Title: Cinema Paradiso
Release Date: November 17, 1988
Production Company: Les Films Ariane | RAI | TF1 | Cristaldi Film | Forum Picture
Cinema Paradiso is a movie about going to the movies that celebrates how film can transport us out of lives as well as the communal experience of watching a film in a classic movie house. It reminds me of my own experiences as a child going to see movies while on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. At the time, there were four movie theaters on the island: The Strand and The Island in Oak Bluffs, The Capawock in Vineyard Haven, and The Edgartown Town Hall (which was literally an auditorium upstairs from the town hall). Movies rotated through the four cinemas with a surprising diversity of film, including this Italian film I saw in the summer of 1990.
In the movie, Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (played by the adorable Salvatore Cascio) is a boy in a Sicilian village just after World War II who is fascinated by the movies shown at the Cinema Paradiso on the town square. He’s particularly interested in the work of the projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), and eventually Alfredo takes him on as an apprentice. Alfredo also offers wisdom distilled from classic movies and takes on a fatherly role for Toto, whose own father died in the war.
As a teenager, Toto (Marco Leonardi) continues to work as projectionist at Cinema Paradiso while learning to make films on a Super 8 camera. He meets the new girl in town, Elena (Agnese Nano), and immediately falls in love. They have a brief, but passionate romance before Toto leaves for military service and Elena moves away with no forwarding address. The movie is framed by the story of Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) as a middle-aged man, now a successful filmmaker in Rome, learning of Alfredo’s death. Alfredo implored the younger Toto to never return to his hometown but he returns for the first time in 30 years, seeing how the town and the people have changed.
The movie has several classic shots I’ll never forget. There’s the scene where Alfredo magically projects a movie into the square for people who could not get into the Cinema Paradiso. There’s one of the most romantic kisses in film history of Toto and Elena in the rain. And then there’s the ending of the movie, which I won’t spoil, but oh that ending! Cinema Paradiso is full of nostalgia, and humor of the quirky characters of small town life, but it is also bittersweet. Watching it this time I wonder if Toto is right to follow Alfredo’s advice because despite his success as a director, he seems to have abandoned his family and is unable to find connection with the series of women he dates.
Rewatching Cinema Paradiso now also makes me realize that it probably drew influence from two older films I watched for the first time this year. One is Fellini’s Amarcord, which shares the same nostalgic view of coming of age in an Italian village populated by quirky characters. The other is The Spirit of the Beehive which shares the experience of watching movies in a small town and how it affects a child. These movies are on Greatest Films of All Time lists, but call me a lover of populist cheeze, because I prefer Cinema Paradiso to either of them. It would be fun, and I’m sure someone has done this, to have a film festival of all the movies that appear in Cinema Paradiso.