Reviewed by Shamain Nisar
I first came across Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso in a Film Appreciation class, one of 12 students on swivel chairs propped up in front of an iMac in a dark room. Since then, I have watched it countless times, with an increasing sense of appreciation.
This wonderful Italian movie starts off in Rome where famous filmmaker Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), is told by his girlfriend that his mother called to inform him that “Alfredo” (Philippe Noiret) died. Cue a flashback to Toto’s childhood, where young Toto (Salvatore Cascio) with an abiding love for film has formed a deep friendship with the cinema house technician, Alfredo. The plot centers on a small town where the cinema was the epicenter of all (or most) social interactions, a locale that allowed a careful observer access to many of the townspeople’s day-to-day struggles. Viewers follow Toto through his adolescence (Marco Leonardi), his first love which eventually leads to heartbreak, his departure to and subsequent return from the military, through to the time he leaves the town, urged by Alfredo to never write or come back, realizing their town was too small for him.
Cinema Paradiso flows at a pace that lets viewers to focus on the characters, their smallest gestures and minor shifts in expression, to become a part of their lives. The characters and the way in which they are observed are the film’s most intriguing element – the town’s residents, the way their lives are tied to “Cinema Paradiso” and their love for films. Everyone, from the highly disapproving priest, who as the town censure, watches every movie before it plays for the public to remove any “unsuitable” scenes, to the couple who finds love in the cinema, to the man who always sleeps, and the one who can quote every bit of dialogue word for word, adds to the charm of film. In a way, the cinema becomes both narrator and stage.
But perhaps what draws viewers in even more is the relationship between Alfredo and Toto. In the absence of his own father, who disappeared in the war, Toto had found a father figure in Alfredo, as well as a mentor; throughout his life Toto confides and seeks guidance from Alfredo who eventually pushes him towards fulfilling his dream. Alfredo has a way of philosophizing about everything, and can answer every question out there (most of the time by quoting the movies he’s seen). Incidentally, his words and stories are the reason I fell in love with Paradiso in the first place, and part of why any film lover can identify with Toto and his growing fascination with film.
The film is full of beautiful moments and lovely dialogue. But the price for all the enjoyment is the heartbreaking ending, when, back in the present, Toto returns to Rome with an unmarked film roll Alfredo left for him, featuring a montage of all intimate scenes that were cut by the priest. It’s a beautiful, subtle nod at the relationship between religion and art, a discussion that never gets old.
Cinema Paradiso embodies the rich culture of foreign (especially Italian) cinema: grounded in simplicity, beauty and an ethereality, they don’t always employ the typical three-point plot structure. Plot progression doesn’t necessarily lead to a big climax but flows smoothly, at its own leisurely pace, relying on charm rather than CGI, explosives or rising orchestral cresendos. Within the Hollywood subculture, it’s important to remember that films can be about the simple things too — about the most inconspicous of people, stories connectable to on a human level.
Nuance is a word Hollywood may have to relearn.
Shamain Nisar is Assistant Film Critic for the magazine.