If you love movies, it's impossible not to appreciate CINEMA PARADISO, Giuseppe Tornatore's heartwarming, nostalgic look at one man's love affair with film, and the story of a very special friendship. Affecting (but not cloying) and sentimental (but not sappy), CINEMA PARADISO is the kind of motion picture that can brighten up a gloomy day and bring a smile to the lips of the most taciturn individual. Light and romantic, this fantasy is tinged with just enough realism to make us believe in its magic, even as we are enraptured by its spell.
Most of CINEMA PARADISO is told through flashbacks. As the film opens, we meet Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), a famous director, who has just received the news that an old friend has died. Before departing for his home village of Giancaldo the next morning to attend the funeral, he reminisces about his childhood and adolescence, thinking back to places and people he hasn't seen for decades.
As a fatherless child, Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio) loved the movies. He would abscond with the milk money to buy admission to a matinee showing at the local theater, a small place called the Cinema Paradiso. Raised on an eclectic fare that included offerings from such diverse sources as Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, John Wayne, and Charlie Chaplin, Salvatore grew to appreciate all kinds of film. The Paradiso became his home, and the movies, his parents. Eventually, he developed a friendship with the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), a lively middle-aged man who offered advice on life, romance, and how to run a movie theater. Salvatore worked as Alfredo's unpaid apprentice until the day the Paradiso burned down. When a new cinema was erected on the same site, an adolescent Salvatore (Marco Leonardi) became the projectionist. But Alfredo, now blind because of injuries sustained in the fire, remained in the background, filling the role of confidante and mentor to the boy he loved like a son.
CINEMA PARADISO's first half, with Salvatore Cascio playing the young protagonist, is the superior portion. The boy's experiences in the theater, watching movies and listening to Alfredo's stories, form a kind of journey of discovery. As Salvatore cultivates his love of movies, those in the audience are prodded to recall the personal meaning of film. It's an evocative and powerful experience that will touch lovers of motion pictures more deeply than it will casual movie-goers.
Once Salvatore has grown into his teens, CINEMA PARADISO shifts from being a nostalgic celebration of movies to a traditional coming-of- age drama, complete with romantic disappointment and elation. Salvatore falls for a girl named Elena (Agnese Nano), but his deeply-felt passion isn't reciprocated. So he agonizes over the situation, seeks out Alfredo's advice, then makes a bold decision: he will stand outside of Elena's window every night until she relents. In the end, love wins out, but Salvatore's joy is eventually replaced by sadness as Elena vanishes forever from his life.
The Screen Kiss is important to CINEMA PARADISO. Early in the film, the local priest previews each movie before it is available for public consumption, using the power of his office to demand that all scenes of kissing be edited out. By the time the new Paradiso opens, however, things have changed. The priest no longer goes to the movies and kisses aren't censored. Much later, following the funeral near the end of CINEMA PARADISO, Salvatore receives his bequest from Alfredo: a film reel containing all of the kisses removed from the movies shown at the Paradiso over the years. It's perhaps the greatest montage of motion picture kisses ever assembled, and, as Salvatore watches it, tears come to his eyes. The deluge of concentrated ardor acts as a forceful reminder of the simple-yet-profound passion that has been absent from his life since he lost touch with his one true love, Elena. It's a profoundly moving moment -- one of many that CINEMA PARADISO offers.
Is CINEMA PARADISO manipulative? Manifestly so, but Tornatore displays such skill in the way he excites our emotions that we don't care. This film is sometimes funny, sometimes joyful, and sometimes poignant, but it's always warm, wonderful, and satisfying. CINEMA PARADISO affects us on many levels, but its strongest connection is with our memories. We relate to Salvatore's story not just because he's a likable character, but because we relive our own childhood movie experiences through him. Who doesn't remember the first time they sat in a theater, eagerly awaiting the lights to dim? There has always been a certain magic associated with the simple act of projecting a movie on a screen. Tornatore taps into this mystique, and that, more than anything else, is why CINEMA PARADISO is a great motion picture.
BY ROGER EBERT / Washington Post, March 16, 1990
There is a village priest in "Cinema Paradiso" who is the local cinema's most faithful client. He turns up every week like clockwork, to censor the films. As the old projectionist shows the movies to his audience of one, the priest sits with his hand poised over a bell, the kind that altar boys use. At every sign of carnal excess - which to the priest means a kiss - the bell rings, the movie stops and the projectionist snips the offending footage out of the film. Up in the projection booth, tossed in a corner, the lifeless strips of celluloid pile up into an anthology of osculation, an anthology that no one will ever see, not in this village, anyway.
Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso," which is one of this year's Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, takes place in Sicily in the final years before television. It has two chief characters: old Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), who rules the projection booth, and young Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio), who makes the booth his home away from an indifferent home. As the patrons line up faithfully, night after night, for their diet of films without kisses, the boy watches in wonder as Alfredo wrestles with the balky machine that throws the dream-images on the screen. At first Alfredo tries to chase Salvatore away, but eventually he accepts his presence in the booth and thinks of him almost as his child. Salvatore certainly considers the old man his father, and (this is the whole point) the movies as his mother.
I wonder if a theater has ever existed that showed such a variety of films as the Cinema Paradiso does in this movie. Tornatore tells us in an autobiographical note that the theater in his hometown, when he was growing up, showed everything from Kurosawa to the Hercules movies, and in "Cinema Paradiso" we catch glimpses of Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne and of course countless Hollywood melodramas in which men and women look smolderingly at one another, come closer, seem about to kiss, and then (with the jerk of a jump-cut) are standing apart, exchanging a look of deep significance.
We become familiar with some of the regular customers at the theater. They are a noisy lot - rude critics, who shout suggestions at the screen and are scornful of heroes who do not take their advice.
Romances are launched in the darkness of the theater, friendships are sealed, wine is drunk, cigarettes smoked, babies nursed, feet stomped, victories cheered, sissies whistled at, and god only knows how this crowd would react if they were ever permitted to see a kiss.
The story is told as a flashback; it begins with a prominent film director (Jacques Perrin) learning in Rome that old Alfredo is dead and making a sentimental journey back to his hometown. Then we see the story of the director's childhood (portrayed by Cascio) and his teenage years, where he is played by Marco Leonardi. The earliest parts of the movie are the most magical. Then things grow predictable: There are not many rites of passage for an adolescent male that are not predictable and not many original ways to show the death of a movie theater, either.
Tornatore's movie is a reminder of the scenes in Truffaut's "Day for Night," where the young boy steals a poster of "Citizen Kane." We understand that the power of the screen can compensate for a deprived life and that young Salvatore is not apprenticing himself to a projectionist, but to the movies. Once that idea has been established, the film begins to reach for its effects, and there is one scene in particular - a fire in the booth - that has the scent of desperation about it, as if Tornatore despaired of his real story and turned to melodrama.
Yet anyone who loves movies is likely to love "Cinema Paradiso," and there is one scene where the projectionist finds that he can reflect the movie out of the window in his booth and out across the town square so that the images can float on a wall, there in the night above the heads of the people. I saw a similar thing happen one night in Venice in 1972 when they showed Chaplin's "City Lights" in the Piazza San Marco to more than 10,000 people, and it was then I realized the same thing this movie argues: Yes, it is tragic that the big screen has been replaced by the little one. But the real shame is that the big screens did not grow even bigger, grow so vast they were finally on the same scale as the movies they were reflecting.
CINEMA PARADISO, by Scott Weinberg
Video or DVD release of extended versions (sometimes called director’s cuts) of popular films have become a common practice in recent years. The Lord of the Rings trilogy thoroughly mined every ounce of commercial potential from the practice, but other films, such as Leon, The Professional, have received similar treatment. The additional footage in extended versions generally does not significantly alter one’s view of the essential story, but merely adds additional detail or entertaining vignettes that a film’s core group of enthusiasts are likely to appreciate. Cinema Paradiso also exists in two versions, called the “old version” and the “new version”, the latter being something akin to a director’s cut. It “restores” or “adds” (depending on your perspective) about 51 minutes of material. When first released in Italy, the film was nearly three hours long (174 min), but it was trimmed to 123 minutes for its release in the United States and it was on the basis of that 123 minute version that the film won the 1988 Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. What is unique in the case of Cinema Paradiso is that the reinsertion of those 51 minutes significantly alters the essential meaning of the film, for better or for worse. Many critics say for worse; I say for better. To understand the debate, you’ll need to first know the story.
Cinema Paradiso is essentially an ode to life’s two most important passions: romantic love and career. The setting of the story is in Sicily following WWII when the big screen was at the center of the entertainment industry, just before the advent of television.
The story begins in Rome, when a prominent movie director, Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), receives word from his hometown in Sicily of the death of his old friend and mentor, Alfredo. The main block of the story is then structured as an extended flashback in Salvatore’s mind to his boyhood and the role that Alfredo played in his life, as he makes his way home for the funeral.
Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), was the projectionist in the town’s movie theatre called the “Cinema Paradiso.” Salvatore (nicknamed Toto), a young boy rendered fatherless by the war, is fascinated by the movies shown at the Cinema Paradiso and with the projection booth in particular. Each week the town’s priest previews the films to be shown that week in order to censor any content deemed inappropriate. Such was the influence of the Catholic Church in Italy at that time. With Toto watching from a hiding place behind a curtain, the priest rings his altar bell each time a scene depicts something judged to be offensive, which, as it happens, includes kissing. When the actors and actresses kiss, the bell rings, and Alfredo, in the projection booth, must mark that place in the reel for later removal of the offending frames. The end result is a pile of film strips in one corner of the projection booth comprising a veritable smorgasbord of smooches.
Toto (Salvatore Cascio) is drawn irresistibly to the projection booth. Alfredo drives him away initially, but gradually Toto wears down the old man’s resistance by a series of cunning ploys. He weasels his way in on one occasion by bringing Alfredo his lunch from home. Later, he helps Alfredo with an elementary school exam (apparently Alfredo had not received education earlier in life) by passing him answers, but not before exacting from him a promise that he’ll teach Toto the ins and outs of the projection booth.
The projection booth becomes Toto’s home away from home and Alfredo his surrogate father. In mass, Toto falls dreamily asleep, but he crosses himself religiously as he enters the projection booth. He listens raptly and wide-eyed to Alfredo’s stories. Alfredo has a deep love for cinema that is evident in his eyes, face, and his voice. He spends so much of his day in the booth listening to films that he has unintentionally memorized many of the great lines from the classics of the time, which he intersperses into his conversations and instructions to Toto. Alfredo sees some of himself in his young protégé – in fact, more than he wants to see. He recognizes that Toto possesses more talent and ability than he ever had and doesn’t want Toto to end up wasting his talents as a mere projectionist. He has bigger things in mind for Toto.
The Cinema Paradiso is the center of this small town’s identity. Each night, the townspeople gather there to view film (even though their films lack kisses). There are Chaplin films and Gone With the Wind and King Kong and John Wayne and countless classics of the age. All of the events of living that occur in the town also occur in the Cinema Paradiso. Romances are initiated and consummated in dark corners and behind curtains. Later, these same couples show up with newborn badies and their mothers breast feed them among the audience. Wine is guzzled and the air fills with smoke. It is a highly interactive audience: some yell out instructions to the characters in the movie, others jeer and hoot, some stomp their feet, and adolescent boys even masturbate when a well-endowed actress appears. The balcony is occupied by the classier people in town and one regularly spits down on the unruly riff-raff below. For Toto, the Cinema Paradiso encompasses every important lesson in life. One night, when the last patrons to leave become unruly in the town square because they are still longing for more cinema , Alfredo rigs up a mirror to reflect a movie through an open window onto the side of a building across the square, creating an impromptu outdoor theatre. Toto is amazed.
This much of the story is common to both version of Cinema Paradiso. What differs between the two is the degree of emphasis afforded to a second story line. It concerns Toto’s love interest as he moves into adolescence. The adolescent Toto is played by Marco Leonardi, who also appeared in Like Water For Chocolate. Toto inevitably discovers the opposite sex. He loses his virginity, appropriately enough, in the Cinema Paradiso, between shows. He loses his heart somewhat later, when he encounters the lovely Elena, the daughter of a wealthy banker. He introduces himself, awkwardly, and is determined to prove his devotion to her by standing outside her window each evening, awaiting a signal from her that she loves him as well. The persistent Toto keeps up this show of devotion month after month, every evening, but receives no encouragement. Finally, when his resolve cracks and he gives up in despair, Elena’s resistance cracks as well. She realizes how much she misses her devoted suitor. Toto still has the implacable resistance of her father to deal with, however.
One obstacle after another springs up in the way of Toto and Elena’s relationship. Her father moves their family away. Then Toto is erroneously drafted into the Army (surviving sons of men killed in action were not supposed to be drafted). Despite this, Toto tries desperately to keep their bond intact and, after a long separation, arranges a rendezvous at the Cinema Paradiso. Elena, however, doesn’t show up . . . . or, at least, that’s what Salvatore has believed for the decades since. When the adult Salvatore returns for Alfredo’s funeral, he is finally able to track down his old flame – who is now married -- and has a daughter strikingly reminiscent of the younger Elena in Salvatore’s eyes. Salvatore learns that Elena had, in fact, shown up for the rendezvous but that Alfredo had kept it secret from him. Apparently, Alfredo believed that Salvatore’s destiny was his life’s work in cinema and took it upon himself to thwart Salvatore’s romantic desire, feeling that Salvatore would not be able to break from his hometown if he had Elena to keep him there. Salvatore has become a highly successful director, but has never found another woman that he can love after losing Elena.
In the original American version of Cinema Paradiso, the romance with Elena is limited to a subplot in scope, covering only the adolescent segment. There is no indication of Alfredo’s part in destroying the relationship. Consequently, the short-version of the film is mainly a nostalgic view of the mentor-protégé relationship between Alfredo and Toto and their shared love of cinema. As such, the short version of the film had great appeal for film critics, who are, after all, film geeks that fell in love with cinema at some stage in their lives – not unlike Toto. Roger Ebert, in reviewing the old version, put it this way: “anyone who loves movies is likely to love ‘Cinema Paradiso.’”
In the longer version, the significance of the story changes profoundly. Most of the additional footage expands the background and, especially, the closure on the romance between Salvatore and Elena. Therefore, the two elements of the story (corresponding to the two important elements of life – love and life’s work) are more evenly balanced. In its longer version, the film explores the tension between the two major elements of life and thereby raises some powerful questions. One question revolves around the concept of sublimation: would Salvatore have become a great director or as great a director had his romantic inclinations not been thwarted? If so, would Salvatore have been more or less happy had he been fulfilled in love but less successful professionally? What about the public that enjoys the fruits of his work? Then, another natural question posed by this new version is: was Alfredo right or wrong to take it upon himself to destroy the love between Toto and Elena in order to ensure that Salvatore would not be deflected from finding his life’s work? Was it presumptuous on his part to decide what was best for Salvatore? What does Salvatore now think of Alfredo knowing that he helped him find his life’s work but also destroyed his one true romantic love of a lifetime? These are profound questions that are not inherent in the old version of Cinema Paradiso.
The existence of these two remarkably different versions of Cinema Paradiso could be used to point out why film lovers should not depend excessively on the opinions of film critics and reviewers (including mine). Film critics, being film geeks themselves, love the part of the story of Cinema Paradiso that relates to the young Toto falling in love with cinema, precisely because it is something to which they can personally relate. One critic states, for example, that these scenes “form the central core of the film.” Another effuses that the “earliest parts of the movie are the most magical.” Still another states the issue explicitly: the “early scenes involving the young boy and his mentor endear Guiseppe Tornatore’s film to cinema aficionados, who recall similar feelings when they fell in love with movies.” For critics who love Cinema Paradiso for mirroring a part of their own personal evolution, the added minutes merely “diffuse the focus of the film away from its heart by making the mystery of what happened to Elena far more important than is warranted and causing some doubts about Alfredo’s motives.” Actually, the new footage doesn’t merely cast doubt on Alfredo’s motives; it opens his actions up to profound questions and a much deeper level of analysis. For critics who want mainly a nostalgic tribute to falling in love with cinema, “more doesn’t translate into better” and Tornatore merely “screwed up a beautiful thing.” In my opinion, however, the restored longer version is a much more profound film, raising significant questions and issues rather than merely wallowing in nostalgia.
Tornatore was just 32 years of age when Cinema Paradiso was completed. For a director that young, this film was a remarkably sophisticated piece of work. The film nicely balances between scenes of humor and scenes of emotional poignancy. The technique of mixing in strips of old film created a feeling of surrealism that was then further amplified by the portrayal of the patrons of the cinema as near caricatures. The lives of the people in this small town resemble cinema, illustrating the magic that transpires when the lights go down.
The casting was superb, especially the three Salvatores: Salvatore Cascio as the boy, Marco Leonardi as the adolescent, and Jacques Perrin as the adult. The score for Cinema Paradiso was the extraordinary work of Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest film composers in history. He has scored innumerable films but was at his best for this one, providing several great themes, effectively realized with wonderful solo performances and ensemble work. Cinema Paradiso is in Italian with English subtitles. The old version runs 123 minutes; the new version 174 minutes. My personal recommendation is the New Version. In my personal ranking of non-English language films, Cinema Paradiso is #2. I hold it in very high esteem.