[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 1999/2000.]
Showing in its original version rather than the longer “director’s” cut (widely held to be a more balanced and complex film), the tenth anniversary re-release of this 1989 winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and the Best Foreign Language Film at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, offers an opportunity to reassess a film that was panned by critics on its release, but proved something of a hit with the public.
The storyline aspires to myth, but finds itself hovering between romance and melodrama, as we follow a middle-aged Salvatore into his memories of childhood, when he was known as Toto. He has received a message from his mother telling him that someone called Alfredo has died, and that the funeral is tomorrow. Salvatore thinks back to his childhood in the Sicilian village of Giancaldo, where he is an altarboy to the priest, also the local film censor. Toto, whose father died on the Russian front, finds a surrogate father in Alfredo, the curmudgeonly projectionist at the local Cinema Paradiso. Toto, obsessed by films, persuades Alfredo to teach him to be a projectionist. One evening, a reel of film catches fire in the projector, and Alfredo is blinded. Toto becomes chief projectionist in the rebuilt cinema, a post he occupies until he goes to the mainland to do his military service. In the months before he goes away, he has an abortive love affair with Elena, the beautiful daughter of the local banker. Upon his return, he cannot find her, and returns to Rome to begin his career in film, not returning to Giancaldo until Alfredo’s funeral.
In many ways, it is easy to see why Cinema Paradiso received such a critical savaging: it is unashamedly romantic and emotionally manipulative; the characters, while largely amusing and engaging, are hardly complex; the setting, a lovingly-drawn Sicilian village, is replete with every cliché imaginable; and the plot often lumberingly symbolic. These flaws were given a thorough airing at the time of release, but why is it still, even in this version, a viable piece of cinema?
The film operates in three periods: Toto’s childhood, adolescence and middle age. Each is marked by a different quality to the memories, and the nostalgia they invoke. Toto’s childhood is conjured with a small arena of familiar haunts and faces. Much is made of Toto’s emotional wisdom, and though this makes him seem cutely precocious at times, it allows the delight to be tempered by hints of melancholy. Once we pass into Toto’s adolescence and passage into manhood, the tenor of the scenes, while not losing playfulness and warmth, becomes a little less open, the public scenes more anonymous, the projection booth, a surrogate womb for so many years, no longer a world in itself. The scenes from which his memories are launched are marked by the disillusionment of middle age, and the safety of nostalgia.
The redemptive role played by the movies (and it is the experience of the “movies” that the film is largely concerned with) is emphasised again and again. From the outset, the similarity between church and cinema is shown by following a shot of motes of dust dancing in a shaft of light in church with a shot of the shaft of light emerging from the projection booth in the Cinema Paradiso. Both serve as a focus for, and serve the spiritual needs of the community. Yet it is the cinema that seems a more loving and complete microcosm of the world – all life is here, and so on. During the course of the film, the cinema plays host to both the hoi polloi and the self-proclaimed local bigwigs, to a nursing mother and a couple having sex, pubescent youths masturbating along to Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman, and a prostitute. Finally, when Salvatore returns to the predictably derelict cinema after Alfredo’s funeral, posters for porno films litter the ramshackle interior. The point that Tornatore is making is obvious, but no less passionate for that.