Luciano Tovoli’s reputation as one of the great Italian cinematographers is commonly framed in reference to his work on Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger. But although very different movies, it was his creative collaboration on Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977 that most visibly reveals his driving passion for experimentation. Tovoli’s work has spanned decades, nations, and genres, and today he is closely linked to Barbet Schroeder, a director with whom he has a lengthy collaborative relationship. Having shot the bulk of Schroeder’s most successful mainstream films (including Kiss of Death, Single White Female, and Reversal of Fortune), Tovoli’s other collaborators are equally impressive: Julie Taymore, Francis Verber, Liliana Cavani, and Walerian Borowczyk, amongst others. Made on the back of the phenomenal success of Argento’s 1975 giallo Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), Suspiria – the tale of a young American ballet student who battles a witches coven in Germany – is one of the most famous and beloved European horror films ever made, and frequently appears on genre “best of” lists. Recent rumours of a Tilda Swinton-fronted remake have set the Internet alight, and Suspiria’s influence manifests in texts as diverse as Darren Aronfsky’s Black Swan (2010) and the recent Japanese anime television series, Yuri Kuma Arashi. As encapsulated perfectly by film theorist and academic Patricia MacCormack on the 2010 DVD release of the film, Suspiria’s challenges and delights are one and the same:
Suspiria is one of the most radical horror films that has ever been made, and the precise reason for this is that it is unapologetic in the way it expresses horror and the way it demands the opening up of the viewer to take pleasure in things that they cannot describe.
In practical terms, this hinges on the film’s oft-cited sensory assault, spawned from the one-two punch of sound and vision. In particular, the combination of prog-rock band Goblin’s iconic score with Tovoli’s hyperactive, saturated cinematography take centre stage in Argento’s most famous and celebrated movie.
Tovoli’s early career did not immediately suggest an artist destined for this legacy. He attained a diploma in cinematography at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in his early twenties, which led to an assistant’s job on Vittorio De Seta’s debut feature, Banditi ad Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo, 1960). But Tovoli had been fascinated with the artistic potential of photography from a young age, and as a teenager was struck by the work of seminal French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and the work of American modernist Paul Strand. He was also impressed by G.R. Aldo’s work behind the camera on Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948), and Aldo would become a key influence on Tovoli’s later work. Admiring “his classic and almost baroque sense of colour in lighting”, 1 Aldo’s cinematography on Visconti’s Senso (1954) would demonstrate an ability to capture the lushness of Technicolor that would mark Tovoli’s work on Suspiria in particular.
Aldo would stand amongst Tovoli’s most admired peers in his chosen craft, alongside a range of other Italian cinematographers, who between them had worked with the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, de Sica, and Robert Altman. These included Gianni Di Venanzo, and Giuseppe Rotunno, the latter of whom – like Tovoli – would also work with Dario Argento (in his case, on 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome). Another influential professional relationship was with Tovoli’s friend and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who himself shot Argento’s debut film The Bird With Crystal Plumage (1970), before going on to a series of celebrated collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci.
Tovoli’s part in creating the vibrant hypertheatricality that marks Suspiria would no doubt have come as a surprise to his younger self. While studying at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, he recalls making a pact with a classmate friend, the celebrated Spanish cinematographer Nestor Alméndros: “We promised over two glasses of good Tuscan red wine to never abandon the marvellous religion of real light,” Tovoli laughed in an interview with American Cinematographer magazine. “I respected that oath for maybe a decade, but then I started to be quite bored.” 2
Considering this preliminary dedication to realist aesthetics, Argento may have initially seemed like a peculiar bedfellow. At the point that he met Argento, Tovoli’s reputation hinged primarily on his work with Antonioni, both with The Passenger in particular, and the 1973 documentary Chung Kuo – Cina (they would later collaborate again in 1980 on Antonioni’s Il mistero di Oberwald). Tovoli still speaks of Antonioni as a key figure in his development as a creative practitioner: “For about twelve years I was at his side, and I received daily lessons from a master who never acted like a master,” he says. It was under Antonioni’s tutelage that Tovoli grasped one of the fundamental aspects of colour, noting it is a “structural, dramaturgic element, and not just…. (a) decorative appendix.” 3
This comes to the fore in Tovoli’s work on Suspiria. Considering the less fantastic nature of his work with Antonioni, Tovoli was initially surprised when contacted by Argento to work on this much-anticipated follow-up to the hugely successful Profondo Rosso. Tovoli was familiar with Argento’s name – few in the Italian film industry could have avoided it during this period – yet he has confessed little interest in the types of films upon which that director had built his already then impressive reputation. Recalling the release of Argento’s giallo Il gatto a nove code (Cat O’ Nine Tails) in 1971, Tovoli recalls living between two cinemas where audiences would excitedly leave one cinema playing Argento’s film and rush past his home to get to the second cinema in time for a repeat screening. Despite a lack of interest in horror at this point, Tovoli noted “a director who provokes such brisk movement in a crowd should be a very good one!”. 4
Disappointed at the lack of creative spark with Profondo Rosso cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller when he first suggested the Suspiria project, Tovoli has said that Argento approached him with nothing less than total faith in his ability to utilise the film as a kind of experimental playground. The initially hesitant Tovoli offered to undertake some technical tests to see if he could come up with the results Argento desired. When viewing these preliminary experiments, Tovoli has described Argento’s response as a purely physical one: as he said in an interview with Alan Jones, “Dario saw what I had done, went up and physically touched the screen.” 5 The sensual, sensory materiality of Suspiria therefore seems embedded in the project’s visual strategies before filming even began.
The spirit of collaboration and experimentation that would mark Tovoli and Argento’s work together on Suspiria manifests on screen in a visual cacophony, paralleled with exquisite intensity by Goblin’s famously aggressive score. “I was like a child playing with this gigantic toy, totally unaware of the consequences of my playfulness,” says Tovoli. While never underplaying Argento’s role as the central visionary of the project, Tovoli’s one point of inflexibility was his unwavering dedication to practical effects:
This was the precise request I’d made to Argento before we began shooting: every image has to be built entirely on stage, and not one single frame can go through a post-production process.
In concrete terms, these effects were executed in extraordinary ways, techniques Tovoli notes that from a contemporary, digital-intensive perspective would be considered “kind of naïve.” Most immediately fascinating of Tovoli’s aesthetic decisions was a refusal to use coloured gels, but rather to shine lights through screens he had assembled of coloured velvets and tissue paper. In large part, the profound haptic quality of Suspiria’s surfaces stem from this decision: Tovoli has often joked that if the cast look frightened at certain points, it may have simply been that they were worried the hot lights shining through delicate fabrics and papers were going to ignite.
Argento allowed Tovoli space to experiment in other ways throughout production. This is perhaps most memorable in the iconic opening sequence of Suspiria where Suzy arrives at the Munich airport and is introduced to the dark, psychedelic world of the film during a delirious, colour-saturated taxi ride to the Freiburg Tanzakademie, where the film’s events predominantly take place. As Suzy sits bewildered and disoriented inside the taxi, colours swirl around her in a kaleidoscopic fashion. Employing the concept of stained glass windows in motion, Tovoli says:
I asked my crew to build two wide cylinders around ten feet in diameter outside the car, with small openings covered by coloured gels and different grades of frost. By turning the cylinders in the opposite direction to each other with a single fixed Fresnel light inside of each of them, the magic was created.
With his work on Suspiria, Tovoli found himself liberated from the limitations of realism, restraints that he himself had once cherished in a way he has described as almost religious. “It was a much freer horizon, with more fresh air than just the straightforward reproduction of the real world allowed,” he says. “This was a world of creative freedom, finally unchained from the obsession with realism.” Aside from other notable distinctions for the film, Suspiria was one of the first Italian movies to use a Steadicam, but Tovoli embraced older technologies as much as he employed more contemporary ones. Using a similar technical process of imbibition to The Wizard of Oz, 6 Suspiria is famously one of the last films to be processed in Technicolor. Shot on what was even by this stage difficult to source Eastman 5254 colour negative stock and using an old three-strip Technicolor printer, Carolo Labella and his fellow Technicolor technicians in Rome would play a major part in what is the movie’s final look: without Technicolor and Kodak, notes Tovoli, “it would not have been possible to have had Suspiria.”
It is difficult to underplay the centrality of Luciano Tovoli’s involvement in the success of Suspiria, yet to his credit, the cinematographer ceaselessly clarifies that the film itself was very much Argento’s vision: if he had room to experiment in the manner that he was able to, it was as a direct result of Argento’s encouragement and faith in his craft. In terms of the lasting influence of the film, the supposed lowbrow status of horror more generally is precisely at the heart of what is at stake when a film pushes the boundaries of what is considered orthodox formal film logic. “The legacy of Suspiria is a kind of admonishment,” says Tovoli. “Without revolt and a sense of refusal, we cannot advance the evolution of film language and creativity in general.” He continues, “I like films that are surprising and provocative, that take risks with their visual solutions, and that might be judged as the fruit of ‘bad taste.’ I hate successful films that travel on an easy wave of ‘good taste’: for me, that is simply anti-culture.” As a key instance of the art horror category, Suspiria has played a crucial role in challenging high/lowbrow distinctions across the close to 40 years since its initial release, and today it remains as hypnotising as it is ultimately impenetrable.
- “ASC Close-Up – Brief Interviews with ASC Members: Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC”. American Cinematographer, December 2011 ↩
- Stanley Manders, “Terror in Technicolor,” American Cinematographer (February 2010), pp. 68–76 ↩
- Unless noted otherwise, all quotes with Luciano Tovoli are taken from email conversations between he and the author throughout 2014. The full transcript of this conversation appears as an appendix in: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Devil’s Advocates: Suspiria (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2015). The author wishes to extend continued thanks to Luciano for his kindness, openness, and generosity with his time. ↩
- Stanley Manders, p. 69 ↩
- Alan Jones, Profondo Rosso: The Man, the Myths and The Magic (Godalming: FAB Press, 2004), p. 94 ↩
- Adrian Horrocks has wisely considered The Wizard of Oz a broader influence on Suspiria, particularly in regards to its young female protagonists coming of age in a psychedelic, unfamiliar space marked by the presence of mythic beings. See: “Suspiria: Magic is Everywhere,” in Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema. Book Four, Andy Black ed. (Hereford: Noir Publishing, 2001), pp. 33–51 ↩