Cinema Paradiso: The Reason I love the movies
Cinema Paradiso is about many things: the formative years of a young boy- how he grows up in a single parent family to become a successful film director; the relationship between a young man at the start of his life and an old man who has seen it all before; a love story between a young man and young woman; a village, recovering from the war, struggling with poverty, politics and the changing times of society. It is all these things certainly but it is also, at its heart, a love song to cinema; how it inspires people, defines them, brings them together and reflects the times we live in. It is about cinema itself. All these elements combine to make a beautiful poem using images of light instead of words and music instead of rhyme.
It starts with a phone call answered by a stranger who assumes the identity of someone she is not. She doesn’t do this to deceive but to avoid hurting and confusing the old woman who is calling. The old woman is Maria Di Vita and she is phoning for her son to tell him of the death of an old man he hasn’t seen in over 30 years. Later that evening Salvatore Di Vita returns home from work to be told of the conversation, as he is hears the news a subtle change comes to his face, he did not expect this news and hadn’t thought of this man for many years. He turns over in bed and we are taken back to his childhood in the small Sicilian village of Giancaldo.
It is a few years after the war and Giancaldo is a broken village. It is a place of poverty where work is scarce and men are refused whatever work is available because of their political affiliations. At the centre of the town is the square, an open space where people buy and sell, catch buses and queue for work. At night, as midnight chimes, it becomes the possession of the local madman who chases everyone out barking at them ‘It’s mine. The square is mine.’
At the top of the square, dominating the area is the cinema – the only place in the village where people can meet, talk and be entertained. It is very much the cultural centre of Giancaldo. The name of the cinema is Cinema Paradiso and people go there to forget their troubles and to be reassured that the rest of the world exists.
The young Salvatore – Toto – is an altar boy who has little interest in anything apart from the movies and lucky for him he knows the projectionist – Alfredo. Alfredo is a gruff old man who has lived in the village all his life, he knows everyone and everyone knows him. He is the alchemist that makes cinema works, he operates the machinery which manipulates the light and creates the images on the screen.
The spine of Cinema Paradiso is this relationship between this mischievous youngster and the old man. Slowly they get to know each other more deeply, sharing confidences and confessions. Toto’s father has not returned home from fighting in Russia and even though his mother refuses to believe he is dead, we know there is little chance of him ever returning. For Toto his absent father is replaced by Alfredo who, from the confines of the cramped projection room, adopts the patriarchal role that Toto desperately seeks.
For Toto there is very little in the village that interests him other than the movies. These are the things that catch his imagination and gives him a creative outlet. His father is a figure who seems less real than his celluloid heroes. Only one photograph exists of him whereas Humphrey Bogert lives in countless images on screen.
The colour of Cinema Paradiso comes from the village itself and the people who inhabit it. As the years pass we see the characters age and we begin to love them. The Priest who insists on watching the films first so any kissing can be edited out (which gives us one of the film’s funniest lines); the man on the balcony who spits on the cinema goers below him; the man who just wants to sleep but is always the butt of practical jokes. Each of these characters are intricate stitches in the colourful and elaborate tapestry you are watching. It is obvious a great deal of love and affection has gone into creating and playing these characters.
Change happens slowly but as the years pass they do occur – hair gets greyer, people meet, fall in love and get married; the films get more risqué, as the influence of the 50s overpower the influence of the church. We see beauty and tragedy. Indeed one of the best and most famous scenes in the film is followed by the most terrifying and tragic:
The cinema is full and there are still many people outside who want to come in. They call up to Alfredo to do something for them. Alfredo smiles knowingly and asks Toto if they should satisfy the crowd’s appetite and Toto readily agrees. The old man turns a glass on the projection and an image appears on the wall. Toto’s eyes widen in excitement and wonder as the mirror is moved further and the image moves along the wall, across the room before appearing full sized on the wall of the building across the square. The crowd cheers, the music soars and the priest, spying an opportunity to make some money, sends someone out with tickets although the crowd are having none of it. It is a perfect little moment where the magic of the movies is writ large, beautifully and elegantly.
Then the image breaks up. Alfredo and Toto turn to the projection to see that notoriously flammable nitrate film stock has caught fire. The wonderful moment is brought to a shuddering end and results in Toto taking over the role of projectionist.
The years continue to pass. As Alfredo puts it: ‘Living here day by day, you think it's the centre of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything's changed. The thread's broken. What you came to find isn't there.’
As Toto becomes a teenager he discovers girls and filmmaking, at one time secretly filming the girl of his dreams, Elena. The most romantic scene in the film is also one of the most playful. Elena has been away for the summer, Toto is still working as a projectionist showing films outdoors during the hot summer months. He lies on his back wishing summer to end so he can be with this girl again. If this were a film, he muses, there would be a cut accompanied with a clap of thunder and rain and summer would be no more. Suddenly there is indeed a clap of thunder and the rain pours. As the audience rushes for cover, Toto remains on the ground happy with what is happening. We have a close-up of his face, eyes closed, and suddenly above him appears Elena who reaches down and kisses him – the fantasy of film has become reality.
The power of film is, of course, this very fantasy – it takes elements of reality and compresses them, reinterprets them, shuffles them to create something which affects us emotionally, intellectually and sometimes physically. We can experience the fantastical in a way that is very personal; and the more personal our experience the more we are affected by it. This is the lesson of the final scene of Cinema Paradiso. Alone in the cinema the older Salvatore watches a compilation of all the kisses that were cut from the hundreds of films he grew up with. Each moment a fantasy that can only live on the silver screen, touching him in a way so personal and intimate that he can’t help but cry.
Cinema Paradiso is probably my favourite film because of this. I believe in film but films like this make want me to believe even more. It reinforces my feelings for this medium and each time I see it (which is often) I want to see it more. Maybe this is why I also own the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the paperback of the screenplay. I want this experience to last and to be able to enjoy it whenever I can.
This is the power and magic of the movies.