Introduction: Vittorio Storaro, Cinematographer as Painter with Light and Motion

By Gentry, Ric | Post Script, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Vittorio Storaro, Cinematographer as Painter with Light and Motion


Gentry, Ric, Post Script


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Long considered the world's greatest living cinematographer, and perhaps the greates in the history of motion pictures, Vittorio Storaro has been awarded Oscars for Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds, (1981), and The Last Emperor (1987) and nominated for Dick Tracy (1990). Storaro was also awarded an Emmy for Dune (2000), nominated for Peter the Great (1986), and received every other major award for cinematography in the world, some of them several times. "Not only is his work vastly superior," remarked writer-director Woody Allen of Storaro, "but he confers on the picture immediate prestige and importance." (1)

Born on June 24, 1940, Storaro was eighteen, two years younger than the nominally required age, when he was selected for enrollment at the highly exclusive national Italian film school, Centro Sperimentale di Fotografia. He became the youngest camera operator in the history of the Italian film industry three years later, and then at twenty-six the youngest accredited cinematographer. With his first film, Giovinezza, Giovinezza (1968), Storaro is usually attributed with making visual aesthetics the prerogative of the cinematographer rather than (but in close conference with) the director and has long advocated recognition of the cinematographer as "the author of his own work" or, put another way, the cinematographer as auteur.

It was with director Bernardo Bertolucci that Storaro became lionized internationally as a precocious young master. Their films together, "the bedrock of the art in its modern form," (2) as writer-director Abel Ferrara noted, are The Spider's Stratagem (1970), The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), 1900 (1976), La Luna (1979), The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990), and Little Buddha (1993).

Lush, lyric, exquisitely illumined, theme-driven and charged with ideas, Storaro's other films include Orlando Furioso (1975), Agatha (1979), One from the Heart (1982), Wagner (1983), Ladyhawke (1985), Tucker, the Man and his Dream (1988), Roma: Imago Urbis (1993), Flamenco (1995), Taxi (1996), Bulworth (1998), Tango (1998), Goya in Bordeaux (1999), Picking Up the Pieces (2000), La Traviata (2000), and Zapata (2004), Io, Don Giovanni (2009), L'imbroglio nel lenzuolo (2010), Rigoletto a Mantova (2010). Singuarlity, Kingdom Come, and Flamenco, Flamenco, are in production. "Storaro rarely shoots an image that isn't gorgeous," commented two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Richardson. "It's the way he sees and responds to the world." (3)

Despite his achievements, Storaro rigorously maintains that he has never ceased being a student or identifying with students. He continually visits film schools and universities throughout the world and devotes six weeks each year to a course in cinematography at the Accademia dell'Immagine de L'Aquila in Abruzzo, Italy. Storaro has also written a three-volume study of cinematography and his work called Writing with Light (Scrivere con La Luce).

In the transcription of talks that follow in this issue and elsewhere, Storaro acknowledges Caravaggio as a primary inspiration, it is no exaggeration to say that Storaro has equaled the achievement and influence of the turn of the 17th century painter. To Italian critic Pietro Salvatori, "Storaro's work can be placed side by side with the masters of painting." (4) At the same time, Storaro has done more to articulate the tenets and meaning of his work than any other in the art form. "Vittorio has raised the intellectual awareness of what cinematography is," (5) remarked veteran cinematographer Steven Poster.

As Storaro points out, the tempestuous, afflicted Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), who came to be known as "Caravaggio" for the northern Italian town in Lombardy where he lived as a youth, was a descendant of the humanist painting of the High Renaissance but through numerous innovations, partly influenced by his native region, introduced the Baroque (later associated with more elaborate expression) to Western art and is usually considered the originator of modern painting. …

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