Obituary: Pasqualino de Santis

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The Independent Online
It is easy to confuse great settings with great cinematography. The film A Month by the Lake, which is currently showing in cinemas, has some exquisite individual images of the Lake Como region of Italy captured by the eminent cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis (who was sometimes credited as Pasquale de Santis), but this will not be remembered as one of his notable achievements as there is no compelling sense of unity or stylisation on the visual side.

However, one has only to think back on the contrasting look of such films as Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), Luchino Visconti's Morte a Venezia ("Death in Venice", 1971) or Francesco Rosi's Cadaveri eccellenti ("Illustrious Corpses", 1975) and Cristo si e' fermato a Eboli ("Christ Stopped at Eboli", 1979) to recognise the extraordinary skill and versatility of De Santis.

Each of these directors prized his ability to adapt setting, and mould light and shadow, to create a particular atmosphere and feeling appropriate to the subject in hand. His work on Romeo and Juliet, using much hand- held camera, blending locations with a backlot reconstruction of Verona's piazza in the 15th century, won him the year's Academy Award for Cinematography.

The much younger brother of the noted director Giuseppe de Santis, Pasqualino gained a job as assistant camera operator on one of his brother's productions after graduating from film school in Rome in 1948. This was the start of a long association with the cinematographer Piero Portalupi, a man with formidable practical skills who taught him that every problem had a technical solution.

In 1958, De Santis became a camera operator and soon linked up with the director of photography Gianni di Venanzo on such films as Antonioni's La Notte (1960), Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano (1961), Losey's Eva (1962) and Fellini's 81/2 (1963).

From Di Venanzo, De Santis learned how to overcome difficulties by taking risks and experimenting. He shot part of Rosi's bullfighting picture Il Momento della verita ("The Moment of Truth", 1965) after Di Venanzo left, and completed the Rex Harrison comedy The Honey Pot (1966, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz) when Di Venanzo died suddenly.

Always wearing around his neck the light filter that had belonged to Di Venanzo, De Santis then became Rosi's regular cinematographer. He provided the serene images of the fairytale C'era una volta ("Cinderella - Italian Style", 1967), then adopted magnesium lighting for the First World War trenches of Uomini contro ("Men Against", 1970), handling camera and harsh visuals for the rapidly paced corruption drama Il Caso Mattei ("The Mattei Affair", 1972), and gangster biopic Lucky Luciano (1973) and a hard, dry look for Christ Stopped at Eboli, with its story of political exile in the mountains, before switching to the luminous brightness of Tre fratelli ("Three Brothers", 1980). "He chooses the right light for the right place," said Rosi.

He was Visconti's last regular cameraman, and worked on four of the director's last five films: La Caduta degli Dei ("The Damned", 1969), Death in Venice, Gruppo di famiglia in un interno ("Conversation Piece", 1974) and L'Innocente ("The Innocent", 1976).

On Death In Venice, the director demanded a flamboyant, conspicuous visual style. De Santis had most difficulty achieving an unreal, shimmering impression of the beach, finally solving the problem by stretching large sheets and sails everywhere to filter the sun's rays. His work on this film so impressed Robert Bresson that he was summoned to France to shoot the veteran director's Lancelot du Lac (1974) and Le Diable probablement ("The Devil, Probably", 1977).

Although he operated the camera on many black-and-white films, De Santis always had to work in colour as a director of photography. He sometimes sought to suppress colour and for Ettore Scola's Una giornata particolare ("A Special Day", 1977), he not only persuaded the director to adopt a sober visual style but memorably created a subdued, near monochrome impression to suit the 1938 setting.

Less active in recent years, in the late Eighties De Santis rejoined Rosi for another social drama, filmed in exotic locations, Cronaca di una morte Annunciata ("Chronicle of a Death Foretold", 1987) and, fittingly, he had rejoined Rosi earlier this year on the director's latest venture, La Tregua ("The Truce", based on the book by Primo Levi), and died of a heart attack in the Ukraine while still working on the film. Pasqualino de Santis, cinematographer: born Fondi, Italy 24 April 1927; died Ukraine 23 June 1996.