Ask me what it is about movies I love so much, and I’ll tell you to see Cinema Paradiso (1988) for your answer. This Italian film, written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, is one of the great showcases for the magic that movies can provide. It’s not so much a film that you should see if you are a movie lover; it a film that you must see. We follow a young boy in a small village, witness his friendship with a sweet and kind projectionist, and understand how this child’s love affair with the movies would eventually shape who he would become as a man. It is lovely, nostalgic, and dripping with sentiment, but in the best way possible. All the fun, enjoyment, thrills, and amazement that come with falling in love with the movies is captured in almost every frame. The movie was made for movie fans, and to not find joy in it would be to turn against everything they stand for.
When the film was first released, it received a number of negative reviews for being too sentimental, too nostalgic, and too romantic about the movies. Only when it was bought by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax and distributed in a shorter cut would it receive the recognition that it rightly deserved. It would go on to be one of the most highly praised films of the year, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The word “sentimental” has been given a slightly negative undertone when describing films today, but in regard to this there is no better way to give it a more positive label. No apologies are needed for a film that so easily wants us to fall in love with its subject matter. This is not something where one must be cynical to critique it like any other mediocre project. Instead, we find ourselves letting go, allowing it to wash over us, having the director make us feel the same way he does about the content of his story. We watch it like a child, completely absorbed in the images and romance on the screen, just like the lead character.
The hero of our story is Toto, played by three different actors: Salvatore Cascio as a child, Marco Leonardi as a teenager, and then finally by Jacques Perrin as an adult. We first find Toto as a grown man living in Rome. He is a successful and popular film director, but inside there is something missing. It’s never said what that element is, but when news arrives that his good friend Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) has passed, something in Toto is triggered. Something that makes him look back to his youth in the small village of Giancaldo, where he first met Alfredo and fell in love with the movies. The majority of the film is told in flashback, where we learn of Toto’s upbringing. He had a father who went to fight in WWII but has never returned, and a mother who tries desperately to provide for her children with whatever little means they have. Toto’s life is one of little money and not much to do, and as a result the one resort he had to fill his time was his own imagination. Luckily for Toto, that imagination would be further developed in a place where imagination and creativity is celebrated—the movie theater.
Giancaldo is depicted as a place that is roughly made up of small buildings circling a large, old, cobbled town square. There is not much to do there, other than go to school or go to church. There is, however, one place where everyone can go to escape and find enjoyment, and it is the movie theater, Cinema Paradiso. The time that the movie is set is right before the emergence of television, a time when people had to go to the movie theater to see their favorite actors or actresses, follow up on world news, and to see other people from all walks of life. The Cinema Paradiso is the epicenter of the town, and there are countless scenes where we find the main hall overcrowded with townspeople, all watching and reacting together as if the experience of watching movies was a required group effort. It is not a coincidence that Tornatore would have his set designers construct the inside of the theater much like that of a church, signifying that going to the movies was like a religious experience. After the theater is tragically burned down in a fire, it is rebuilt bigger and better than before. And who would be the first person to step inside of it? The town priest, with holy water in hand ready to bless everything and everyone inside.
While the theater is the center of the town square, the heart of the theater is Alfredo, the film projectionist. Alfredo is a character that is so kind, so charming and lovable, that he could scream at the top of his lungs, but we know he would never hurt a fly. Philippe Noiret plays him wonderfully—with his long droopy face, thick mustache and big eyes, the image of Alfredo is difficult to forget. Toto can see this man’s gentleness easily, which would explain why he would sneak in to the projection room time and time again, even when Alfredo threatens to kick him out. Their friendship is sparked during the scene when Toto’s mother learns that he has used their milk money to buy a movie ticket. Watch as Alfredo so gracefully comes to his rescue, sneaking his own money to them like a slight of hand card trick. From there on out, Alfredo and Toto would develop a bond that would last throughout the rest of Toto’s youth, involving him working with Alfredo in the projection booth, and of course watching movies.
The beautiful thing that Tornatore captured with this movie was how well it showcases the people that come to the theater. Cinema Paradiso must be the one of the best movie theaters ever seen, as it plays films from all over the world from many different times. We see Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, films by Luchino Visconti, horror films, melodramas and silent films, to name a few. A poster of Casablanca (1942) adorns the projection room. Alfredo constantly quotes lines from movies to help teach Toto about life. The characters that frequent the theater are just as entertaining as the films themselves. We see them at different stages of the story, and although they may be a little exaggerated in their characteristics, they all contribute to the film’s overall effectiveness. There’s the rich, quiet man who sits in the balcony and spits at the people below, and the two lovers who catch each other’s eye from across the room and eventually will become married. An elderly gentleman cries his heart out while a drama plays, quoting every line before they’re even said. The village idiot screams out how he hates every movie that plays, and young boys watch eagerly as a beautiful woman dances on screen, their hormones raging out of control.
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