As Fellini became a brand like Warhol, Rotunno dug deeper and deeper into his director’s obsessions and his past to create a new kind of fabulously grotesque experience. In “Satyricon,” they weave a tale of the start of culture and eroticism in cavernous sets, paving the way for the idea of cinema by filling Platonic caves with shadows of sex, dependency, betrayal, and ultimately destruction. In “Roma,” they reconstruct the busy city of both men’s youth, creating a place part monotonous purgatory, part barely glimpsed heaven, and all delectably sinful hell. In “Amarcord,” they reconstruct the moment in history just before the renaissance of Italian cinema, showing moments of gleefully lost innocence and collective, communal rediscovery of the same.
Rotunno would be hired by Terry Gilliam for “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” by Robert Altman for “Popeye,” and by Bob Fosse for “All That Jazz,” among others, to recapture the demented but gorgeous atmosphere of his work with Fellini. As a consequence, those three particular films remain, arguably, their creators’ best work when judged purely on aesthetic/cinematic terms. Rotunno worked for years with directors as disparate as Sergio Corbucci, Ivan Passer, Lina Wertmüller, and Salvatore Samperi, working more as a conduit to a less ostentatiously presentational style. It was, in those cases, more as if he were providing backdrops for the readings and interpretations of great novels.
His final film was for Dario Argento, and 1996’s “The Stendhal Syndrome” has a muted palette and a non-confrontational camera, something as close to a calm as Argento’s cinema is capable. The movie’s plot concerns a woman who, as the title implies, literally loses herself in art. It was the perfect fiction film upon which to call it quits (his proper retirement, followed by years of teaching, came the next year after working on a documentary about his lifelong friend Mastroianni, who’d just passed away). They let the beauty of the film’s myriad scenes of art be filled with world famous works of Italian art, the streets of Rome where he cut his teeth as a photographer and discovered his life’s passion, and of course, in the studios at Cinecittà, where he first created his living, breathing cinematic art.
Giuseppe Rotunno gave us all the gift of modern cinema when he looked through his viewfinder and into light, in effect guiding us out of a cave and into a world he created. Whether through showing the aching hands of Monicelli’s organizers, the bruised faces of Visconti’s brothers, or the towering and bizarre Eden of Fellini’s world of nightmares and erotic dreams, he became synonymous with Italian cinema, and he made it immortal.