Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. Starring Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Marco Leonardi

Cinema Paradiso is in many respects kind of a bad movie. It has a problem with its ending, which is not really its own ending so much as an ending pieced together from the endings of a great many other films. Depending on your point of view, you may even have an issue with it relying so heavily on post-war Italian cinema and some old American goodies for its imagery. (I thought it was wonderful. I can see how someone else might think it’s lazy.) It has a problem with its basic plot, which is old to the core and maybe leans into its age a little too often. The extended cut, which I imagine is probably more available now than the original cinematic release, is probably less effective. I can imagine the original release being a greater punch to the gut than the director’s cut. As much as I like the added knife twist of finding out that young Elena (Agnese Nano) left a trail for the young Salvatore (Leonardi) to follow, I’m not sure it’s totally necessary. It also makes Alfredo (Noiret) a much more cynical character. He says in one scene that he could have improved on God’s handling of the making of the world; the director’s cut gives him a way to play god in his relationship with Salvatore, and his gift to his beloved Toto at the end is not a consolation but a warped vision of what the movies are to us. It still makes sense. Splicing together all the kisses that Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste) had censored from the original Cinema Paradiso features in a world where Salvatore never found Elena (older, and played by Brigitte Fossey) again is a way of saying that he still has the movies, those beloved filmstrips that he’d coveted since he was a tiny boy. Doing so in the director’s cut is a queer way of privileging made-up life over real life, of favoring career to happiness, and of choosing to direct Salvatore’s life onto a path he may well have stayed away from. Cinema Paradiso can be frustrating, and there are sections that don’t work very well. And yet I can’t shake the movie, either. By nature I’m a stoic movie-watcher, given to little more than laughter or a gasp of surprise. I felt like crying for a good fifteen minutes during Cinema Paradiso, partly because I bought into the old plot and the ending, which really is a marvel in either edition of the film.

As Toto grows older, and displays a small talent for filmmaking himself, Alfredo becomes vehement in his belief that his protege must leave Giancaldo. Toto has always been a charmer, able to worm his way into the good graces of strangers (even if he is a trial for his mother) over repeated interactions. Alfredo tries to chase Toto away in their first encounter together; within fifteen minutes of screen time he is treating the boy like the son he doesn’t have. When Alfredo is blinded in a fire thanks to the infamously combustible film of the first decades of movies, his secret assistant Salvatore becomes the full-time projectionist for the Nuevo Cinema Paradiso. He talks about leaving school to focus more on his work at the theater, but Alfredo, who takes the same exam as Salvatore in one funny scene but not nearly as competently, puts his foot down. He must go to school. He will feel the fool later on if he doesn’t continue on. After Salvatore’s year in the army (the result of bad paperwork – he should have been exempted as a war orphan), when he was stationed in Rome, he returns home. Alfredo tells him he should go back to Rome and never come back. We discover late in the film that Alfredo didn’t even want Salvatore to return to the little town for his funeral; he didn’t want Salvatore’s mother (Pupella Maggio) to tell him that his mentor had died. We never really discover why Alfredo is so down on Giancaldo aside from its basically provincial character and the smallness of its worldview. (The movie is not shy about visual imagery to support the idea that Giancaldo keeps its people home; Salvatore has his heart-to-heart about leaving town surrounded by anchors.)

Alfredo sees that in Rome Toto could become a sensation and pushes him to it, but once again it seems odd that he would try to tear Toto’s roots from him. Giancaldo is, at least from an American’s perspective, charming. As in Fiddler on the Roof or The Last Picture Show or (don’t hurt me) Amarcord, the small town where our characters live is a living being itself. Anatevka has a song devoted to it which shows the fidelity of the expelled Jews to their hometown via their showy rejection of it. Anarene has its hooks in Duane and Sonny even if they know it’s a worthless place. Giancaldo is less sinister than Anarene or even Borgo – this is a post-Mussolini Italy, after all – but it’s stuck. Father Adelfio’s bell rings whenever there’s a kiss; his reaction to one uncensored one in Anna is that he didn’t come to watch pornography. Even after a three-hour film, I’m blessed if I know what the economy of the town is rooted in other than this one movie theater. Its people are types. There’s the man who has apparently seen every showing of Catene in the history of the world, for he say each line before it happens while sobbing relentlessly. There’s the homeless crank who proclaims that it’s his square and nobody else’s. There’s the town whore who deflowers every teenage boy in town. There’s the fellow who comes into the cinema to sleep and who is the butt of all manner of practical jokes due to his prone status. And so on and so forth; they give a stony town its decoration, and their one-track lives are useful for building a familiar tone.

What makes Giancaldo different than the average hamlet in a movie like this is how its inhabitants treat it as a living symbol for the past. Both Alfredo and Salvatore’s mother, Maria, refer to the town as a kind of ghost. When he returns to Giancaldo and discovers during Alfredo’s funeral that the Nuevo Cinema Paradiso has been closed for six years and will be torn down in the near future to make room for a parking lot, that ghostly character gains immense vitality. To me it is every bit as sad as the supercut ending or the scene where Elena and Salvatore realize that they almost literally lived out “ships that pass in the night.” Salvatore can see Toto in the peeling wallpaper and chairs piled up in the middle of the room; the receipts for each movie delivered haven’t been moved from the walls, and when he tears the room apart looking for the one that Elena said she wrote on, the dust flies and the paint behind the receipts is a different color from the rest of the wall. He cannot stand with the crowd when the old building is brought down; he stays further back than the rest. How many ghosts were released into Giancaldo that day is unknowable, but no doubt John Wayne and Silvana Mangano and Antonio Arcidiacano and Yvonne Sanson and Charlie Chaplin were all there, infiltrating the dust and stones, released from the building that once kept them.

Alfredo, who was a projectionist for silent films all the way into the late ’40s, has seen everything and has seen everything a million times. If Jesus hadn’t died on Good Friday, he says, I’d work every day of the year. He quotes movies so frequently that his original thought about how insular Giancaldo is greeted by Toto with a question asking if Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, or Gary Cooper said that. His reaction to Modern Times is that he’s seen it “one hundred times,” and that it’s also the movie that he was showing the day his wife died. It’s not surprising that Toto becomes defined by his own movie-style plot; in the shot above, we can see the window refracting a beam of light onto him in much the same style that light is directed onto a movie screen. Interestingly, the movies don’t change him in the way they change Alfredo. Alfredo has come to define himself and his life via the movies; Salvatore, even though he begins working in the movie biz around age 10, keeps them more or less outside. Pursuing Elena, the dream girl whose wealthy father has no desire for his daughter to fall in with a boy with no prospects, is the plot which keeps him connected to real life. Occasionally it requires some hijinks, as in a scene at church where Alfredo runs interference with Father Adelfio by questioning the miracles of Jesus so he can talk to Elena in a confessional booth. If there is some element of fantasy connected to his infatuation, it’s the old story that Alfredo tells him one afternoon. A princess promises to marry a man if he waits one hundred days outside her house; through great turmoil the man does so, but on the ninety-ninth day, on the cusp of his goal, he leaves. After Elena disappears, Toto confides in Alfredo that he knows why the man left. (Alfredo doesn’t have a moral to the story when first tells it.) He left because the thought of her breaking her promise is unbearable, he says. If he bails out, then he can say he had some piece of her for the ninety-nine days. What Salvatore never says, maybe because he doesn’t have to or maybe because he can’t bring himself to speak it aloud, is that it is such cold comfort to be able to look back and say that you had a piece of nothing. And maybe Alfredo, blinded and old and unemployed and childless, thinks of the princess not as a woman but as a movie projector and miles of film. They’re less real than the ocean or the anchors, the buses and scooters, the people of Giancaldo. But literally and figuratively, they ignite. Cinema Paradiso understands – and maybe this is why the movie really struck a chord in me I didn’t think it would touch – what images on a screen can change in a person’s heart. Once again I have to come back to the ending, which has only a few original shots in it.

I don’t like “the magic of movies” as a phrase very much; it smacks a little too much of the old Hollywood dream factory which was smoke, mirrors, duct tape, and the worst of American ideology masquerading as divinity. What Salvatore experiences with us at the end of Cinema Paradiso is something else entirely. It’s just what the name implies: the paradise of film. It’s cheesy and it shouldn’t change us logical actors and thinkers. It shouldn’t soak us up and wring us out. But kiss after kiss makes fools of us and, as our reward for foolishness, sends us to a heaven at twenty-four frames a second.

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