Giuseppe Rotunno (born March 19, 1923) passed away at the age of 97 on February 7, 2021. Rotunno was a cinematographer whose eye for the frame was especially attuned to colour, composition, and perspective. He worked with two of the most prominent Italian directors: Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini. Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) and Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) are set during two of the most pivotal periods in Italy’s past: Benito Mussolini’s fascism of the 1930s and the Risorgimento of the 1860s. Rotunno’s cinematography in Amarcord is nostalgic as it presents the carnivalesque citizens and their daily lives during the four seasons in Fellini’s reimagined seaside village of Rimini. His cinematography in The Leopard is elegant and panoramic as it surveys the rituals of the Sicilian nobility, centred upon Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina. In both films, Rotunno’s cinematography crystallises a dreamlike vision of Italian history: comical and fantastic in Amarcord and baroque and elegiac in The Leopard.
Rotunno contrasts background and foreground in two scenes in Amarcord to emphasise Fellini’s satire of Christianity and Italian fascism. In the schoolroom scene, he contrasts background and foreground to emphasise the mischief of the students escaping a dogmatic lecture about Christianity. It is a static shot. In the foreground, the bored, obedient students continue to listen to the theologian drone on, while in the background the boys sneak out of the classroom. He employs a similar contrasting of background and foreground in another scene to emphasise how the lawyer’s lesson and narration about ancient Rome disappears amidst the frenzy of an Italian fascist parade. It is a tracking shot. In the foreground, white shirted youths salute their black shirted fascist leaders, while in the background the lawyer struggles to be seen and heard as the camera rushes by in a blur.
Although there are close-ups of bawdy, buffoonish characters throughout Amarcord (the absurd antics of the adolescent boys, the angry construction worker father Aurelio’s bulging eyes and the mother Miranda’s exasperated eyes, the silly and stern visages of schoolteachers), Rotunno tends to favour long shots juxtaposing individual characters with their environments.
His long shots within Amarcord convey images of illusion, mystery, and community. The illusion Fellini frequently satirises throughout the film is Italian fascism. He uses long shots in two scenes to emphasise Fellini’s lampooning of Italian fascism as illusory. In one shot, the arrival and announcements of the black clad fascist leaders is mockingly obscured by automobile smoke. In another shot, a caricatured, cartoonish head of Benito Mussolini presides over a wedding daydreamed by the student Ciccio about Aldina. Mussolini’s ridiculous bald head dominates the groom and bride with white shirted youths raising rifles and hoops on either side.
Along with Italian fascism’s illusions, Rotunno also explores mysteries – the mystery of Uncle Teo’s insanity and the mysteries of the animal kingdom. Uncle Teo climbs a tree and refuses to descend, constantly crying out that he wants a woman. There are two static shots that he constructs to convey mystery.
In the first shot, in the foreground, to the right there is a wagon wheel and to the left two children. In the background, there is a pig and a mother holding her child while making the sign of the cross and gazing up at a mural of Mary painted on the farm wall. He lights this shot so that the glow illuminates the woman in a saintly halo. This pyramidal perspective is related to the Italian Renaissance triangle. This rural village woman, whom the viewer will never see again, is reciting a prayer for Uncle Teo. In the other static shot, another of his preferred long shots, he also utilises lighting to evoke mystery. The shot is set up as dusk fades away on the horizon during the magic hour, the soft colours slowly ebbing into a summer twilight. In the distance, the tree that Uncle Teo climbed dominates the frame and is made more mysterious by the evening glow.
Two of the most magical, memorable scenes in Amarcord are poetic perspectives where Rotunno conjures the mysteries of the animal kingdom. In both long shots, the creature’s distance from the camera and the creature’s envelopment by the elements expresses mystery. In the former shot, the autumn fog shrouds the cloaked boy and the grey mist masks the white bull that stops in the muddy puddle before vanishing. In the latter shot, the winter snow veils the blue-green peacock perched atop the frozen fountain.
Rotunno captures the community of Fellini’s reimagined Rimini in another shot that contrasts background and foreground and a series of four shots that mirror each other. During the raucous and rowdy burning of the winter witch, he shows the shadows of the celebrants in the foreground with the blazing conflagration in the background. The community he displays here is primeval, primitive, primordial.
In two similar shots, the audience is aware of a bigger community on the other side of the family’s front yard. In the former, the puffballs of spring fly in the air, as they will over the entirety of Rimini. In the latter, Aurelio chases his son out of the house while his wife Miranda worries about the neighbours hearing their conflict and drama.
Rotunno additionally composes similar shots at the beginning and end of the film that have a hazy atmosphere – another central core of the community, the cemetery. The cemetery is located on the other side of the railroad tracks and is ensconced within a grove of cypress trees. These shots connect the film’s four seasons structure, from the puffballs drifting and floating over the cemetery during the opening spring to the ending funeral of Miranda, the procession slowly winding towards the cemetery.
Rotunno’s two most startling shots in Amarcord are surprising because, unlike many of the exterior long shots in the film, these two shots are interior and are medium shots emphasising mortality. After the death of Miranda, his camera focuses upon a doll poised upon the mother’s bed. After the funeral of Miranda, his camera focuses upon Aurelio in an empty kitchen sweeping crumbs on the tablecloth with his hand. The absence of the son’s mother and the husband’s wife is even more poignant because of these stark shots.
Rotunno’s cinematography contains more classical compositions in Visconti’s The Leopard and utilises anamorphic Technirama widescreen to include even more details and space in the frames. There are both contrasts and similarities in his style in The Leopard compared to Amarcord. In both films, he tends to favour long shots and saturated colours. In both films, he creates distances between characters and their settings. One of the key differences between these two films is lighting. Amarcord was mainly filmed on a Cinecittà set where artificial lights could be employed expressionistically, while The Leopard was filmed on location in Palermo, Sicily and relied more on light from natural sources. Another difference is a more muted and restrained sense of colour and composition in The Leopard.
Rotunno juxtaposes characters with paintings throughout The Leopard to emphasise Visconti’s symbolic themes about the reunification of Italy and the obsolescence of Don Fabrizio Corbera’s nobility. In the scene where Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) and his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) have a conversation discussing Garibaldi’s revolution, Rotunno, in a medium shot, places the camera in the centre between the two men with a family tree separating them as Don Fabrizio remarks upon the cultural/geographic north and south of Italy, “You trade the dialect of Turin for that of Naples – that’s all.”
Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) is not a member of the nobility, however, following her father Don Calogero Sedara’s success with encouraging Sicilian citizens to vote for the new Italy and her marriage proposal from Tancredi (both events engineered by Don Fabrizio), she now enters the palatial realm. During a sequence of scenes where Angelica and Tancredi act like children as they chase each other through the rooms of the villa, Tancredi hides and Angelica stops alone in front of a painting. Rotunno’s long shot is from a corner of the room so that the emptiness of the room is apparent. He also places the camera in this position to show the smallness of Angelica as the painting towers over her. The painting shows war. Angelica is in this room as a result of the Risorgimento war.
A painting towers behind another character, this time Don Fabrizio, in a shot surrounded by candles. Don Fabrizio is at the grand ball, however, he is melancholy and tired as he withdraws into a study. A bleak death scene is portrayed in a painting on the wall. When the young couple enter the room, Tancredi jokingly asks his uncle if he is obsessed with death. Don Fabrizio turns to him and replies, “We must make some repairs to the family tomb.” Rotunno’s placement of the camera in this shot, as in the previous shot with Angelica, makes the painting tower over Don Fabrizio and emphasises his age and decay.
Rotunno’s long and medium shots within The Leopard convey images of ceremony, class division, and death. The ceremonies director Visconti displays are aristocratic, pastoral, and sacred. Angelica’s aristocratic debut with her father Don Calogero Sedara is framed by Rotunno in a long shot that shows the opulence and sumptuousness of the dining room table and its artwork adorned walls.
Don Fabrizio’s family picnic at Donnafugata is also framed by Rotunno in a long shot. This particular shot contains a pastoral painterly perspective. The white picnic cloth is in the foreground on the grass to the right, the trees are in the background, and the family is spread evenly throughout this image. In the left of the frame, Don Fabrizio’s glass of wine is filled as he sits between two trees.
There are two long shots, one at the beginning and the other at the end of the film, where the ceremony of prayer contains a distance between the nobility and the outside world. In the long shot at the beginning of the film, the family recites the rosary as gunfire sounds can be heard offscreen and a soldier’s corpse is found in the garden. Rotunno’s static long shot of the family kneeling by the altar beside the open window emphasises this distance between the nobility and the outside world. In a similar yet different shot at the end of the film, Don Fabrizio kneels in the foreground while in the background a priest enters a poor Italian home to administer the last rites to a dying person offscreen. Despite Don Fabrizio kneeling nearby, Rotunno’s long shot makes the prince appear to be far away from this poor Italian home.
These shots showing the distance of the nobility’s prayers from the outside world are somewhat similar to other shots that emphasise the class divisions in Visconti’s adaptation of Lampedusa’s novel. Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio climb up into the hills above the village to go rabbit hunting and to talk about Angelica and her father Don Calogero Sedara. Don Ciccio gossips about both the beauty and what he sees as the beastliness of Angelica’s mother due to her low ancestry and lack of nobility. Rotunno fills the frame with the village far below lost in the vastness of the hills to emphasise how Don Ciccio sees the peasants as completely insignificant people. Don Ciccio points and deridingly mocks, “She’s the daughter of one of your peasants from Runci.”
In another shot, this time a medium shot contrasting background and foreground rather than a long shot emphasising distance, Don Fabrizio and the political Chevalley (who idealistically thinks the new Italy can solve its social problems) walk past the slums where poor mothers hold their crying, hungry children. Rotunno places his camera in a position where the yellow poster proclaiming the democratic vote is located in the centre of the frame. This shot, more than any other in the film, shows the cruel class divisions in 1860s Italian society.
Despite the close-ups of the faces of Angelica (sensual and smiling), Concetta (envious and exasperated), Don Calogero (enthusiastic and embarrassed), the priest Pirrone (perspiring and pontificating), Tancredi (sensual and swaggering), and Don Fabrizio (still and stoic so, as a result, the most memorable is when he stares into a mirror and tears silently stream down near the end of the film), Rotunno’s most distinctive, unique aspect of his cinematographic style is his preference for the long shot, where a character is distanced and dwarfed by their environment.
The two starkest and most stunning shots in The Leopard occur in connection with the Risorgimento war and the death of Don Fabrizio Corbera – the former is shown on screen with all its sound and fury while the latter does not occur on screen, yet is foreshadowed. During a sequence of scenes (the only sequence of battle in the film), the Garibaldi red shirts fight against the troops who shoot them and massacre civilians. The sequence is shot at wide angles so the audience views the masses of rebels and soldiers swarming across various sections of the screen.
There is a moment of stillness where Rotunno’s camera, in a long shot, is placed at the entrance of a narrow alleyway filled with dust from the streets, fire from a burning building in the right of the frame, and smoke at the far end of the alleyway in the background. In the foreground, near the centre of the frame, a young girl looks down at a dead body, perhaps the body of her mother. In this one shot, Rotunno is able to express a moment of emotion and empathy, instead of the glamor and grandeur, in war.
The final shot of the film is quite similar to this previous shot. Rotunno’s camera is once again, in long shot, placed at the entrance of a narrow alleyway. The prince of Salina slowly steps down the alleyway into the darkest hour before dawn shadows. Because Rotunno’s camera is positioned at such a distance from Don Fabrizio Corbera, his disappearance from the frame is even more profound.
In Fellini’s Amarcord and Visconti’s The Leopard, Rotunno creates dreams of Italy’s past in his ground-breaking and reflective cinematography.