron (The Decameron, 1970) and I Racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1971) plus the notoriously controversial Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo (or The 120 Days of Sodom), 1975), which transposed de Sade's novel to the last years of Fascism in Italy.

Delli Colli's first film with Leone was the third of the director's "spaghetti westerns", which made a superstar of Clint Eastwood, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), with its spectacular landscapes of civil war. Two years later he did masterly work on the film regarded as Leone's greatest western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Shot largely in John Ford's favourite location, Monument Valley, it included a memorable 180-degree shot near the start when, after the heartless massacre of a family, it is dramatically revealed that the ruthless villain of the piece is being played by none other than Henry Fonda. (Fonda himself considered this sequence, in which the camera slowly moves round from behind his shoulder to a close-up of his features, as possibly the favourite shot of his career.) "Leone was a meticulous artist," said Delli Colli. "He wanted me to light long shots so the audience could see details on screens of all sizes. He wanted them to see individual hairs in each character's beard as well as their eyes."

In 1982 Leone chose Delli Colli to photograph his long-planned evocation of organised crime in the US, Once Upon a Time in America, the heavily edited first-shown version of which met with a mixed reception, but after restoration to its full length, it was perceived as a flawed masterpiece. He conjured up a slightly surreal, dream-like palette for Fellini's Ginger and Fred (1985), with Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina as a Thirties dance team who find their careers revived when their films are shown on television. "Fellini had a habit of changing things at the last minute," Delli Colli said. "He never worked with notes or a script. He invented everything on the spot."

Delli Colli won his third "David di Donatello" Award (presented by Italy's Ministry of Performing Arts) for The Name of the Rose (1987), starring Sean Connery and set in a monastery. "The only artificial light came from candles, torches and lanterns," he said. "I intensified lighting with tiny lamps hidden in fake candles. It was painstaking work that grew out of intuition."

In the Nineties, he photographed two films for Roman Polanski, Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden, and he won his fourth Donatello Award for his final film, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1997), with its dank evocation of life in a concentration camp providing stark contrast to the make-believe location the protagonist tries to conjure up for his son. Although Delli Colli worked until his late seventies, he described himself as

anchored in what you might call the "old cinema", the so-called "cinéma d'auteur". Once, there was the person who wrote the story, the director, and the cinematographer who told the story in images - and it was a privilege to be able to be a part of an auteur film. Nowadays, other factors come into play during post-production which can sometimes falsify the author's original idea. . .

Delli Colli eventually retired in 1997, but he was described by his niece as "one of those people who love the set, and the set was his real family". Delli Colli himself said recently, "The great actor Marcello Mastroanni always said that he was lucky because he had the best job in the world. I share that feeling with him. I've met great professionals who have allowed me to express myself as best I can through images."

Tom Vallance