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The simplicity of feelings

Tonino Delli Colli and the history of Italian cinema

Published: 2 Mar 2022
A blanket of primulas. Sheep
against the light (go on, go on, Tonino,
use the fifty, don’t worry
about the light bursting through – we’re doing
this tracking shot against nature).

The Tonino of whom Pasolini speaks in these verses from Poesia in forma di rosa (Poetry in the shape of a rose) is Tonino Delli Colli, director of photography inextricably linked to PPP, from Accattone to Salò or the 120 days of Sodom, passing through Mamma Roma, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Hawks and the Sparrows, The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales.

His career begins in 1938: Delli Colli is sixteen years old, has just abandoned his studies and manages to find work in Cinecitta, founded a year earlier. When they ask him if he would prefer to work in sound or behind the camera, he chooses the latter. As he himself told in an interview for the American Cinematographer, his story in cinema started with that choice, almost randomly: “Life is always a matter of luck. At the time, I had no idea what being a cameraman meant, or that those few words would determine the course of my life. Sometimes just a word or two can change everything.”

Tonino Delli Colli has been through sixty years of the history of Italian cinema: from “white telephone” (a subgenre of comedy in vogue between the 1930s and 1940s) to Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni (1997). Between these two extremes, he works alongside authors such as Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Roman Polanski, Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Lina Wertmüller, Luis García Berlanga, Margarethe von Trotta, and Pier Paolo Pasolini as mentioned earlier.

Delli Colli is trained on the set, alongside Mario Albertelli: in the field he learns the technique and craft of the profession, in a sort of apprenticeship that recalls that of the Renaissance painters, who worked in workshops alongside the masters to learn the trade.

In the post-war period, he is at the centre of Neorealism: “We could use only the ambient light or the light that was coming through the windows, and that was the starting point for the photography. Even after the advent of colour, Delli Colli remains very attached to black and white, which is able to create "unique and unrepeatable atmospheres". In 1952 he finds himself working on the first Italian colour film, Toto in Colour by Steno: “No one else wanted to do it. [...] The only lights we had available were for shooting with black-and-white film; colour lamps didn’t exist yet. The lighting became extremely complicated. In short, what they wanted was an avalanche of light.”
A return to his beloved black and white comes with Pier Paolo Pasolini. This turning point in Delli Colli’s career happens almost randomly. While on the set of The Wonders of Aladin by Mario Bava, they talk to him about a new project by Pasolini and he offers himself as director of photography. The producer tells him that it is too expensive, “so I tell him to give me whatever he could”. The collaboration between Pasolini and Delli Colli lasts fifteen years: “Pasolini was something else. Our relations were perfect. He was an incredibly sweet and kind person, and he had respect for everyone on the set.” Delli Colli chooses to shoot Accattone with coarse-grain Ferrania films. He exploits their imperfections and strong contrasts, giving more drama to the close-ups and that expressive force typical of Pasolini's films.
The other important partnership in Delli Colli’s long career is with Sergio Leone. His expertise is fundamental in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Leone wants photography that shows the details of the close-ups while being effective in the long shots. Under the Spanish sun, Delli Colli waits patiently for the right light to make the duels and the looks in the eyes of Leone’s western unforgettable.

What made Tonino Delli Colli one of the best directors of photography in the history of cinema was his approach: “I’ve always tried to illuminate the stories being told using the simplicity of my feelings and the instinct that has guided me.” This led him away from settling on established formulas, and towards seeking the best solution for translating the stories and visions of the directors with whom he worked into images.