Cinema Paradiso: Life Itself

A CELEBRATION OF YOUTH, FRIENDSHIP, AND THE EVERLASTING MAGIC OF THE MOVIES.

cinemaparadisoI started watching this movie again for the first time since I was a teenager, and noticed some resistance. At that time, I’d never seen a movie by Federico Fellini, but now I’ve seen a few and Cinema Paradiso suddenly struck me as a not entirely unashamed attempt by director Giuseppe Tornatore to recreate the atmosphere and characters that are typical of Fellini. Nothing wrong with that, but there are good and less satisfying ways to do it. I started out feeling smug, but as the credits began to roll two hours later I was crying harder than I did as a teen.

In modern-day Rome, famous filmmaker Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin) is told by his girlfriend that his mother called. Someone in his home village called Alfredo has died. The news instantly throws Salvatore back to his childhood, a few years after the end of World War II. As a kid, he was mesmerized with the magic of cinema. There was one theater in the village, and young Salvatore (called Toto) became friends with the middle-aged projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). At that time, the cinema was the village’s main cultural venue, but the local priest made sure that every sign of “indecent behavior”, such as kissing, was cut out of movies before they were screened. Alfredo had no choice but to help him do that. Young Toto learned how to do his job at an early age, even though his mother disapproved…

Capturing details of life
Maybe it’s having the lead character being a renowned director unable to find peace and a family, contemplating his life, that made me think of Fellini. But there are other aspects as well, such as the way Tornatore captures details of life in the village and its colorful characters that become as vivid to us over the years as to the people who live there. Tornatore and editor Mario Morra have done a wonderful job moving the story forward, with most scenes segueing in imaginative ways to the next. Salvatore’s childhood is “very Italian” in a way I recently described Blue Is the Warmest Color as “very French” – meaning both films run the risk of becoming too stereotypical because of the way traditions and culture are portrayed. But both films overcome that initial resistance. In this case, a huge reason is how fast Noiret and young Salvatore Cascio win our hearts. The latter gets Toto’s mischievousness right from the start, driving his mother crazy, and Noiret’s grandfatherly projectionist becomes a perfect partner for the boy. As the story progresses over the years and Toto grows into a young man (then played by Marco Leonardi), Alfredo becomes his valuable mentor for real, imparting advice that will always be true – and it certainly spoke to me, as someone else who felt a need to leave his hometown. The film builds to a very emotional climax years later. It’s been said that Tornatore wanted to celebrate a dying art form, but ironically the huge success of this film revived the Italian movie business like a shot of adrenaline. It’s obvious that the nostalgic way cinema is depicted here is part of the past, but it’s lovingly recreated. Here watching movies is a healthy communal experience, a rich fountain of joy and a way to escape misery. But even if you’re watching this one on your own, it’s hard in the end not to feel a kinship with Salvatore and the way he reconnects with the childhood that shaped him as a human being, after years of being removed from all that.

A year after writing an excellent score for The Untouchables, Ennio Morricone delivered another, one that helped reduce me to tears in the end. There’s a lot of sentimentality in the old movie clips we see at the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso… but in my book, Tornatore is the real master at that.

Cinema Paradiso 1988-Italy-France. 123 min. Color. Produced by Franco Cristaldi, Giovanna Romagnoli. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Cinematography: Blasco Giurato. Music: Ennio Morricone. Editing: Mario Morra. Cast: Philippe Noiret (Alfredo), Jacques Perrin (Salvatore Di Vita, adult), Salvatore Cascio (Salvatore Di Vita, child), Marco Leonardi, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste.

Trivia: Original title: Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. The film was originally 155 min; a 174 min. version was released in 2012.

Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. BAFTA: Best Actor (Noiret), Supporting Actor (Cascio), Original Screenplay, Original Film Score, Film Not in the English Language. Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury. European Film Awards: Best Actor (Noiret).

Last word: “I got the initial idea in autumn of 1977. I was involved with the movie theaters in my village as a projectionist. That autumn, they closed one of the oldest theaters that dated back to the early 1930s. The owner decided to sell the building and they had to clear out all the furniture, and basically clean out and strip the building. He asked me to take anything I wanted. So I spent three or four days there, helping to clean it out…it was so dirty, so musty, the smell, the whole atmosphere was just so sad. It just came to me to take this atmosphere and put it into a story. For the next ten years, I made notes as ideas came to me. I interviewed many of the old projectionists in town for their stories, then I wrote the script.” (Tornatore, Huffington Post)

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