Shooting Rapito with VENICE

September 18, 2023

Francesco Di Giacomo in conversation with Alister Chapman.


I recently had the great pleasure of chatting with Italian Cinematographer Francesco Di Giacomo about how he shot the highly acclaimed Palme d’Or nominated Italian film Rapito (Kidnapped) with a Sony VENICE.

Based on a true story, Rapito tells the story of Edgardo Mortara – a boy from the Catholic ruled city of Bologna. Although born into a Jewish family, a maid secretly baptised him as Christian leading to his forcible removal to be raised as a Catholic. His parents’ struggle to get him back soon became embroiled in a much larger political battle between the papacy and the forces of democracy during the Italian re-unification.

Francesco Di Giacomo (left) on the set of Rapito.

The Family Business

When I asked Francesco how he got into cinematography he was quick to reply that he felt very fortunate: his father was the well known DP Franco Di Giacomo – who worked as a camera operator on the famous spaghetti western The Good The Bad And The Ugly – and his mother was a script supervisor. So, for him it was easy. He started as a camera trainee working with his father and progressed quickly from there spending many happy years working as a focus puller until one day, he was pushed into DP’ing on a short film. It was then that he discovered the fun and satisfaction of being a cinematographer and director of photography.

The asthetic of the production was based on Italian paintings from 1840 to 1870……. It’s fascinating as a historical piece but perhaps actually less fascinating in terms of light and colour.

Francesco Di Giacomo

19th Century Look

Rapito was directed by Marco Bellocchio and Francesco was delighted to work him on the film as his father had worked with him on three previous movies.

“The asthetic of the production was based on Italian paintings from 1840 to 1870,” Francesco explains. “It’s fascinating as a historical piece but perhaps actually less fascinating in terms of light and colour.”

Although electricity hadn’t arrived in this era, they did have more modern oil and candle lamps. So, the look is less contrasty and softer than the classic Caravaggio look of the 16th century.

Marco didn’t want large areas of darkness, he wanted audiences to be able see everywhere, and he didn’t want candles. Francesco says this was quite a challenge – candles were used when appropriate but often he had to light using just a few practicals and some of the spaces were very big, so it was quite difficult to deliver something that looked realistic.

Dimly lit night-time scene with boat

Day and Night

As so many of the cast were children it was necessary to shoot almost everything during the day, including most of the night scenes. One option for night scenes was to place a tent over the buildings or completely block the exterior light, but Marco wanted at least a sense of something being outside. This was particularly important for the opening scenes where the kidnapping takes place at night.

The film’s production designers dressed the windows to look like old leaded windows and then curtains were used to reduce the amount of light coming through them. Because the key characters were often children, the camera was usually quite low, so when there was a window in the background the “night” sky should at least be faintly visible out of the windows. Francesco’s rather clever solution was to use polarised gels over the windows and then a polarising filter on the camera. By rotating the polarising filter on the camera, it was possible to adjust the exterior sky exposure and this way obtain a suitable balance between the interior and exterior brightness.

Francesco told me that this was one area where the VENICE camera really excelled as you could use the high base ISO combined with the filters to get a truly believable looking night time exposure.

Church scene from Rapito

Street Shooting

Some of the exteriors that were shot at night take place in large open squares in Bologna and other historic cities. Francesco says that this was particularly difficult because they needed to get all the street lights turned off. Plus, it wasn’t practical to block streets for Condor cranes and large lighting rigs as these cities that rely so much on tourism. So, he knew he would have to rely on shooting at very high ISO’s.

He also went on to say that a problem with other cinema camera at high ISO’s is not just noise but poor colour performance, but VENICE performs very well at high ISO’s thanks to the dual ISO system. So, VENICE was the obvious and easy choice for this film.

The lenses used were Zeiss Supremes. Francesco didn’t want a lens with a strong character for this film. They had considered other lenses, but to maintain Marco’s concept of a naturalistic feel they didn’t want the lenses to add a particular look.

Priest administering last rites in Rapito

It’s a camera that really gives you the feeling that it’s good just as it is. I really love the highlights it delivers, because I can always feel something in the highlights, it’s very rare to have just a white blind spot.. I have to say I really, really enjoy the [VENICE] system.

Francesco Di Giacomo

Falling in Love

Francesco had previously worked with Marco Bellocchio on Esterno Notte, a six-part Italian TV series that was also shown in cinemas as a two part film. It was while shooting this series that he fell in love with the Sony VENICE camera. On a multi camera shoot when shooting exteriors, he felt the ability to quickly add or remove ND thanks to the built in ND filters saved a lot of time. Being able to shoot at the two different base ISO’s without an issue and without noise or grain was liberating.

For Rapito, the aim was to produce a very clean, pure looking image. Because the story includes a lot of suffering it was important to have this clean look so that watching the film wasn’t suffocating for the audience. VENICE would allow them to achieve this look very easily.

Francesco finished by discussing how when he started in film making, film was the only option. Then when the first digital cameras started to appear they joked that perhaps in 10 years they might be taken seriously. But in reality, digital cinematography became common very quickly. He has now shot with most of the digital cinema cameras

“What I did realise right away is that I don’t like to use a digital camera to try to have a film look,” he says. “Using one thing to try to emulate another seems a bit silly… 16mm and 35mm [film], they exist, if you want 35mm, shoot 35mm.”

Talking about VENICE, Francesco told me that you really don’t need to try to make it look like something else because “It’s a camera that really gives you the feeling that its good just as it is”. Even without extensive grading he really likes the way the camera reacts to highlights, “I really love the highlights it delivers, because I can always feel something in the highlights, it’s very rare to have just a white blind spot in the highlights”, he also likes how it reads the blacks and the colour it produces. “I have to say I really, really enjoy the [VENICE] system”.