A horror maestro’s quest for beauty

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Unfairly “demoted” to the status of genre filmmaking in America, Dario Argento’s half-century of aesthetically and narratively outlandish giallo films have managed to invent a new cinematic language written in images of blood, death, and desire. Argento’s emphasis on stylistic detail— characterized by an oscillation between baroque maximalism and the midcentury modern, and a disorienting penchant for the extreme close-up—has ensured the director’s oeuvre a place alongside those of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Sergio Leone, all of whom Argento counts as major influences. On occasion of his latest film, Dark Glasses—a murder mystery set among the hotels of Rome’s Via Veneto—New York’s Film at Lincoln Center is presenting a career-length retrospective from June 17 to June 29. 

I THINK I REMEMBER the first horror movie that I saw. I was on vacation with my family in the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. One night we went to an open-air movie theater, and we saw Phantom of the Opera (1943), the color version, directed by Arthur Lubin. Afterward, everyone was saying what a scary film it was, but I wasn’t scared at all. I loved it. I thought the scenes were beautiful. Later, I would enjoy the feeling of remembering them. It was a very influential experience. Another one comes to mind: When I was very, very young, about four years old, my mother and my father took me to see a play, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And when the ghost of the father appeared, I was so scared that they had to take me away.

Certainly, as an artist, I have been inspired by the great Baroque painters of the past, like Caravaggio or Artemisia Gentileschi. But there are many other painters and architects who have influenced my style of storytelling. For example, Magritte and his Surrealism. As a matter of fact, many of the Surrealists painters have had a great impact on me, as they did on Hitchcock when we think of the way that he used the paintings of Salvador Dalí. I should also mention the metaphysical painters such as de Chirico, the paintings he did of piazzas and of lone figures. I kind of let myself go with whatever it is that is inspiring me at that moment. For example, in Tenebrae, I was very inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni, and the places that I shot the film were places that he knew very well.

Before I began writing screenplays and filming, I was a film critic [for Roman newspaper Paese Sera]. So, I spent years in the theaters seeing movies and digesting them, from silent films to what were then the films of the day. Fellini, Antonioni, Leone, they are very much present in my DNA. I loved them all. I had the good fortune to meet Fellini and get to know him. My sister Floriana was his secretary. I was often able to see him while he was shooting his films. And with Sergio Leone, I had the fortune of working together with him and Bernardo Bertolucci on the screenplay for Once Upon a Time in the West. So, I got a chance to speak with Leone often and to know his thoughts on how to tell a story for film.

I owe a great deal to my mother [photographer Elda Luxardo]. She would photograph the great Italian divas of the time but also normal women. I would look at the way she would prepare the lighting, and what she would do in order to bring out their faces and expressions. It was a fantastic experience. I adore the female face. I think it’s one of the most beautiful aspects of my films. It’s no accident that the protagonists of most of my films are women. With my daughter, Asia, I’ve made five films.

I am kind of a connoisseur of hotels. I really love them. What I like about hotels is that they are sort of anonymous; they are not mine. It’s a place that I go during the day and then in the evening I go home and sleep. It allows me to detach myself from what is happening. It is a new space, a strange space, a bizarre space. I feel good in hotels. Some are beautiful and some are ugly. But even the ugly ones are interesting.

Translated by Michael F. Moore.

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