When the Italian cinematographer Carlo Di Palma started out, he was a 15-year-old camera assistant on “Ossessione,” the 1943 Luchino Visconti movie that is widely considered the first Italian neorealist film. The new documentary “Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, the Colours of Life” explores Di Palma’s long career, from that auspicious beginning to his work on “Red Desert,” “Radio Days” and some of the other best films of the 20th century.
The director, Fariborz Kamkari, lingers on the golden touch that Di Palma, who died in 2004, brought to films with Michelangelo Antonioni, and he enlists collaborators like Woody Allen to explain Di Palma’s influence on their work. Though brief service is paid to this filmmaker’s personal life, viewers seeking a juicy backstage glimpse of his famous friends should look elsewhere. Under the careful eye of Mr. Kamkari and Di Palma’s widow, Adriana Chiesa, a producer on the movie, “Water and Sugar” presents an official history, focused more on work than pleasure or even personality.
If the movie were reliant on only the rosy recollections of Di Palma’s professional connections, the man himself might slip out of view like the last light at dusk. Testimonials about his sensitivity pale in comparison with seeing scenes like Di Palma’s illuminated dance hall, empty but for one couple, who dance under the glow of a thousand lights in “Teresa the Thief.” As one memorable anecdote from the set of “Blow-Up” illustrates, he was a man to paint the grass if reality wasn’t green enough. In the end, “Water and Sugar” proves the best view of Di Palma is still the gaze from his own eyes.
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