Acqua e Zucchero: Carlo Di Palma, i colori della vita
diretced by Fariborz Kamkari
by Bill Chambers This is an illuminating if less than revolutionary documentary about a cinematographer who's more of a DP's DP than a consensus Great among film buffs. (Google "greatest cinematographers" and Carlo Di Palma doesn't even number among the sixty thumbnails in the banner at the top.) Perhaps the reason is because he spent so long in the weeds with Woody Allen (from 1986 until his retirement from fiction features in 1997), whose movies are statistically ephemeral; perhaps it's because Di Palma is a key figure specifically in Italian cinema, which seemed to exhaust its cultural cachet as art films became outmoded there. Inspired by an exhibit devoted to Di Palma curated by his widow, Adriana Chiesa De Palma, Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, The Colours of Life--a title derived from a late-film anecdote about Carlo as a young boy that packs an emotional punch I wasn't quite expecting--sees Adriana poring over his papers and videos, interviewing her husband's colleagues and admirers, and wistfully recalling their marriage. Surprised herself by the vitality of his contribution to the cinematic arts (it sounds like he didn't talk shop much at home), she makes for an ideal entrée into the filmmaker's oeuvre: she knows the titles and the people involved (sometimes personally), but not well enough to be disenchanted with them.
The movie takes us from Di Palma's earliest experiences in motion pictures--a trained craftsman but a dedicated prole, he turned down any number of glamorous productions and positions to aid the neorealist movement in whatever humble capacity--through to a brief directing career that may have killed his relationship with actress Monica Vitti and then finally an unending New York detour that, according to Di Palma himself in archival footage, made him homesick. Naturally, his collaborations with Michelangelo Antonioni and Allen are given the most attention; there's some excellent, oft-wonkish discussion of his and Antonioni's first colour films, Red Desert and Blowup, though nothing that's as revelatory as the clips from those movies are on the big screen, even digitally projected and sourced. Allen, the only interviewee to make an entrance and get theme music, articulates his process like never before, clearly comfortable around Adriana. He deferred to Di Palma often, and excerpts from September and Deconstructing Harry suggest these lesser films of Allen's are due for reappraisal, at least from a visual standpoint. (Curiously, Shadows and Fog receives no mention despite being a rare return to black-and-white for Di Palma.) What emerges is a portrait of a natural born shooter and an absolute savant for colour photography who warrants consideration as an auteur in his own right. Water and Sugar may be a bit of a hagiography, but Di Palma's virtues honestly aren't that controversial. I wish more of his stuff was easier to see. Programme: TIFF Docs