Some brief notes about Vittorio Storaro's inspiring masterclass in Lisbon, December 7th, 2017.

Academia Portuguesa de Cinema organized a masterclass with the world-renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, at Centro Cultura de Belém, Lisbon. 

Instead of being a technical lesson about cameras and film gear, Storaro's masterclass was focused on the relevance of a symbolic and conceptual vision, vital for an artistic work with light. The importance of personal and cultural references was also highlighted, as if such references were a form of spiritual cinematography for life and mind:
"Suddenly I realize to my profession, the meaning of my life is try to find balance between these two: consciousness, unconsciousness, darkness and light." (1)

As an example, Storaro referred how important it was for his personal artistic journey, the apparently casual encounter with the paintings of Caravaggio (1571-1610), or more precisely, one painting: The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599). About this example of cinematic appropriation of older image styles, in this case, from a Baroque painter, we can read in an interview by Giose Gallotti, entitled Baroque Visions (2):

"While I was walking around inside the church, I discovered the Contarelli Chapel, decorated with extraordinary paintings by an artist whose name I didn't know at that time. One, in particular, took my breath away: The Calling of St. Matthew, which I later learned was a work by Caravaggio."

Another interview, by Jon Fauer, entitled The Calling of Vittorio Storaro (3), offers some more details about such an important encounter between two great italian visual artists:

"One day I was with Antonia, my wife, walking in Rome near Piazza Navona and we entered a little church called San Luigi dei Francesi. Inside, I discovered something that I never knew until that moment. On the walls were some canvases by a painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. These paintings filled me with incredible emotions and completely changed my vision. It totally changed my way of seeing. Nobody had mentioned to me there was a Baroque painter called Caravaggio who was using light and shadow to visualize our life’s journey."

During the Lisbon masterclass, Storaro mentioned how this particular painting deeply influenced his work, especially the photography of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).

"(...) a clean separation between light and shadow, I was so bowled over by that painting I felt immediately impelled to try to understand and deepen the relationship between these two elements. I had to take my studies to a level that enable me to grasp the intrinsic significance of that representation. (...) without having looked at that painting, I would not have been able to make The Conformist or Apocalypse Now." (4)

Despite the obvious risk of redundancy, I think it is also pertinent to mention an interview conducted by Bob Fisher, in which the question of Caravaggio's artistic influence on Storaro is explicitly addressed:

“(...) When I was just starting my career during my early twenties, I visited the Church of San Luis dei Francesi in the center of Rome with my fiancé, Antonia, who later became my wife. There were some extraordinary paintings in the church’s chapel. It was the first time I saw The Calling of Saint Matthew."

As well as confirming what has already been mentioned here, through other sources, Vittorio Storaro's response adds a new dimension - literature - to the synergies and dynamics of the complex process of cross-pollination that is the intertwining between different arts. Almost synesthetically, Storaro states that he saw the same concept in Caravaggio's painting and in a novel by William Faulkner:

"(BF) What was your first impression of The Calling of Saint Matthew?"
"(VS) It took my breath away. There is a beam of light that goes from the top to the bottom of the painting, dividing it into two parts. One side is in daylight and the other side is in darkness. I recall thinking they represented the human and the divine sides of life and our unconscious and conscious beings. That was the first time that I saw light and darkness used as metaphors for life and death. I also remember reading a book by William Faulkner called Absalom, Absalom!, where one of the main characters explains how a beam of sunlight penetrated and divided a room like it was separating periods in another character’s life. It was the same concept as The Calling of Saint Matthew." (5)

For those who wish to watch the full masterclass (about 55 min.), Academia Portuguesa de Cinema made it available here. There's also a transcription of the masterclass: Storaro 2017 Lisbon masterclass.

Bibliographical references

(1) Storaro, Vittorio, Lisbon Masterclass, December 2017, min. 35  / p. 12

(2) Gallotti, Giose , Baroque Visions, American Cinematographer, September 2007, p. 55

(3) Fauer, Jon, The Calling of Vittorio Storaro, Film and Digital Times, 12/7/2015

(4) Gallotti, Giose , Baroque Visions, American Cinematographer, September 2007, p. 56

(5) Fisher, Bob, Vittorio Storaro Paints With His Camera, MovieMaker Magazine, January 7, 2008.