The great painters of the 17th century served as inspiration and point of reference for French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme in Agnes Merlet's film Artemisia, which Miramax released in May. Set in Italy in 1610, it is the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter of a famous painter. She also yearns to paint, but her passion is forbidden at a time when women were not allowed to study or paint male nudes.
"Paintings are the only way we can view the 17th century," says Delhomme, "so this film about painters is like a double-play on painting." The two painters in question are Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia's father, and Agostino Tassi, who becomes Artemisia's mentor and lover.
"They are two very different kinds of painters," Delhomme points out. "Gentileschi is traditional like Caravaggio, and paints by candlelight in his studio. He fears light. Tassi, on the other hand, is almost an Impressionist. He paints outside, near the sea, and likes the sun." Accordingly, the light used by Delhomme reflects the light used by these two painters.
For a shot in a cathedral, the production team recreated at Cinecitta Studios in Rome a church they had seen on an Italian island. "The light in the real church was magnificent, and came in through a central cupola," says Delhomme, who evoked the same look. The set was built with a hole at the top, rather than a dome, covered with translucent fabric, above which he hung 24 tungsten lamps in a frame to create what he calls "a shower of light" for daytime scenes.
At night, he used lots of candles, reinforced by 500W lamps in rice-paper chinese lanterns. "I wanted them to seem bright, so we had to film with the diaphragm open," says Delhomme. "The only color of light in the 17th century was the soft, warm light of candles or torches." This candlelit ambiance, with its darkness and shadows, represents the world of Gentileschi.
By contrast, Tassi's scenes were filmed with a minimum of artificial light. To light the actors' faces in the outdoor scenes, Delhomme used a large white cotton reflector with DeSisti 12kW HMIs. All the lighting equipment was rented from Panalight in Rome, and Delhomme found the DeSisti instruments, named for Renaissance painters, an inspiration. His electrics crew came from Cinecitta. "They understand the culture of Italian painting," he says.
"This film is like a metaphor for the cinema," Delhomme notes. "Gentileschi is like the old style of studio filmmaking where everything was artificial and controlled. Tassi represents the nouvelle vague where the camera was placed in front of the real world." Delhomme also used two of his favorite cinematographers as yardsticks, measuring the light for the interior scenes to Henri Alekan and the exteriors to Nestor Almendros.
"I like the look of real light," he says. "In many American films you can tell where the lights are. I like to avoid that."