Ennio Guarnieri, who has died aged 88, was a cinematographer who, over his fifty-year career, worked with such directors as Vittorio de Sica, Franco Zeffirelli and Federico Fellini, helping to craft many of the Italian cinema’s most seductive images as it reasserted itself internationally.
Unlike his contemporary Vittorio Storaro, whose work on such landmarks as The Conformist (1970) favoured starkly dramatic, high-contrast compositions, often plunging areas of the screen into darkness, the bearded, bespectacled Guarnieri’s work was typically suffused with a warm, golden, distinctly Mediterranean light.
His most celebrated work came on de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971), which earned a BAFTA nomination for its photography before winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Guarnieri’s sundappled images enabled this enduring adaptation of Giorgio Bassani’s novel to establish a dreamy, summery bubble around its central characters, a well-to-do Jewish family living a precarious high life in Thirties Italy.
Something of that head-in-the-clouds vision persisted into Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Franco Zeffirelli’s modish take on St. Francis of Assisi’s formative years. Lush Sicilian and Umbrian exteriors earned Guarnieri his first Silver Ribbon award (the Italian Oscar) for cinematography, despite critics railing against the project’s “tourist-brochure look”. His eye-catching work on sand and sea also contributed to the global success of Swept Away (1974), the spiky Lina Wertmüller fable later remade by Guy Ritchie with Madonna (and rather less Marxism).
His second Silver Ribbon prize followed for helping to open out Zeffirelli’s film of La Traviata (1982). By that point, Guarnieri had established himself as a go-to for name directors in search of toney imagery: he contributed to Fellini’s lavish folly Ginger and Fred (1986), reunited with Zeffirelli (and Placido Domingo) for Otello (1986), and tracked Mikhail Baryshnikov’s movements in Dancers (1987).
Perhaps inevitably, given his trademark sheen, he found easy and profitable employment in the advertising sector between projects, bringing an extra touch of class to “High Society”, a 1985 spot for Barilla that survives as the world’s only Fellini-directed pasta commercial.
Ennio Guarnieri was born in Rome on October 12, 1930. A restless student, he abandoned surveyor training in 1949 to become an assistant to Anchise Bruzzi, the veteran cinematographer who shot de Sica’s defining neorealist film Shoeshine (1946) and pieced together Orson Welles’ angular Othello (1951). Guarnieri’s apprenticeship led to several camera assistant gigs, first on the Bruzzi-shot comedy Hello Elephant (1952), eventually on the industry-changing La Dolce Vita (1960).
He shared a cinematography credit on Alberto Lattuada’s crime drama Unexpected (a.k.a. The Mishap, 1961) before going solo on His Days Are Numbered (1962), the second film by the emergent director Elio Petri, in which a plumber is suddenly confronted by his own mortality. The film fell within touching distance of the old, neorealist ways, yet Guarnieri’s bright monochrome frames told their own ironic story – of a life of leisure forever lying just beyond the workingman hero’s grasp.
Thereafter, Guarnieri worked consistently across a range of genres. His aptitude for shooting actresses was showcased by Marco Ferreri’s satirical sex comedy The Marital Bed (1963), for which Marina Vlady won the Cannes Best Actress prize; he bathed Catherine Deneuve in Tuscan light during the otherwise insipid La Costanza delle Ragione (1964); helped establish the ethereal Verna Lisi’s pin-up credentials in The Girl and the General (1967) and Arabella (1967); and shot a softcore classic in Radley Metzger’s high-kitsch Camille 2000 (1969).
He could do starker work, venturing into the rocky hills of Cappadocia and Aleppo for Pasolini’s Medea (1969), with Maria Callas in the title role. Yet after the success of Finzi-Continis, he was hired for multiple English-language productions, working on Ash Wednesday (1973), Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) and The Cassandra Crossing (1976). In 1979 alone, he completed shooting on the satire Traffic Jam, the crime drama A Dangerous Toy, cult sci-fi The Visitor, and Dr. Jekyll Likes It Hot, a sex comedy starring the voluptuous Edwige Fenech.
The Eighties saw Guarnieri doing much to enshrine Isabelle Huppert’s pellucid beauty in The Lady of the Camelias (1981), Henry James update The Wings of the Dove (1981), and The Story of Piera (1983). Thereafter, he displayed a weakness for international co-productions like Liliana Caviani’s Francesco (1989), with Mickey Rourke as a grimier St. Francis than Zeffirelli had imagined, and Andrei Konchalovsky’s The Inner Circle (1991), a polyglot account of Stalin’s final days featuring Bob Hoskins as Yogi Beria.
He remained close to Zeffirelli, lensing the director’s Sparrow (1993) in Sicily and the runaway camp of Callas Forever (2002) across Europe. After completing the Franco-Russian Rasputin (2011), with Gerard Depardieu as the mad monk, his final credit came on the romcom Under a Happy Star (2014).
His death was announced earlier this week by Zeffirelli’s adopted son Pippo, who said “the world has lost a major artist, and I personally have lost a good friend”.
Ennio Guarnieri, born October 12, 1930, died July 1, 2019.