3 Stars out of 4
Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso is such a fascinating film about movies but not quite its characters. In fact it is such an interesting study on the ecstasy of cinema that we can forgive the film for yielding to melodrama. I wished it was more a romance of the theatre, than a romance of people. Those films have already made their mark.
Still, it is an engaging story of a boy’s, Salvatore, life behind the projector. Unlike 81/2, this is not about the painful process of creating film, but the riveting sensation of watching it. Yet both films celebrate virtuosity, cinema’s surreal power, and the passion of the arts. And of course, they both conclude on a much-needed, tearful sequence of yearning.
The movie is a reflection by Salvatore (Jacques Perrin, the oldest Salvatore), who hears of the death of his long-time muse Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), who taught him the way of the projectionist when Salvatore was very young. The time then was late 1940s after Italy had just escaped Mussolini and Sicily was fragmented and a wreck. Sicilian people had religion, then the movies. What happens in Cinema Paradiso is the two are combined and this has peculiar results.
A priest will watch an early screening of a film, hold a bell altar boys use, and when he sees anything a bit sacrilegious, he will ring the bell. That is up to Alfredo to mark those aberrant scenes, whether it be simply a kiss, and keep religious values prominent through American film which had found its way to Europe. They may as well have called Censorship ‘Piety’.
The people flock to the church, which acts as the movie theatre. They boo, hiss, and yell at the screen when the actors do not do what they want. I thought talking was forbidden in church. Salvatore loves movies, and is a regular chanter. But he hates to sit on the sidelines, like he did as an altar boy. So he befriends Alfredo through playful mischief and nagging to learn how to use the projector, much like the events in Truffaut’s Day For Night. Of course they become great pals and Salvatore controls the image; that is his world.
The theatre screens John Wayne, Kurosawa, and Bogart melodramas which introduce Sicilians to new genres and heroes. After World War 2, they needed them. So yes, cinema is a quintessential means of escape in Cinema Paradiso, but it is also an important backdrop to the action. As Salvatore’s life develops, it manifests a film itself. I suppose you could say his beloved art imitated his life. What I mean is Salvatore gets older, he has crushes on girls, and of course a little bit of tragedy ensues.
It is beyond me if there was ever a theatre like Cinema Paradiso, which was an ironic name because when people went there, the films evoked outrage, chaos, and exhilarating immersion. People’s religious lives were placed by a devotion to the moving image, because it had a more direct influence on their emotions and I suppose they found it more involving. Bogart, to them, became God. I love this concept – how film was not just a rising art, but a phenomenon in various cultures.
The problem is Cinema Paradiso contains too much melodrama that it is hard to treat its character relationships seriously. How movies influence Salvatore’s bittersweet life (he lost his father in the war) is an interesting, poignant topic for a movie on movies, but I felt director Tornatore was just looking to pull heartstrings. It would have been marvellous if he explored how Alfredo and Salvatore’s camaraderie formed a father-son bond. I wish his mother had more to play too. She only pops in when there is meant to be moments of ‘sadness’ and necessary information to advance the narrative. Some of the characters needed tweaking.
Indeed the film has an easy pull of emotions, and every step is predictable. There is also an episode with Salvatore pursuing a girl, which feels unnecessary, mainly because it concludes with a cliché and provides no emotional resonance. I did enjoy the clever scene when Salvatore goads Alfredo to distract a priest while he tries to court this girl in a confession booth. It shows how penitence is no longer required, but Salvatore’s life is now a series of developing passions. I liked the reference to the religion/cinema binary (if that is one), but not the narrative reason. Since Cinema Paradiso falls into too much melodrama, it overshadows the drama of cinema it intended to explore.
I was mystified by the first half of the film and slightly underwhelmed in the second when things regressed into formula. I loved how the film originally studied faces, as people watched movies. Some would watch John Wayne bored, astounded, or indifferent. The subjectivity on their faces is the classic image of an audience – that is timeless. But when we reach the ending, it is meant to convey nostalgia, which was a better choice over a schmaltzy moral of the story. The final shot is classic and fitting. It puts Salvatore’s dramatic life in the theatre once again – its home of reassurance.
Cinema Paradiso won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1989. Tornatore, known for his theatre and acting, switched to cinema with his documentary The Ethnic Minorities in Sicily. He would direct The Professor and then do this one. This is where Tornatore is exploring the art that has fascinated him for years and putting it through the eyes of an older man reflecting on his younger years must be a cathartic choice. With the film being scored by Ennio Morricone, known for his evocative and passionate Western soundtracks, helps convey a nostalgia for when film was a godsend in Italian society.
At its best, Cinema Paradiso is an exercise in loving film. But too much is overrun with excessive plot tinker toys. So that makes it a good film admiring great ones.