Thursday, October 15, 2009

1988: Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore)

Released: November 17, 1988 (Italy)

a.k.a.: Nuovo Cinema Paradiso

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore; Screenplay: Giuseppe Tornatore; Cinematography: Biasco Giurato; Studio: Cristaldifilm; Producers: Franco Cristaldi and Giovanna Romagnoli

Cast: Jacques Perrin (Adult Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita), Marco Leonardi (Teenage Toto), Salvatore Cascio (Boy Toto), Philippe Noiret (Alfredo), Antonella Attili (Younger Maria Di Vita), Pupella Maggio (Older Maria Di Vita), Enzo Cannavale (Spaccafico), Isa Danieli (Anna), Leo Gullotta (Usher), Agnese Nano (Elena Mendola), Leopoldo Trieste (Father Adelfio), Tano Cimarosa (Blacksmith), Nicola Di Pinto (Village Idiot), Roberta Lena (Lia)

I’ve mentioned this story before, so it will be a repeat for most of the folks that frequent Wonders in the Dark, but I still have to bring it up again to show why I can acknowledge faults in this movie and still maintain such a strong connection to it. Similar to the curious bond that forms between Toto and Alfredo in this beloved Italian film, I had such a friendship when I was kid as well. Rather than a guy taking me under his wing and schooling me in cinema, in my case it dealt with golf. Similar to Alfredo, my friend was an older, gruff man who intimated most others who hung out at the golf course. But for whatever reason he took an interest in my game and essentially became my de facto personal coach. I became quite successful on the junior golf circuit in the area as a result, so I owed a lot to him. We were all the time going to play different courses, or the driving range, or other such jaunts. As I grew older though, and as golf was no longer the single interest in my life, we drifted apart a bit. By the time I had left for college, we had only spoken a handful of times in recent months. It wasn’t that there was any sort of falling out or anything, just both of us being busy with other things. There wasn’t much thought given to it. But about midway into my freshman year, I got a call telling me he was in the hospital. When I visited him he was unconscious and it was very touch and go. A week later, while back at school, I got a call telling me that he had passed away.

My reaction was similar to that of Toto’s when he gets the call about Alfredo. Just recalling the course of the friendship and feeling guilty about not having spoken to him in such a long time. It’s the ability to relate to this reaction that makes Cinema Paradiso such a memorable experience for me.

The story opens with a grown Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin) returning home and being told by a girlfriend that his mother called to say that Alfredo had died. Never having heard Salvatore mention the name, the girlfriend asks who he was. This then sends Salvatore back into memories of his childhood growing up in rural Sicily. It was in the tiny village of Giancaldo that a young Salvatore, known as Toto (Salvatore Cascio), discovered his passion in life: the cinema. Taking place shortly after the end of World War II, the young boy spends every possible moment at the local cinema. The Cinema Paradiso is the epicenter of life in the small town, where almost every resident gathers on the nights that new films are debuted.

The projectionist at the theater is the gruff, serious Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), who grudgingly takes Toto under his wing and shows him the ropes of running a projector. At first apprehensive about allowing the small boy in the control room with him, Alfredo soon begins to take pride as he watches the kid, not even tall enough to reach the controls, master the intricacies of the craft. This era of Toto’s life carries on in idyllic fashion until a terrible accident occurs at the theater. While projecting a film onto a nearby building so that everyone in the town square can enjoy it, the highly combustible film in the control room ignites and engulfs the room in flames. Toto manages to save Alfredo’s life, but not before enough damage is done to permanently end his career as a projectionist. As a result of a canister of film exploding in his face, Alfredo is left completely blind.

A local citizen then decides that the cinema must be rebuilt, but realizes that without Alfredo there is nobody else in the town to run the projector. It is then that he is alerted about Toto. Though still a boy, Toto is the only other person with the knowledge needed to run the projector and is thus hired on. The story then begins to increasingly jump forward, moving Toto into his adolescence and beyond. We see Toto continuing his role as the projectionist while growing into adulthood and dealing with the usual issues that accompany it – girls, relationships, even a stint in the military. We also witness Alfredo’s urging Salvatore to leave the island. As much as it pains the old man to say this to his young friend, he realizes that if Toto stays in Sicily he will never achieve his grand dreams. And so Alfredo tells him to go, and don’t even think about coming back – don’t even think about the island and do not even write or call him once he goes. It eventually emerges that Toto heeds this advice, moving to the mainland and using his passion for movies learned from Alfredo to launch a career as a successful director. Until learning of his friend’s death, Toto never so much as visited his homeland. But upon hear of Alfredo’s passing he decides that it is finally time to return.

The main charge against Cinema Paradiso from those that are not fans is that it is overly-sentimental and too maudlin for certain tastes. Even I admit that I sometimes wince at the Capra-like sentimentality, but even so it still feels like Tornatore is being completely up front about it. He’s not trying to trick someone into experiencing manufactured emotion. He is making a film that is an unashamed love letter to cinema. The sentimental sections are very close to how I would expect a young boy to experience and interpret them. Is it sentimental? Yes, but I think that’s precisely the point. It’s a eulogy to the cinema and the powerful role that films are able to play in people’s lives.

There are so many things to like about the film in terms of characters and performances. Salvatore Cascio as the young Toto delivers one of the best child actor performances that I’ve ever seen. The kid is endearing, playing a young boy who so badly wants to grow up as quickly as possible. I also love how Tornatore uses the various sequences at the movie theater to introduce the eccentric citizens of Giancaldo. There are secretive love affairs, initiated by a local prostitute, launched while everyone else is watching the movie. There is the man who is a regular patron, but goes to the theater and always falls asleep. The kids invariably are there are pick at and annoy him, which they do at every opportunity. Or the man that comes just to sit in the balcony and spit on those sitting below him. It seems that literally everyone in the town makes an appearance.

The movie also has the distinction of containing two of what I like to call “goosebump scenes.” By this, I mean scenes that are spine-tingling in how great they are. The first is when Alfredo decides to turn the projector out of a window to broadcast a movie onto the town square. It just seems like such a wonderful notion, the idea of an entire community coming together in the center of the town enjoying a comedy on the side of a building. Of course, this pleasant moment is disrupted by a terrible tragedy, but before that occurs it is quite a scene. And then, of course, is the finale. It’s one of my favorite endings of all time. I know that I always say that I don’t want to give things away to those that haven’t seen it and that is especially so in this case – I don’t want to rob someone of seeing it for the first time without any idea about what is to come. All I will say is that it is a perfect cap to the friendship of Toto and Alfredo.

Is this is a perfect movie? I personally don’t think that it is, and as I said even I occasionally am not in the proper mood for it. But its strengths more than cover any faults that one may find in it. Plus, with the personal connection that I am able to make with it, this is a movie that will always have special significance for me.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1988: Not a great year for me, really. Some solid films, but outside of Cinema Paradiso nothing that really jumps out at me. The other films that I would use to round out a “best of the year” list would be: The Vanishing (George Sluzier), Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears), The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese), Midnight Run (Martin Brest), and Eight Men Out (John Sayles).

And while I wouldn’t propose it for a countdown like this, if we’re going to talk about guilty pleasures, I have had a love for the Brat Pack western Young Guns since I was a kid. Call me nuts, but my lifelong fascination with Billy the Kid meant that I was the perfect mark for something like this. I make no apologies for it – and you all know that you have such guilty pleasures among your favorites as well! :)


  1. Dave,

    Again thanks for sharing a very human and touching personal story that most if not all can understand. Certainly an understandable emotion to connect with this film. Cinema Paradiso is a film that most film lovers have to, well, love. After all it is a film about friendship and the love of movies. True, it gets a bit sentimental but who so what. A great job Dave.

    I had a hard time selecting my favorite film for this year, being very close between this classic and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. While I admire and am a great admirer of Scorsese I asked myself which film would I rather watch on any given day and the answer came up as Cinema Paradiso thus that is my selection.

    #1 Cinema Paradiso

    Best of the rest

    The Last Temptation of Christ
    Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam
    Eight Men Out
    Who Framed Roger Rabbit
    Dead Ringers
    A Fish Called Wanda
    Bull Durham

  2. Dave: (and John) Sentimentalism is the very subject and essence of CINEMA PARADISO, so I never took issue here. The razing of the theatre and that return by the film's protagonist to the cow-web enshrouded theatre before it's demise rank as two of the most shattering scenes in all of cinema. When our local theatre, the Ridgefiel Park Rialto closed six months ago, they played the film over the final weekend. Although it's one of my favorite films, and like you fine gentlemen I've seen it many times, i again attended and cried my eyes out. Morricone contributed one of his great scores here, which was as important a part of the film's emotional core as any other element. I enjoyed reading your great review here Dave, and your personal experience.
    My Own #1 of 1988:
    Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore; Italy)
    Dekalog (Kieslowski; Poland)
    Distant Voices Still Lives (Davies; UK)
    Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata; Japan)
    Hairspray (Waters; USA)
    Dead Ringers (Cronenberg; Canada)
    Hotel Terminus (Ophuls; France)
    Chocolat (Denis; France)
    The Accidental Tourist (Kasden; USA)
    War Requiem (Jarmon; UK)
    The Thin Blue Line (Morris; USA)
    The Navigator (Ward; New Zealand)
    Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spain Almodovar)
    Why Has Bodhi Darma Left for the East? (Yang-Kyan; Korea)
    Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese; USA)
    Eight Men Out (Sayles; USA)
    A Fish Called Wanda (Crichton; UK)
    The Vanishing (Sluizer; Holland)

  3. This is really a moving film, and yes, one of the best endings ever. The film reel. Wow. ANd your own experience seems as moving as the movie.

    This movie may have just helped Tornatore to become the next Fellini, with the master at his twilight. But alas, he seems to have lost his way.

    My favorites:

    A Fish Called Wanda (Crichton)
    Another Woman (Allen)
    Rain Man (Levinson)
    The Milagro Beanfield War (Redford)
    A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski)
    Dekalog (Kieslowski)
    Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (Almodovar)
    Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore)
    Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (Swaroop)
    Landscape In The Mist (Angelopoulos)

  4. Dave, Cinema Paradiso's reputation for sentimentality has kept me away from it all these years, but your endorsement and SJ's seconding have me rethinking my suspicions.

    For the moment, however, I'm sticking with three of my favorite American films of the decade:

    1. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman)
    2. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Coppola)
    3. Eight Men Out

    Followed by:
    4. Hanussen (Szabo)
    5. Miracle Mile (Steve De Jarnett)
    6. A Fish Called Wanda
    7. Working Girl (Mike Nichols)
    8. The Thin Blue Line
    9. Earth Girls Are Easy (Julian Temple)
    10. Die Hard (John McTiernan)

  5. Dave, thanks for sharing your personal connect with the movie. That really made your selecting it that much more pertinent and, well, right.

    Not that the movie rode to your #1 position just on that - its a truly heart-rending movie, and as your aptly stated, the sentimentality in the movie was never used in a manipulative manner, rather such that it befits the story, making the movie as much an emotional journey for the viewers as it was for the protagonist. And your equally touching personal account has made it doubly special for your readers as well, myself included.

    By the way, to reinforce your views regarding the movie's unforgettable climax, here's what I'd written in my review of the movie, "... the climax of this timeless classic will surely move even the most hard-hearted cynics."

  6. I loved 'Cinema Paradiso' and think it deserves your number one spot, Dave - also appreciated reading your story, which added to the excellence of your review.

    My own favourite from 1988 is the two-part Christine Edzard 'Little Dorrit', which has a wonderful performance by Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam. I also like:
    The Accidental Tourist
    Dangerous Liaisons
    White Mischief


  7. I agree that your personal story made for a very good read, and I'm glad you included it in the essay.

    My pick for '88 would have been Grave of the Fireflies, but I'm surprised to see Dekalog on many lists, as I thought it was '89. I'll probably go with the Kieslowski film instead, although I like some of the chapters much more than others. Not sure what I'll be picking for '89 now.

    Also, it should be mentioned that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of the best entertainment films of the 80s, cleverly written, visually astonishing, just great, great fun.