A memorable moment from Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso involves a village priest, who turns up once a week at the local cinema to judge which scenes he feels should be cut before the film can receive a public screening. Whenever he disapproves of what he’s being shown—especially scenes in which two characters kiss or embrace—he rings a bell, thus letting the projectionist know to remove that part from the reel. What is left in consequence is a film that tells a story, yet jump-cuts over many of the best scenes, leaving the audience to work out what has happened in between.
Until recently, when I watched Cinema Paradiso for the first time in five years, my memory of the film took a rather similar form to this. I could remember the bare bones, but as though they’d been removed by a captious priest disgruntledly waving a bell, there were large patches missing, whole scenes that had been cut from my consciousness. But there was it seems an upside to my forgetfulness, for it allowed me to discover all over again just how wonderful and charming a film Cinema Paradiso is.
If I have good reason at all for not revisiting the film sooner, it’s that watching it can be an emotionally wearying experience, the extent of which truly becomes apparent when it is seen in the cinema. It is one of those films that makes the entire audience well up and produce unrepressed bellows of emotion; it’s an uplifting tearjerker that, at every stage, seems repeatedly attempting to outdo itself by making more and more of its audience break down in tears. (Ennio Morricone’s certainly doesn’t help.)
The film’s most moving parts are almost invariably concerned with Salvatore, the film’s young protagonist, and his letting go of the things he cares about most: his childhood, his first love, the village in which he grew up, and eventually those closest to him. In a sense, it’s a coming of age tale, which deals explicitly with the unavoidable problems that come with growing up and moving away from home. Only by disposing of this emotional baggage is Salvatore able to make a future for himself and escape the constraints of village life.
The film begins with Salvatore having already succeeded at conquering his ambitions: he is successful man living in Rome, who hasn’t returned back to his quaint yet downtrodden village in Sicily in 30 years. His past, however, catches up with him after he receives a phone message from his elderly mother, who tells him that his old friend and mentor, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), has passed away.
Thereafter, the story is told mostly through flashback, with Salvatore recalling his formative years during the 1940s. Most fondly, he remembers Alfredo, the gruff, kindly projectionist at the local cinema, who is bright yet poorly educated, and who has done the same job since he was a boy. He is, in many ways, the antithesis of Salvatore, who is both young and academically gifted. Yet the two are brought together by their common passion for films and the cinema.
Even at the very beginning, when he doesn’t especially want the precocious Salvatore hanging around him, Alfredo is a very difficult character to dislike. One almost pities him at first, working at all hours up in the tiny projection room, scarcely finding the opportunity to speak to anyone at all. Hence, from very early on, the audience are already on his side, hoping he will see it in himself to mentor Salvatore in the ways of his trade. There is also good reason why both characters should be close: for Alfredo, Salvatore is the son he never had; and for Salvatore, whose real father is missing at war the war, Alfredo is the father he never got to know.
Though this story takes centre stage, a more light-hearted one is also being told—that is, the story of the villagers, who flock, rich or poor, each night to the Cinema Paradiso to mostly behave uproariously by stamping their feet and hollering at the screen. In the darkness of the theatre it seems almost anything can happen: babies are nursed, pranks are played and romances are formed; even rather blue things can take place, as seen when an entire row of teenagers are shown masturbating to one of the lewder pictures.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that all of these scenes, no matter how off-colour, are always played for laughs. Perhaps even funnier than it is moving, what makes Cinema Paradiso such a beguiling film is an ever-present mix of humour and nostalgia, which go perfectly with one another.
If there’s a message to the film it’s this: that the communal act of movie watching, which once provided the location at which entire villages assembled, is speedily becoming obsolete due to the ever-increasing popularity of television. It’s a message that, to some degree, still rings true today, though television is no longer solely responsible: the internet must now take some of the blame.
But then the days of Cinema Paradiso, a time when the cinema could be a microcosm of whole towns and villages, ended decades ago, or more likely never existed in the first place. Like Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo or Fellini’s Amarcord, the world in which Cinema Paradiso exists is a romanticised vision of the past, a fond memory for a bygone era. It is a nostalgia piece for people who love films and enjoy, even more so, going to see films at the cinema.
It doesn’t seem as though it was released 25 years ago, back in 1988. Moreover, it doesn’t feel especially like a film of the 1980s: it could conceivable have been released much earlier, sharing more in common with the oldies that are shown within the film than it does with those of its time. It’s so unique in this sense that it’s no wonder that Cinema Paradiso won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Its charm is inimitable.
If you don’t wish to be seen bawling your eyes out by a roomful of people who are also bawling their eyes out—if indeed they’ll be able to see you at all, through a veil of streaming tears—it’s probably best to avoid seeing Cinema Paradiso in the cinema. But that’s the environment in which it should be seen, where it is most enjoyable, and where the film leaves its biggest impact.
The 25th Anniversary edition of Cinema Paradiso will be released in cinemas from 13th December 2013