The awe you’ll feel watching this movie. Image source.
Everyone who loves the movies will love Cinema Paradiso. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact. And it’s not hard to see why. Movies about the movies are usually charming and pleasant, but very few can match the sublime mixture of nostalgia, awe, and joy that fills the essence of Cinema Paradiso. In a small theater in the middle of rural, bucolic Sicily, director Giuseppe Tornatore manages to conjure up a coming-of-age story that pays the ultimate tribute to the majesty of film, the joys of human connection, and the importance of following your passions.
Cinema Paradiso begins and ends as a recollection, both for the characters and the viewer. Salvatore Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio/Marco Leonardi/Jacques Perrin in various stages of childhood/adulthood), affectionately nicknamed “Totò,” is a universally-admired Italian film director stationed in Rome. On the surface, he has it all: the success, the awards, the money. But the reality beneath that pretty picture isn’t as charming. Culturally, the boom of TV and radio has turned his beloved cinema into more and more of an outcast. His personal life is empty, torn to shreds among scores of empty, meaningless, purely physical relationships. When he gets a call from his Sicilian mother at the start of the movie, he’s reminded for the first time in 30 years that he has a family.
Soon after, Salvatore, lost, confused, and missing something, decides to return to Sicily for a literal, metaphorical trip into his past. We follow him back into a childhood marked from the beginning by an insatiable love for only one thing: the movies. Friday nights at the local theater (the titular “Cinema Paradiso”), as we see in young Totò’s all-too-eager expression every time he sits in front of a movie screen, are all he cares for. Perhaps a little too much. His local priest (Leopoldo Trieste), a comical figure who personally censures every film to ensure nothing “pornographic” (read: kissing) gets shown, scolds him for daydreaming about Charlie Chaplin during Mass. His mother Maria (Antonella Attili/Pupella Maggio), single and burdened after her husband’s death in World War II, spanks him for sneaking off to the theater without permission. The projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), illiterate but a sucker for John Wayne quotes, shoos him away every time he tries to sneak into the projector room. But Salvatore, desperate and cunning, won’t be kept away. Through all the toils and troubles that subsequently fall upon him in his noble attempts to make his movie dreams become reality, we find ourselves reliving the adorable, dreamy naiveté so emblematic of childhood. The best scene comes when Salvatore feints breaking a leg to get a ride on Alfredo’s bicycle, all in the name of trying to gain access to the theater’s movie projector. You’re inevitably left smiling and laughing.
And it only gets better from there. Salvatore’s relentless efforts pay off: Alfredo, after much grumbling and playful reprimanding, finally gives in and allows Salvatore to become his personal assistant. For ten years, Salvatore works the projector at the theater, an experience of turning reels, placating restless crowds, and watching Hollywood’s best that immediately becomes the defining element of his life. Over the years, his love of the movies grows and develops from a simplistic ooh-aah awe to a deeper appreciation of cinema’s humanistic power. In high school, he even takes it upon himself to start making his own films, of pig slaughters, attractive classmates, and whatever else catches his eye. So by the time adulthood finally rolls around and he has to decide his path in life, Salvatore doesn’t need to think: he’ll follow the movies, no matter where it leads him.
The scenes involving Salvatore and the theater are the most iconic ones in the film. Not because of the movie excerpts we get to see (Luchino Visconti and John Ford for the win), but because of the small but memorable vignettes of all the quirky, irascible, crazy people who watch them. The man who gets picked on for the way he loudly snores with his head back. The professorial man who sits in the top balcony and, at the start of intermission, always leans over and spits down at the crowd below. The quick-tempered but easily-flustered theater manager, always trying but failing to keep the masses of angry, excited moviegoers at bay. And of course the village idiot, a crazy, homeless man who ushers people away from the center square with his repeated claim that “The plaza is mine!”
These are people who throw stones not over Donald Trump or oppressive factory foremen, but the fact that the latest Greta Garbo film is going to start 15 minutes late. They’re people who get animated and emotional not over a football game, but by reciting every last period and comma of the dialogue of that wonderful movie they’re seeing for the fifth time. Watching the way this entire Sicilian community gets together at the theater every week, as if their entire livelihood and entertainment depend on seeing Humphrey Bogart and Erich von Stroheim march across the screen, you’ll feel like you know these people better than your own neighbors. It’s a group of people with different personalities and views on life, but who are all united by a shared love for cinema and being with each other. There’s a closeness and sense of carefree, happy belonging here that’ll recall the fondest moments of your best friendships. Small wonder Salvatore gets motivated to work in the movies for good.
The movie theater gives Salvatore the purpose all confused adolescents need. But it’s Alfredo, projectionist turned mentor, who gives Salvatore the life guidance he can only appreciate 30 years on. In many ways, Cinema Paradiso is just as much a tribute to human relationships as it is to cinema. With the possible exception of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Alfredo is the most fatherly figure you’ll find in the movies. His illiteracy belies the constant wisdom and sharpness that spring forth every time he appears on screen. In cinema, it’s Alfredo who not only first introduces Salvatore to the business of the theater, but also shows just how easily it can capture a person’s heart and soul. In a defining scene, when he rotates the projector to allow an audience locked out of the theater to see a movie in the public square, the scene’s exhilarating, wistful beauty almost physically emanates from the screen. In love, Alfredo carefully, if a bit cynically, steers Salvatore through his first romance, a “one true love” relationship that feels right out of a fairy tale. Thanks to his help, almost all relationships (real and fictitious) now find their roots in Salvatore and Elena’s (Agnese Nano) innocent, infatuated affection. And in life, it’s Alfredo who pushes Salvatore to truly reach for the stars. He gives Salvatore the impetus to take a step into the unknown, to leave the small town of Sicily that’s all he’s ever known and do what he’s always really wanted to do. Alfredo is blinded halfway through the movie by a fire that destroys the entire movie theater. But in his efforts to steer Salvatore away from small-town comfort to big-city greatness, he reveals his true, inner foresight and wisdom. Six years before embodying Pablo Neruda in The Postman, Philippe Noiret did an outstanding job breathing wit and charm into this other sage mentor.
By the time we reach the last quarter of the movie, when Salvatore, moved by news of Alfredo’s death, rushes back to his hometown, we’ve already become swept away in his ideal childhood world. Thanks too to Ennio Morricone’s absolutely magnificent soundtrack (one of the best ever made), we feel like we’ve become a part of it, as if we’ve grown up right alongside Salvatore throughout his magical odyssey in Movieworld. So when he returns and discovers just how his little childhood home has expanded and morphed into a busy urban center, we share his disorientation. When we watch Alfredo’s funeral casket being carried through the streets, we feel like we’re witnessing the end of a golden era. When the Cinema Paradiso Theater gets taken down for the last time to make way for a parking lot, a little part of us dies inside. And let’s not get started on the ending scene, a scene that’ll bring tears to your eyes just as it does to Salvatore.
This is an unabashed love letter to the seductive, evocative embrace of cinema and the lifestyle, worldview and growing-up experiences it represents for all of us. It’s one of the only cheery, otherwise “cliché” movies about believing in our childhood dreams that doesn’t activate our inner cynic. Deep down, we all want to believe life can be so fantastical, so gloriously full-circle. It’s not easy, considering all the things that society throws in the way. Here, for example, the lamentable decline of the cinema, the dearth of meaningful bonds in adult Salvatore’s personal life, and the disappearance of any semblance of the small-town “we all know each other” bonhomie so prevalent in Salvatore’s childhood community. But Tornatore shows us that for every such downturn, there are ups – nights in the theater, picnics with that special someone, bonds that never die – that make it so worth our while. Beautiful things, Tornatore dares us to believe, really do happen outside of the movies.
“Leave this place, Salvatore,” a wizened mother tells Salvatore at the very end of his journey. “Your memories are just phantoms.” So they may be. But they’ll always be at least memories, always there to remind him of the world that shaped who he is now. Just like him, we’ll always have Cinema Paradiso to remind us of the glory of the movies, the glory of our marvelous, vast artistic heritage. More than that, however, Salvatore’s story reminds us that it never hurts to aspire. That it never hurts to look back and remind ourselves of the spark that, once upon a time, drove us to where we are today. That every now and then, just like one Italian boy who gave up love, comfort, and family for his one driving call, it never hurts to dream big. Thanks, Mr. Tornatore, for giving us one of the greatest cinematic dreams of all.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Starring: Philippe Noiret, Jacques Perrin, Agnese Nano, Marco Leonardi, Salvatore Cascio
Running Time: 118 minutes
Produced by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Written by: Franco Cristaldi