ConformistIt is difficult to transmit your feelings into pure energy. You have to translate the energy. When I realised that, I began to really understand what cinematography was about. Light is energy. The energy is stopped by an object or a person and received on film through a little piece of glass and then processed in the laboratory and printed. It’s like the paper and pen for a writer, or a canvas for a painter.

– Vittorio Storaro, Post-Script (Fall 1984)

Vittorio Storaro has recently completed two parallel projects: first, in 2007, he did the cinematography for a television film, Caravaggio (RAI, 2007), directed by Angelo Longoni with actor Alessio Boni in the title role. Second, in 2009, Storaro announced the publication of Scrivere con la luce (Writing with Light), three volumes published by the prestigious Milanese company Electa, which specializes in art catalogues, and the Accademia dell’Immagine. This luxurious set includes 100 paintings – some famous and some obscure examples from the history of art – intermixed with 450 pictures from Storaro’s films. The three volumes’ wealth of visual information and the high-budget look of the television film do not come as a surprise. In fact, Storaro’s career climaxed with a Lifetime Achievement Award (2000) from his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers. At that point, he was also the youngest cinematographer to receive this award and the second foreign national, after Sven Nykvist, the Swede famous for his accomplishments with Ingmar Bergman.

Storaro’s remarks on what matters the most in cinematography are scattered across innumerable interviews. (1) Despite a world-wide career intertwined with many different directors (Dario Argento, Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Donner, Warren Beatty, Carlos Saura), one thing is for sure: Storaro’s identification with Caravaggio (1571-1601) is as strong and as definitive as his famous partnership with Bernardo Bertolucci. In response to Writing with Light and Longoni’s film, I shall propose an overall view of Storaro’s philosophy of the cinema, by relying on Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro – the technique of light’s changing appearances – to set up the cinematographer’s statements in dialogue, but also in contrast with André Bazin’s phenomenology. In fact, the formal properties of Caravaggio’s and Storaro’s chiaroscuros fit the themes of plastic realism and temporality upheld by the French film theorist. As a result of these lines of comparison – one actual: between Storaro and Caravaggio, and one imaginary: between Storaro and Bazin – my essay will conclude with some remarks about why Bazin uses the term “ontology” instead of “medium specificity,” to convey what makes film special in comparison to other art forms.

In Writing with Light, Storaro’s list of creative sources fills a monumental $600 multivolume coffee-table oeuvre. Regrettably, the three volumes are so massive that their arguments become repetitive and incoherent. Although Storaro admits that he is an “eternal student,” the project lacks a rigorous backbone about the history of film aesthetics within which the author could have inserted himself. Notwithstanding this limitation, Storaro’s need to tell his own professional story is a gesture of simultaneous closure and opening out. (2) Closure does not mean here that the cinematographer has reached the end of his career, but that he has accomplished enough to be able to historicise his use of chiaroscuro. This art-historical term is an Italian word which means light and shade. In short, the combined release of Longoni’s Caravaggio and the Electa volumes are Storaro’s position statement about cinematography’s reliance on painting. To be sure, the cinematographer has become famous thanks to the sleek, yet not at all contrived look of his images. By the same token, Storaro’s lavish lighting does not fit the humble, if not criminal, background of Caravaggio’s models. Longoni’s film, in fact, makes clear that Caravaggio’s realism shocked his contemporaries. He recruited prostitutes and thieves as live models for his paintings. In contrast to the aesthetic ethos of his time, the painter refused to idealise the Virgin Mary and other religious figures. It is also true, however, that Caravaggio used precious oil to paint, along with rare stones and plants to grind into his colours, while he also depicted wealthy cardinals in order to survive economically.

Storaro’s signature is a highly pictorial style of lighting which never loses touch with the physical environment where the fiction unfolds. Especially in regard to Bertolucci’s La strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Stratagem, 1970), Storaro has stressed the importance of experiencing in first person the countryside during the preparation for the film. By mediating between natural and artificial forms of illumination, just like Caravaggio used to do with sun-light and an oil lantern, Storaro has become as famous as Greg Toland, Orson Welles’ legendary cinematographer. To be sure, Toland’s style for Citizen Kane (1941) is more photographic and journalistic than Storaro’s, since the American cinematographer turns a flat, stark lighting into anonymous shadows, thus evacuating the body into a sort of unredeemable absence. On the contrary, Storaro’s chiaroscuro seductively modulates, engulfs, and caresses the figures to the point of enhancing them within the rich visual culture of a specific historical context. This is why the commentary in Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography praises Storaro’s work in The Conformist (1970) for its degree of “visual coherence.” (3)

By intensely researching the twenties and thirties depicted in Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970) Storaro and Bertolucci were able to reproduce the colours, the atmosphere, and the icons of the art nouveau and the art deco styles in fashion, design, architecture. Needless to say, Storaro’s Francophile orientation in the early seventies mirrored Bertolucci’s admiration for the French Nouvelle Vague, so that The Conformist became also an homage to the cinematography of Raoul Coutard for Jean- Luc Godard’s first groundbreaking film, A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). In contrast to Storaro’s chromatic and glossy use of black and white, Coutard’s deploys a more grainy film stock that evokes the newsreel look of neorealism. In the end, for The Conformist, Bertolucci’s first international success with a tale of unconscious drives and murderous plans, Storaro was quick to incorporate the jazzy, discontinuous, fluid style of Coutard’s collaboration with Godard: quick panning shots, filming into the sun, bird’s-eye views, and handheld camera. (4)

ConformistStoraro’s traditionalist stance in favor of painting is not only a backward glance, but also a move forward. In the American environment, where family lineages are less important than the power of fresh ideas, this move may need some additional explanatory context. Were we to invoke issues of cultural difference, we would realise that, in the wake of many Italian artists’ families across the centuries, Francesca and Fabrizio Storaro are the latest recipients of a long-standing aesthetic sensibility. Speaking of origins, Vittorio Storaro reminds his readers that he was born in Rome in 1940, the son of a projectionist at Lux Film Studios. In his father’s footsteps, he started his training in photography when he was fourteen years old; later, he turned into an expert cameraman as a result of his education at the famous Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. Although founded by Benito Mussolini in 1935, this institution became famous for giving birth to neorealism. Photography, camera-work, cinematography, all together require a special eye for shifts in space and for temporal rhythm. Likewise, Storaro’s two children have respectively undertaken comparable careers in lighting design and in the development of film technology. More specifically, the careful timing of a recent interview released by Storaro’s daughter, Francesca, suggests that her father, the contemporary Caravaggio of international cinema, has mentored his two siblings on various projects. (5)

To begin with, Francesca Storaro was originally trained as an architect and, in 2002, helped her father with the lighting of Michelangelo’s architecture in Piazza del Campidoglio. This team work, in turn, grew out of Storaro’s work for a film about the whole city of Rome, Imago Urbis (1990-1994) directed by Luigi Bazzoni. Fabrizio Storaro’s collaboration with his father, instead, dates back to the 1998 launch of a new film technology called Univisium, which Longoni has used for Caravaggio. As Storaro explains, the Univisium system enables filming on 35mm negative with a composition ratio of 1:2 and with three perforations at 25 frames per second:

“Kodak films (5201-5205-5217-5218), with their proven ‘consistency’ and the ‘reversibility’ between them, enable the indispensable matching of the various scenes during the editing, because they provide maximal tonal and chromatic registration in the different situations of NATURAL and ARTIFICIAL light, in low or high intensity, with a range of 50 to 500 ASA. Univisium is a system that allows you to save 25 percent on the cost of classic 35mm, thanks to the use of three perforations in the negative instead of four, and to have 25 percent more time for creativity while shooting, which is really important, especially for scenes with a Steadicam. And all this is a panoramic format of 1:2. I would like to emphasize that to shoot in 35mm with 3 perforations, instead of S16, does not represent an alarming increase in cost, considering the superiority of 35mm and the increased possibilities for selling the product in other countries.” (6)

These technical details are not gratuitous because, inasmuch as the cinematographer celebrates air, fire, water, and earth in Writing with Light, both technology and nature, the controlled space of the studio and the more unpredictable outdoors, are crucial for his method. Interestingly, the cinematographer turns out to be quite in touch with the creativity of nature. After all, Storaro’s painting with light pays attention, as a rule, to the position of windows in relation to the sun. And it is nature which Bazin celebrates in his famous sentence:

All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty. (7)

More specifically, Storaro’s attention to the quality and speed of film stock, along with the materiality of real and fictional locations, resonates with the documentary ethos of neorealist cinema at large. This is not to say that the cinematographer dislikes constructed sets but that, for him, light must work together with the textures of film stocks and the physicality of the environment, whatever that may be. In other words, Storaro’s method is one according to which each location requires the use of a different film stock, because these changes in textures can better convey the passing of time and the adjustments through light to mood and atmosphere among the actors and the crew during the shooting. Just like natural light is about the passing of time, film is not only stardom, costumes, or screenplays, but it is first and foremost the microhistory of the unpredictable chemistries that occur on the set during the shooting as a basic level of plastic realism in and of itself.

Caravaggio and Storaro

The Calling of Saint MatthewWhereas Writing with Light is a hefty library acquisition, Longoni’s film is a standard, but extremely well-researched biopic which illuminates useful parallels between Storaro’s overall style and Caravaggio’s artistic innovations. A quick example of the care involved in this project has to do with the absence of blue paint or clothing in Longoni’s film: this is the case because Caravaggio never used this colour in his work. (8) During his involvement with Longoni’s film, Storaro carefully studied Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro in relation to the theme of time: especially the transition between life and death, or the passing moment. Two paintings by Caravaggio, in particular, stand out for this link between chiaroscuro and the idea of the trajectory of sun-light during the day to mark different stages in someone’s life. The first pictorial example is (1599-1600), where the eyes of the protagonist are saying yes to Christ while the rest of his body hesitates to respond affirmatively. Second, The Resurrection of Lazarus (1609) is famous for the way in which the body looks rigid, but one hand turned towards Christ begins to look alive again. Considering that painting is a spatially-based medium, it made sense for Storaro to focus on works by Caravaggio that would push the canvas to lean towards the screen of the cinema where movement weaves space with time.

The Resurrection of LazarusAlways attentive to the professional definition of his role next to strong-minded directors, Storaro has argued that he is not a “director of photography,” but rather a “director of cinematography,” where the latter term means in his own words “writing with light.” On the other hand, photography remains an important term of reference because its history contains “the literature of light.” It is also typical of Storaro to keep himself open to all technological options, including today’s digital imaging, notwithstanding his clear rejection of the over-stimulating and adrenalin-pumping use of coloured lights in Las Vegas. (9) Despite Storaro’s dislike of the word “photography” in his professional title, a closer look at his interviews indicates that André Bazin’s sense of cinema as the child of photography, the medium of documentation and embalmed time, is compatible with his way of working. Namely, Storaro is not just an accomplished expert of film technology, but an artist with an intuitive philosophical sense of what cinema is all about. The word “intuitive” here is key, because his ideas are in touch with lived experience in opposition to an abstract art-historical scheme. In real life, for instance, shadow and light never exist separately. On the contrary, today’s computerised digital cameras can produce light and shadow only separately, through graphic design replacing a photochemical reaction.

For Storaro, the natural roots of light in physics dictate technological solutions, so that it is an awareness of transient things such as love, power, and desire that imbues his films with emotion rather than just big budgets or cutting-edge equipment. The cinematographer’s awareness that film’s fundamental topic is change within life, as such, emerges from one incisive statement:

To me making a film is like resolving a conflict between light and dark, cold and warmth, blue and orange or other contrasting colours. There should be a sense of energy, or change of movement. A sense that time is going on – light becomes night, which reverts to morning. Life becomes death. Making a film is like ‘documenting’ a journey and using light in the style that best suits that particular picture . . . the concept behind it. (10)

By invoking a conceptual dimension that speaks to a way of existing in time through light, Storaro suggests that movement on screen is about space, since it bridges the gap between the two tenses of photography – here and now; there and then – while it also connects the empty figures on the screen and the full bodies in the audience. Yet movement is another way of saying rhythm. Thus, it is not surprising if a musical analogy informs Storaro’s cinematography. Well aware of coming from the country of opera, Storaro envisions cinematography as a sort of music in reverse, in the sense that he uses changes in light as an abstract force to develop an invisible, emotional infrastructure for the images. In ways comparable to music, which is a nonrepresentational medium, images with Storaro sustain a residue of affect among characters, while they compel spectators towards unexplored psychic regions.

If the topic of light occupies the first volume of Writing with Light, colour is the protagonist of the second. The Parisian sequences of The Conformist, Storaro explains, were all bathed in a fragile and cold blue light, whereas orange dominated the shooting of another famous Bertolucci film, Last Tango in Paris (1972). Finally, one may wonder why the inventor of the Univisium system even bothers to discuss the importance of natural elements such as water, fire, air, and earth in his third volume. It is as if an animistic orientation or perhaps a cosmological one, had all of a sudden taken over the whole project. The answer to this question can be found in Michael Wood’s commentary on Pasquale De Santis, another talented Italian cinematographer. By dealing with the closing sequence of Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971), and by relying on Roland Barthes’ famous distinction between “studium” and “punctum” in photography, Michael Wood explains why language falls short of the power of light, especially during its most unplanned manifestations:

The boy walks slowly into the water, his back to us, a hand on his hip. He is scarcely more than a silhouette. There is nothing else in the frame except the calm sea, faintly lapping towards us; . . . There is plenty to think about here, . . . . The studium may be broad and rich, but it deals with . . . “informational” and “symbolic” levels of meaning . . . . But Barthes’ real interest goes to a “third meaning,” which he calls “obtuse” because it seems to exist beyond his thought, “in excess;” . . . a meaning apparent and evasive. . . .

As we watch the boy walking into the [sea], . . . The water glints bright blue for a second then reverts to its muted tone. Then the next wave folds, and the water glints again. And again: fourteen times in all. The meaning here is obtuse because it has nothing to do with the drama of the boy and the dying man, and because it is too casual and incidental to be symbolic. . . . The glint of the wave is the most exciting event on the screen, a flash of light like a glittering insurrection. . . . the obtuse meaning allows us to see a person who is normally invisible: the cinema, the man who shot the glints of light, . . . The glints are the signature of the man who allowed the lapping of the sea to say a little more than was needed. . . . (11)

By aligning light with Barthes’ “punctum” or “obtuse meaning,” Wood discovers the unique bond between the cinematographer and the world of nature, namely the real presence of objects and bodies in front of the camera. Of course technology is involved, but Storaro’s sensitivity to what is in front of him prevails over special effects and the graphic design used in digital imaging. As a result of this emphasis on the physicality of the pro-filmic event, one would have to conclude with André Bazin that, in the aftermath of the invention of photography, nature becomes the artist. (12) This statement by Bazin has traditionally been controversial, because it appears to advocate the repetitive cycles of nature over the complex structures of culture. Bazin’s statement has also accrued a negative reputation because it suggests no consideration for the ways in which all sorts of dominant ideologies encode the multiple levels of daily life and make them look like a “natural” state of affairs, instead of an arbitrary solution to social injustices and tensions.

On the other hand, Bazin’s transfer of creativity from the human hand to the realm of natural phenomena may be re-evaluated in the context of our digital culture. It is well-known that the digital is different from the analog because the first is based on man-made pixels or numerical configurations, whereas the second has to do with the tracing power of non-human light on objects in photography. In addition, by relying on the computer and on interactivity, the digital is much closer to painting than to photography, in the sense that it points back to the human hand.

As a result of this profound difference between digital and analog, one can begin to see that Bazin’s project is not about nature as a static state of affairs, but nature as the material conditions of a nonhuman kind of image development. Put differently, light is the force which energises the film at its most basic level. It is time here to remind the reader of the difference between two terms such as “visible” and “visual,” for the first refers to geographically and historically eye-opening experiences that go beyond science and technology, whereas the second is about man-made images in the history of art. And, for Storaro, the impact of the visuals of art history is as important as the visible tracing of the subliminal relations among people and things during the making of a film.

By contrasting the invention of photography with the “original sin” of Renaissance perspective – a space-charting system based on a rigid mathematical grid with no flexibility for temporal or spatial changes – Bazin makes two important points. (13) He means that, when natural light is involved, the visible world of the studio or of the outdoors has priority over the visuals of the history of art used as sources within the process of filmmaking. Second, by associating Renaissance perspective with an original sin, Bazin implies that the centered and arrogant subject of humanist individualism has been challenged by a nonhuman kind of living creativity. As humble as this artist may be, light, after all, is energy. In contrast to Storaro’s eroticising of the human form, Bazin’s project is anti-anthropocentric or aimed at celebrating the displacement of Leonardo’s ideal Vitruvius man, thanks to the impact of editing and camera movement in the process of image-making.

ConformistBy raising nature to the role of artist, Bazin downplays the artist’s eye which, before the invention of cinema, was stable and self-confident in line of sight with the vanishing point of Renaissance perspective. For Bazin and Storaro, the excitement of filmmaking does not derive from constructing anew an alternative world that did not exist earlier on, but from changing our outlook about a spatial universe that is already there but which we cannot really see without cinema’s hermeneutic intervention. In Bertolucci’s The Conformist, for example, cinema becomes the searchlight of a human being’s most ambivalent and non-visible regions of the unconscious. The topic of the film is not simply the repression of homosexual desire, but the problem of evil in man. In a word, Bertolucci is weaving a psychoanalytic question with an ethical and an existential one that goes beyond the historical specificity of Fascism. This is why the film remains fresh and captivating forever. With Bertolucci, cinema hints at the mystery of being human and conflicted, within a larger universe we can never fully understand. Once again we encounter the Socratic position that to know is to know we do not know.

For Bazin, who gave legitimacy to Italian neorealism, and Storaro, who was educated in the school of neorealism with nonprofessional actors and shooting on location, the magic is neither montage nor optical trickery. Rather, the transformative power of filmmaking lies in the fact that the camera can engage in a sort of geological survey from the bottom up. This revealing geology of what is already there, but overlooked, is possible because the insensitive lens of the camera intercepts people and things in a mechanical fashion, that is, in an anti-anthropocentric way, with an equalising sense of indifference and, by doing so, it lays bare a new world within an old one. This leveling eye reduces everything, live or dead, real or fake, to mere object-hood. Thus, by displacing the anthropocentric eye of Renaissance perspective, the camera’s nonhuman eye sets in motion layers of fresh energy or waves of revitalising light, underneath the heaviest clichés.

By destabilising the vanishing point of Renaissance perspective, Bazin demonstrates that camera movement and editing can make us see how the human element is neither in total control, nor at the centre of reality. But for Bertloucci and Storaro, of course, it is the male body of Renaissance perspective and, more specifically, the intertwining of the male body erotic with the male body politic that are most problematic and charged with a regressive ideology. Thus Bertolucci and Storaro describe its mobilization from the statues of fascism into the dancers of the antifascist movement. This is why in The Spider’s Stratagem, the allegedly antifascist Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) dances to antagonise a fascist audience by wearing a red scarf around his neck. This is also why in The Conformist, Marcello Clerici ( Jean-Louis Trintignant) nearly abandons his murderous mission after he meets the antifascist Anna Quadri ( Dominique Sanda) who is a teacher of dance. Light and body mean space and shadows which move over time and, therefore, change. It is this spacing of temporal stages in daily life that Storaro’s cinematography explores in Caravaggio, which, in turn, functions as a sort of conceptual paradigm for his inspiration as a cinematographer.

Whereas Bazin never mentions Caravaggio in his essay on “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1945), the French critic refers to the baroque style as a proto-cinematic and pictorial term of reference: “The film delivers baroque art from its convulsive catalepsy.” (14)

Although the development and the use of chiaroscuro lighting does not belong exclusively to Caravaggio, it is a fact that sensitivity to the movement of light in space visualises the un-fathomable dimension of time. In fact, Longoni’s film dwells on the painter’s fascination with the transition between life and death. (15) It also makes a point of showing us the painter attending the gruesome executions of Beatrice Cenci and Giordano Bruno, as if he wanted to witness the moment of death to better understand the mysteries of physical behavior. A swordsman famous for his duels and for one murder, Caravaggio was the painter of blood and light, two key elements of our way of understanding the beginning and the end of human life. For Caravaggio, painting was not about mythological or allegorical figures, but rather it thrived on the blood pulsing in his models’ veins for the sake of an unprecedented realism in touch with a Northern European attention to descriptive detail.

For Storaro, Caravaggio and Bazin alike, chiaroscuro and the cinema, are about the body’s plastic realism, light as an externalisation of time, and motion as an exploration of space. In Longoni’s film, Caravaggio states that painting is superior to sculpture because the former can capture the poignancy of the human face in ways sculpture cannot. Whether or not this remark is historically accurate, the film suggests that, despite his admiration for the Northern tradition, and despite his quasi-scientific precision in depicting fruits and plants, Caravaggio remains tied to Leonardo’s anthropocentric legacy. In this respect, the painter’s views ring against my anti-Vitruvian reading of Bazin’s film theory. However, Caravaggio’s anthropocentricism or his way of modelling the human figure through light is more based on colour than drawing, and on direct observation rather than on the visual models used before him. In fact, in the film, Caravaggio specifies that he prefers Leonardo to Michelangelo and Raphael. Thus, he indicates that he does not align himself with the former’s mythological, statuesque bodies, or with the latter’s idealised garland of flowers. For Caravaggio, bodies and flowers are always temporary phenomena; hence he transforms them into images about the passing of time, or into phenomena of light and blood.

Whereas Caravaggio believes painting is superior to all the other arts, Bazin feels that the canvas is about vanity in the sense of manual dexterity, and prefers the theater because, in this medium, bodies and objects exist in real time and real space. Besides differing on painting, Storaro and Bazin disagree on their respective definitions of the cinema. For the cinematographer, Caravaggio is like a filmmaker; but for Bazin the cinema, although in dialogue with the other arts, can never be a simple extension of painting. Storaro remarks:

Caravaggio was . . . a great filmmaker, he conceptualised the subject and the composition, chose the figures, did the costumes, designed the sets, and illuminated them like a cinematographer. As in the great revolutions in cinema, Caravaggio moved from natural to artificial light. From Judith Beheading Holofernes on, the subjects of his paintings were almost always illuminated by a lantern. (16)

Furthermore, Storaro transforms Caravaggio into a cinematographer:

He went directly to the canvas and began to paint. He would put his models near the window so, in the beginning, they were lit by soft natural light coming from the side. But Caravaggio never looked at the model directly while he was painting. He looked at the model in a mirror, a good-sized mirror . . . But I asked myself, “Why was he looking in a mirror?” And I realized he was searching for a composition, exactly the way we do when we look through a [view] finder or a monitor or viewing the subject on a screen. The “frame” is what sets off the subject from the surrounding reality. The composition is what creates visual art. (17)

With Storaro, painting joins theater, while, in turn, this combination becomes architecture, since Caravaggio’s vertical or horizontal compositional solutions were determined by the location – a palace or a church, for example – planned for a specific canvas. Well aware of this convergence of media which was typical of the baroque period, during a lecture on October 9, 2007, at UCLA, Storaro declared:

Cinema is the “Tenth Muse” for a specific reason. It is motion itself for the other arts. Cinema is made by literature, by architecture, by painting, by music, even by philosophy, and so on. (18)

Despite the richness of Storaro’s definition, it is disappointing that cinema is just an extended piling up of media plus the injection of movement. Furthermore, for Storaro, all these media cooperate peacefully by leading straight into the cinema, so that Gotthold Lessing’s expression “medium specificity” from his Laocoon (1766), does not even seem to apply. How is it possible that the mechanical reproduction of movement did not discombobulate the baroque unison among the arts? It is telling that Bazin did not use either one of these models, namely the continuity thesis invoked by Storaro or the medium-specificity-approach which, with Lessing, associates painting with space and exteriority, and literature with time and interiority. Why, then, is the word “ontology” appropriate next to photography for the French film theorist of What is Cinema? Of course, he was deeply aware of the difference that this erudite philosophical term made next to such a humble medium producing traces of light out of objects.

ConformistThe answer to this question can be gleaned from reading a little-known film theory book by Jean Leirens, Le Cinéma et le Temps (1954). There, Leirens juxtaposes Claude Mauriac’s equally obscure L’Amour du Cinéma (1954) with an emphasis on medium specificity to the philosopher Gabriel Marcel’s notion of “ontological exigency.” (19) Involved in debates with Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel argued that the nature of being as such was and would continue to be a mystery, precisely because the human experience was part of a larger cosmological realm mankind would never be able to master to the fullest, no matter its technological ingenuity or scientific advances. It is this margin of unknown called by modernism “randomness” or “contingency,” or possibly associated with the cosmic energy regulating life on the earth, which movement in film illuminates with unprecedented force.

Thus, Bazin is defining the cinema through something much deeper than medium specificity, since this phrase is stained with a certain kind of functionalism to advocate control of the artist or of the human hand in image-making. In the footsteps of existentialist phenomenology, Bazin is proposing that film is the only medium capable of addressing the mystery of being as such. Unlike other manually or bodily produced media, including dance and music, the camera lens reduces a human being to an object or an Other on screen, and it is this sense of Otherness or mystery about who we really are, within a much larger and uncontrollable scheme of things ranging from galaxies to constellations, but also in history and in daily life, that we can glimpse only through filmmaking. And what would Storaro think of this cosmological dimension I am ascribing to Bazin’s film theory? Perhaps he would eventually agree, and such an answer is in a statement I found in an interview with Ric Gentry. In response to the latter’s observation: “You once mentioned that light has a mystical quality,” Storaro answers:

Light is energy, and I not only think that we derive from this energy, but we originate from this energy. It is also our reality. Energy is everything. I mean, the essence of light has this spiritual quality whether we know it or not. Even if we don’t understand, even if we don’t believe, even if we refuse, even if we don’t know, it has to be. (20)


  1. On Storaro and his career, see: Dennis Schaefer, Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1984) 219-232; Ric Gentry, “Writing with Light: An Interview with Vittorio Storaro,” Film Quarterly 48:2 (December 1994): 2-9; Ric Gentry, “A Journey into Light,” in John Boorman and Walter Donohue, Eds., Projections 6: Film-Makers on Film-Making (London: Faber & Faber, 1996) 255-280; Carol Rutter, “Colourific,” Film Comment 25 (September/October 1989): 46-48. On Storaro, Bertolucci, and The Conformist, see: Angela Dalle Vacche, “Fascism after May 68,” in The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992) 57-92. On Caravaggio, see; Pietro Koch, The Painter of Blood and Courage (Rome: Gunther Editions, 2004); Helen Langdon, Caravaggio: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999); Catherine Puglisi, Caravaggio (London: Phaidon, 1998); Michael Kitson, Caravaggio (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1986).
  2. Vittorio Storaro, Scrivere con la luce (Writing with Light), 3 vols. (Milan: Electa; Aquila; Accademia dell’Immagine, 2001-03).
  3. American Film Institute, Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, DVD, 1992. On Greg Toland, see: “Realism for Citizen Kane,” American Cinematographer 72 (August 1991): 37-42; Robert L. Carringer, “Orson Welles and Greg Toland: Their Collaboration on Citizen Kane,” Critical Inquiry 8:4 (1982): 651-674.
  4. Benjamin Bergery, “Raoul Coutard: Revolutionary of the Nouvelle Vague,” American Cinematographer 78 (March 1997): 28-32.
  5. Ray Grenald, “Francesca Storaro,” Mondo Arc 46 (December/January 2008/2009): http://www.mondoarc.com/interview192634/Francesca_Storaro.
  6. On the Univisium system, see: Vittorio Storaro, “The Shadow and Light of Caravaggio,” Focus on Film (30 May 2007): http://motion.kodak.com/motion/uploadedFiles/caravaggio.pdf. (Capitalization is in the original text.)
  7. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What is Cinema? vol.1, trans. Hugh Gray (1958; Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2004) 13.
  8. On Caravaggio and colour, see: Storaro, “The Shadow and Light of Caravaggio.”
  9. Ric Gentry, “Vittorio Storaro: An Interview, Part II,” Post-Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 4:2 (Winter 1985): 12. Also on Storaro’s sense of professional identity, see: Vittorio Storaro, “The Right to Sign Ourselves as ‘Authors of Cinematography’,” American Cinematographer (February 1995): 96; Olivier Assayas, “Vittorio Storaro a-t-il le droit de signer ses films?” Cahiers du Cinéma 327 (September 1981): 50.
  10. Ric Gentry, “Vittorio Storaro: An Interview, Part II,” Post-Script: 85. (Emphasis is mine)
  11. Michael Wood, “Beyond The Study of Light,” in Antonio Monda and Maria-Christina Villaseñor, Eds., Conversations between Shadows and Light: Italian Cinematography (Milan: Edizioni Olivares, 2001), 37. Also on the third meaning, see: Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York, Hill and Wang, 1981).
  12. Bazin 13. “Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.”
  13. Bazin, “Ontology” 12.
  14. Bazin, “Ontology” 15.
  15. Storaro, “The Shadow and Light of Caravaggio,” Focus on Film 3.
  16. Storaro, “Transcript of Lecture,” UCLA (9 October 2007): 6-7.
  17. Storaro, “Transcript of Lecture,” UCLA (9 October 2007): 3.
  18. Storaro, “The Shadow and Light of Caravaggio,” Focus on Film 3.
  19. Jean Leirens, Le Cinéma et le Temps (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1954); Claude Mauriac, L’Amour du Cinéma (Paris: Albin Michel, 1954); Claude Mauriac, Petite Littérature du Cinéma (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1957); Gabriel Marcel, Position et Approaches concretes du Mystere Ontologique (Paris et Nauwelaertes, Louvain: Editions Vrin, 1951).
  20. Gentry, “Vittorio Storaro: An Interview, Part 2”, 279

About The Author

Angela Dalle Vacche is Professor of Film Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and the author of several books, the most recent being Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema (University of Texas Press, 2008).

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