Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

An Italian photo cavalcade

PHOTOGRAPHY / It would be nearly fifty years before Paolo di Paolo's daughter found the pictures her father had taken and confronted him with his until-then-unknown past as an (Italian) celebrity photographer.

The discovery of Italian photojournalist Paolo di Paolo’s unknown pictures of, among others, Pier Paolo Pasolini is central when film director Bruce Weber portrays the photographer di Paolo’s life.

The image cavalcade that opens the film quickly reminds me of one of author, poet, and filmmaker Pasolini’s self-portraits. In the foreground, one can see a young and well-dressed boy with un fiore in bocca, a flower in his mouth, in the background, a peasant. While the boy with the flower in his mouth alludes to the innocent young love Pasolini experienced along the dikes of the Friulian countryside, the peasant refers to the lost peasant and dialect culture that was close to him and which came to influence his artistic work. It is probably no coincidence that it is precisely this iconic portrait that di Paolo’s photographs of Pasolini evoke memories of, for the two share more than the same name. They were almost the same age, and like Pasolini, di Paolo moved from the countryside to the city, specifically to Rome, when Italy, in a few years, transformed from an agricultural society to an industrialized country. There, both made their living from the fifties and throughout the sixties by working for the weekly newspaper Il mondo – sometimes together, other times separately, before the newspaper was shut down in 1966. Then, like Pasolini, di Paolo retreated to the countryside – Pasolini to his medieval tower in Viterbo, di Paolo to his hometown Larino in southern Italy. After some years as a portraitist of film and society people, as well as of ordinary people on the street, the self-taught photographer and philosophy student put his Leica camera on the shelf for good, while Pasolini continued to write until he was killed in 1975.


Il museo del louvre Gallery

It would be nearly fifty years before his daughter Silvia di Paolo found the pictures her father had taken and confronted him with his until-then-unknown past as a photographer. The well-dressed di Paolo did not only take social realist pictures in the years 1954-1966. He quickly gained access to the Italian cultural elite, especially these pictures and those he took of Anna Magnani and Pier Paolo Pasolini, central to Weber’s documentary film.

Like many, director Weber has a fondness for la dolce vita. Growing up in Pennsylvania in the fifties and sixties, he and his family went to the cinema every other Sunday to see European films. Weber quickly fell in love with everything Italian, especially actors like Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. This youthful love was rekindled when he accidentally came across Paolo di Paolo’s pictures of actors and film directors at the Il Museo del Louvre Gallery in the Jewish Quarter in Rome in 2016.

The gallery, run by bookseller and gallery owner Giuseppe Casetti, is a place I myself have returned to numerous times. Until 2014, there was only one picture of Pasolini there. In 2016, it was surrounded by several of di Paolo’s portraits of Pasolini. In this one photograph, Pasolini stands at the foot of Monte Testaccio, the potshard mountain, a stone’s throw away from the non-Catholic cemetery – where di Paolo, incidentally, also took pictures of him at the grave of the founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. In the foreground, one can see a well-dressed and somber Pasolini; in the background, atop the mountain, a cross. The picture is not only one of the best portraits taken of Pasolini but an important reference point when Weber, in his interviews with the now 97-year-old Paolo di Paolo and his family, revives images from a lost time.


Finely tuned black-and-white images

It is Paolo di Paolo’s finely tuned black-and-white images that drive this film forward. In this way, it works better as a film archive than a documentary. Di Paolo was one of the leading photojournalists of his time, but we do not learn why he chose to put the camera on the shelf for good. He did indeed retire at the top when Il Mondo was shut down, and the paparazzi culture took over Italian photojournalism – but unfortunately, we do not learn more about this. Instead, the director interviews di Paolo and his closest – wife, children, and grandchildren – but also the Italian producer Marina Gicogna and gallery owner Giuseppe Casetti about di Paolo’s pictures.

The film works better as a film archive than as documentary

Parallel to Weber rediscovering his youth and his love for Italy through di Paolo’s pictures, his daughter Silvia di Paolo took the initiative to exhibit her father’s pictures, first at the Il Museo del Louvre Gallery in 2016 and later at MAXXI – the Museum of Modern Art in Rome – in 2019. On the way there, the then 94-year-old Paolo di Paolo had the pleasure of trying his hand as a fashion photographer for Valentino anew.

Without this film taking the big leaps that could have made it something more than a portrayal of a photographer’s life in pictures, Paolo di Paolo’s many unique pictures are well worth a meeting with the film itself.

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Camilla Chams
Camilla Chams
Chams has previously translated Pasolini's book of poems Asken's poet into Norwegian and is a research fellow at the University of Oslo.

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