Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Written by Giuseppe Tornatore and Vanna Paoli
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Cinema Paradiso did a lot of things. It garnered a lot of attention for Miramax, who distributed the film in the United States. By winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture and helped revive Italy’s faltering cinema industry which had once dominated cinema with the New Wave films. When you watch Cinema Paradiso, it feels like a template for audience-pleasing Oscar movies to come, but you have to remember the movie wasn’t made with those pretensions in mind. One thing it did not do was bring its director, Giuseppe Tornatore a large amount of attention, but it kept him working even today.
Cinema Paradiso is a semi-autobiographical film that came out Tornatore’s time as a film projectionist in his hometown and subsequent closing of that movie palace. Tornatore emphasizes the feeling of sadness that came when he was helping to dismantle the theater. For the next decade, he would jot down notes here and there building the story of this theater, the people who worked there, and the community it fed with beauty and art. Cinema Paradiso is a positive film about life but is tinged with sadness throughout.
The story focuses on the recollection of forty-something Salvatore Di Vita, a film director who gets the news that an old friend from his hometown, Alfredo, has died. It’s been thirty years since Salvatore (nicknamed Toto) went and the movie goes back to his childhood to tell the story of what led him to his current state in Rome. As a child, Toto is obsessed with the theater and projector, befriending the old and curmudgeonly Alfredo so he can become his assistant. Toto’s mother is wracked with anxiety as her husband has never returned from being sent to Russia by Mussolini. She holds out hope that he is still alive and will return one day. The victories and defeats of life ebb and flow through Toto’s life and his community leading to the Paradiso theater burning down and being rebuilt. As a young man, Toto discovers his first love and with that the pains of first heartbreak.
There are two versions of Cinema Paradiso; one clocking in at just over two hours and one just under three. I watched the three-hour director’s cut for this review which includes considerably more of the adult Salvatore and gives context and closure to his tragic lost love. The length is definitely felt by the audience, especially when we transition from Toto as a child to a teenager and the romance plot comes into focus. This almost feels like separate films at a certain point.
Cinema Paradiso is not without considerable flaws, especially in its maudlin approach to life. The characters never feel real, and I would argue that work like Fellini’s with larger than life figures is more realistic than the cast of characters passing across the screen in this movie. The addition of the adult storyline that brings closure to the Selena storyline feels like something right to cut from the picture. It bogs down the story and leads the story astray from the focus of Salvatore’s friendship with Alfredo. That’s also a problem with the teenage portion of the film as Alfredo is pushed out of the tale.
Cinema Paradiso is a decent movie that has a lot of love put into it. That doesn’t always result in emotions that feel earned by the picture or even honestly coming from these characters. Tornatore is out to create a mood and feeling, his characters talk about the dangers of nostalgia, yet his film seems to idolize that sentiment. Deciphering the themes of Paradiso is hard because the movie often seems to contradict itself in sloppy ways. While Ennio Morricone’s music is rapturous and feels like a wistful remembrance of childhood, the picture uses it as a crutch to express emotion instead of letting the characters do that job. There is much hope to be found in this movie but’s light on substance.