As Fellini grew into a brand like Warhol, Rotunno dug deeper and deeper into its director’s obsessions and past to create a new kind of fabulously grotesque experience. In “Satyricon” they weave a story of early culture and eroticism in cavernous settings, paving the way for the idea of cinema by filling the Platonic caves with shadows of sex, addiction, betrayal and ultimately destruction. In “Roma”, they reconstruct the bustling city of the youth of the two men, creating a place that is part monotonous purgatory, part barely glimpsed paradise and deliciously sinful hell. In “Amarcord”, they reconstruct the moment in history just before the rebirth of Italian cinema, showing moments of joyfully lost innocence and collective and 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 magnificent atmosphere of his work with Fellini. As a result, these three particular films remain, arguably, the best work of their creators when judged purely in aesthetic / cinematic terms. Rotunno has worked for years with such disparate directors as Sergio Corbucci, Ivan Passer, Lina Wertmüller and Salvatore Samperi, working more as a conduit to a less ostentatious presentation style. It was, in these cases, more as if he provided backdrops for readings and interpretations of great novels.
His last film was for Dario Argento, and 1996’s “Stendhal Syndrome” has a muted palette and a non-confrontational camera, something as close to calm as Argento’s cinema is capable of. The plot of the film is about a woman who, as the title suggests, literally gets lost in art. It was the perfect fictional film to stop at (his true retirement, followed by years of teaching, came the following year after working on a documentary about his lifelong friend Mastroianni, who had just passed away). They let the beauty of the myriad art scenes from the film be filled with world famous Italian artwork, the streets of Rome where he cut his teeth as a photographer and discovered the passion for his life, and of course, in the Cinecittà studios, where he first created his living and breathing cinematic art.
Giuseppe Rotunno gave us the gift of modern cinema by looking through his viewfinder and into the light, actually guiding us out of a cave and into a world he created. Whether showing the aching hands of Monicelli’s organizers, the bruised faces of Visconti’s brothers, or the imposing and bizarre Eden from Fellini’s world of nightmares and erotic dreams, it has become synonymous with Italian cinema, and it l ‘made it immortal.