Film Review: Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, The Colors of Life

Carlo Di Palma, one of cinema's crucial cinematographers, is covered in a warm if rambling documentary.
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Few artists have done so much to define Italian cinema as Carlo Di Palma, the subject of Water and Sugar. Produced by his widow Adriana Chiesa Di Palma and directed by Fariborz Kamkari, this documentary is filled with memories and reminiscences of the cinematographer, along with generous clips from some three-dozen of his features.

Born in 1925, Di Palma entered the movie industry when he was fifteen, working uncredited on Visconti's Ossessione. Trained by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, Di Palma worked on Neorealist classics like Rossellini's Rome: Open City and De Sica's The Bicycle Thief.

Di Palma was the cinematographer on Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian Style, an Oscar-winning comedy. While he established a distinctive style in black-and-white, it was his color work in films like Antonioni's Red Desert that drew worldwide attention. Di Palma and Antonioni weren't afraid to manipulate reality, adding or eliminating colors to explain their characters' psychology, and famously painting a field green daily while shooting a scene for Blow-Up.

Di Palma formed a relationship with Monica Vitti, starring her in three features he directed in the mid-1970s. He worked with directors as varied as Ettore Scola (Jealousy, Italian Style) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man). He moved to New York City for 17 years, where he shot a dozen features directed by Woody Allen.

Along with clips from Di Palma's features, Water and Sugar includes home movies, newsreels and interviews with Di Palma, his relatives, associates and a who's-who of filmmakers from the second half of the 20th century: Woody Allen, Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, Bertolucci, Antonioni, Scola, Lina Wertmüller, Paolo Taviani, Giancarlo Giannini, Michael Ballhaus, Volker Schlöndorff, Mira Nair.

Antonioni (seen in contemporary interviews) and Bertolucci offer real insights into what made Di Palma special, but many of the comments feel superficially congratulatory. Structurally Water and Sugar is a shambles, following a roughly chronological timeline but stopping frequently for gossip and anecdotes. Some of the stories, notably one involving Ingmar Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, are priceless; others are less rewarding.

Much of Di Palma's work is intimate without being showy, relevant to the material, supportive of the directors' goals. His moves the camera with a purpose, not to fashion pretty pictures, and his best shots have uncanny psychological depth. Despite its shortcomings, Water and Sugar is an affectionate and worthwhile introduction to his life and work.

Water and Sugar is being screened at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City as a companion piece to a retrospective of films photographed by Carlo Di Palma, running July 28 through August 3.

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