The Power of Cinema Paradiso and Movies
The young Italian boy Salvadore takes a fascinating interest in his local cinema, staring in wonder at the likes of John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin projected on the screen. The old projection booth operator Alfredo tries to shoo him away, but can no more deny Salvadore than he can any other customer. The movie going public is loud and rude as they shout at the screen, drink wine, smoke cigarettes and smooch in their seats. But when denied entrance, the public clamors for Alfredo to let them see a show. Smiling down on the audience hungry for entertainment, he turns the projector and the speaker towards the town square, projecting movies for the whole town to see. Such is one of many wonderful scenes in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, a nostalgic love letter to the power of movies.
Film critic Roger Ebert referred to our existence as a box of time and space, movies being the windows into the past and the future. Cinema Paradiso reminds us of that box, but also its many glorious windows that can allow us to see so much more. I’ll never be able to feel the palpably topical satire of Doctor Strangelove when it first hit cinemas, but I can still enjoy its amusing performances and darkly comedic plot of war. I’ll never understand the true horrors of war, but films can come closer than any other medium to portraying the feeling of lives lost in Saving Private Ryan. I may never travel to distant regions of outer space, but I can still theorize of the journey through 2001: A Space Odyssey. The great director Yasujiro Ozu died long before I was born and yet I can still enjoy and appreciate his legacy of stellar films. Movies, by these merits, are indeed time machines that can transport us out of our bodies and allow us to experience new worlds and perspectives, be they the historic past or the imaginative future.
Cinema Paradiso presents itself in a non-linear story, beginning with Salvadore, as an older man in the 1980s where he is first made aware of Alfredo’s death. The movie then flashes back to Salvadore’s youth where he first met Alfredo. He thinks back to how much time he spent in the cinema and how inspiring it was to witness so many films on the big screen. It’s an element of childhood that most can relate with the movies that stick with us. Perhaps it’s the perceptions of a film critic, but I often look back on my past with movies as anchors. I recall the first time I saw the Star Wars Special Editions on the big screen, my dad busting me out of school early to catch a matinee. How could anyone forget the moment the White House exploded in Independence Day?
Certain movies, be they summer tent poles or intimate screenings, become lodged in our memories more as experiences than just staring at lights on a screen. We remember them and they become not only memorable parts of our pop culture history, but an experience we can share with our own language. If I quote Robert De Niro’s mirror speech from Taxi Driver, chances are a few others will recognize the reference and make the connection.
There’s an element of censorship present in Cinema Paradiso that comes into question. Alfredo is obligated by the local priest to censor his films, snipping parts out of the film he deems unfit. The priest watches the film in its entirety in the cinema, loudly ringing a bell when he objects to a certain scene. Most of these are romantic scenes that involve kissing. When the viewing public is aware that these scenes are cut from the film, they boo and hiss at the screen. They don’t want to see something simple and decent on the screen; they want a film that is brimming with passion and life. Chopping up such art feels almost sacrilege, despite Roger Ebert favoring the shorter version, which he believed saved the movie through butchering. When Salvadore later views all the edited-out kisses in a single reel, he cries at these beautiful scenes and the nostalgic twinge it generates. He remembers all those many films he witnessed from long ago and weeps with joy for the memories he treasured alongside Alfredo, witnessing the most heartfelt of montages.
Censorship has indeed become a grand issue as filmmakers struggle to distance themselves from adult ratings that most cinemas refused to cater towards. The BBFC has come under much fire for forcing filmmakers to edit down their work for a more acceptable 18 rating. And, just as in Cinema Paradiso, most of these edits are sexual. There’s a hypocrisy within the BBFC that something as gory and bloody as slasher pictures can easily skate by with an acceptable rating for cinemas, but romantic dramas will often have to tone down the onscreen sex to meet such a rating. It’s far more acceptable for the hero to murder a room of ten people, but having sexual relations with all ten of them is a much different story. Even with the forced censorship being portrayed as a product of the past, it is just as much alive now as it was then (just without the priest and the bell).
Thankfully, the home video market has become the beautiful “kissing reel” of movies. Home video allows for Director’s Cuts, Extended Cuts and even Work print Cuts. Scenes deemed too sexual, violent or inappropriate for cinemas can finally be seen by all. We have more freedom on home video to view whatever type of movie we want, filmed any way filmmakers want, than any other generations of movie-watchers. We can choose to watch Blade Runner as we originally saw it in the cinema or watch the narration-free version that director Ridley Scott intended to display. We can watch David Lynch’s theatrical cut of Dune or the extended-for-television cut he distanced himself from. It’s now up to the consumer to decide which movie they prefer.
Home video’s free range of content was not met without concern. A plethora of cheap and graphic horror pictures began to flood video stores, leading many to question the ethics of video stores and whom they allowed to rent. It was cause for concern the way kids would host gross-out horror parties by finding the most vulgar and graphic of gory movies to rent. But, in the end, the freedom of home video’s boundless potential outweighed the negative perceptions. The “kissing reels” would live on to make the filmmakers heard, including Cinema Paradiso’s own extended director’s 177-minute cut in 2002. There was a 155-minute cut that was referred to as the International Cut, but it has not been seen since its festival run.
With most specialty movie houses closing their doors, home video became the bastion of movie watchers to explore and expand their knowledge of cinema. For a time in my life, I became Salvadore in how I hung around the video store so often that I would eventually end up working there. With access to nearly every movie ever made, I was in movie heaven. I was allowed to rent three movies at a time for free with my company discount and I always checked out the maximum. My evenings became a blur of everything from Kubrick to Kurosawa, in addition to Cinema Paradiso. Just as Salvadore progressed in Cinema Paradiso, I became Alfredo in how customers would often flock to me for recommendations and information on movies. To have the answers and share that knowledge is an indescribable sensation that only the truest lovers of film could comprehend.
I admired Cinema Paradiso most as a passing of the torch for the loving of film. After a fire breaks out at the cinemas and renders Alfredo blind, he starts teaching Salvadore how to run the projector and continues to bestow his knowledge of cinema. Despite now being blind, Alfredo can still remember everything about films from running the projector to his favorite scenes, passing on all this to Salvatore who hungrily accepts. We can relate to both Salvadore and Alfredo in the regard that we admire the first glimpse of the magic movies and then sharing that love with someone else. Whenever I hear that someone has never seen Star Wars or Blade Runner, I get excited for the prospect of introducing them to the film, eager to watch their expression and hear what they have to say upon first viewing. Seeing your favorite film light up the eyes of someone who has never seen it before sparks a certain excitement in watching the eyes and the mind widen with something you’d like to share.
The second half of Cinema Paradiso is a fairly standard coming of age story for a man. Salvadore joins the military and is later urged by Alfredo to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. He later finds love with the girl Elena, but has this romance paused by Alfredo so that he may follow his destiny. That may seem horrible of Alfredo to deny Salvadore such love in his life, but it’s understandable for one who can see passion they do not want wasted. Alfredo fears that Salvadore will never progress with his love of film, settling for only being a projectionist and settling down with a wife. He knows the boy is too good for that and urges him not to return to town or look back nostalgically on either him or the town. He does so tearfully, knowing it will not be an easy life, but one that Salvadore knows he cannot deny. The term nostalgia originates as Greek, referring to a “homecoming” or an “ache” of an old wound. As much as nostalgia is comfortable, it is not something that is advisable to become obsessed with in life. It’s tragically sad to pine for the days you will never again experience.
It’s the reason why sites such as Cinema Paradiso exist as libraries for movies new and old. They could easily only carry the absolute best of cinema classics and nothing else, but what happens when one has exhausted all of them? There is always a new movie being released, seemingly every day now with the advent of direct-to-video movies, streaming content and cheaper film production. True, they may never come close to the excellence of Citizen Kane or Vertigo, but you never know. Besides, it’s no fun to simply dwell in the past and scorn the present without so much as a watch. After all, the present is where we live. It may not be as comfy or safe as the movies of yore, but it is far more exhilarating for the chance of witnessing what could be the next greatest film in cinema history.
The most memorable of scene of Cinema Paradiso is undeniably when Alfredo projects the movie across the town square, slowly pushing the reflective image away from cinema until it illuminates the town, against the wishes of the local priest. I related to this scene on a very personal level. The video store I worked at would often force us to play a promo tape the looped endlessly, driving both the employees and the customers insane. When the manager was out for the night, I’d pop out the obnoxious promo tape and pop in Back to the Future or Indiana Jones. The tone of the store changed greatly as customers felt less bombarded by ads and more interested in what was on the screen. They come up to the counter to check out and we’d often discuss the movie on screen as we waited for the computer to process the order. If I could stun and educate one person into discovering that Eric Stoltz almost played Marty McFly, I could go home happy that night knowing I did more than just process credit cards and push candy products.
Cinema Paradiso is considered a bit of a sleeper in that it left an impression known mostly to film buffs. It won BAFTA and Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, an accolade that attributed to Italy’s revival of film production. It had additionally won awards at the Golden Globes and Cannes. A parody of the film’s “kissing reel” could be seen in an episode of The Simpsons, which animated both clips seen in Cinema Paradiso as well as modern movies such as Ghost, Spider-Man and Star Trek (2009). Few may have caught the reference, but everyone knew the emotions it was meant to stir.
Tornatore put an awful lot of thought into both writing and directing Cinema Paradiso. It’s a picture that resonates so well since it is a semi-biographical story of his own childhood. In his hometown of Bagheria, Tornatore befriended projectionist Mimmo Pintacuda, a man who taught him much about film and photography. Pintacuda gave him a camera as a present and the rest is history.
Tornatore had such a love for the past in how he shot the picture in his hometown of Bagheria, Italy. The actual Paradiso Cinema that appears in the film was built in the town square of Palazzo Adriano, overlooking the historic octagonal Baroque fountain. Long-time actor Philippe Noiret plays Alfredo, most notable for his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz. The adult actor for Salvadore was played by Jacques Perrin, also known for a wealth of roles including a photojournalist in Costa-Gavras’s Z. Legendary movie composer Ennio Morricone, best known for such memorable scores from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and The Mission, composed the unforgettable musical score. Worth noting is how Morricone shares a credit with his son who helped him compose the love theme of the picture. Tornatore himself would go on to direct many more films, his most recent being 2016’s The Correspondence, starring Jeremy Irons with a score by Morricone once more.
Cinema Paradiso loads itself up with everything that makes movies great: the coming-of-age story, the childhood wonder of movies as escapism, the sentimental reflections and the appeal of movies to both the young and old. It’s an important film that means so much to many film buffs not for what it is so much as what it represents. It is the goal of such establishments as the Cinema Paradiso website to continue the trend set by the cinema of the titular feature. It is our hope that we can be the Alfredo to your Salvadore, expanding the perspectives of eager movie watchers with every engrossing spectacle and “kissing reel” to offer. Or perhaps you’re already an Alfredo and just need access to your own Paradiso to impression some fresh moviegoer into your world.
To all the Alfredos and Salvadores of cinema, let there be movies for all and a Cinema Paradiso for them to reside.