Cinema Paradiso (1988): A Love Letter to Movies

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Cinema Paradiso (1988) [Source: IMDb]

Cinema Paradiso, which is also famously known as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, is an Italian film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore and released in 1988. It revolves around the world of famous film director Salvatore Di Vita who revisits his home village where he was once little “Toto”, for the funeral of one of his oldest friends, Alfredo. For most of the film, the scenes recount occasions from his childhood, especially the development of his friendship with the middle-aged projectionist Alfredo through his growing love for movies. Over the years, several incidents occur — for instance, Toto steps into the role of projectionist as well, the theater has an unfortunate fire mishap once, Toto experiences a short-lived dalliance with a love interest, and Alfredo advices Toto that their town is far too small and that he must move away to pursue his dreams. With the intensity of emotion, nostalgia, and hope embedded into every instance of the film, Cinema Paradiso as well as its contemporaries were a kind of a breath of fresh air from its predecessor — Italian Neorealism. It strays from past conventions to portray a more nuanced, emotionally complex, personal yet universally significant story that also works as an ode to cinema and to friendship.

In one scene, as Alfredo can be seen working away at the projector, he peers through at the screen which is shared by two other spectators — one being the authoritative priest and the other Toto in between the curtains, watching clandestinely and hidden from the view of the priest. Judging by his expressions, the priest is particularly engaged in the film, his eyes widened and eyebrows raised at particular scenes, which is contrasted against Toto’s intense gaze and occasional grin. Scenes of both of them swaying individually to the scenes are edited and juxtaposed against each other, but this sequence is broken as soon as the priest frowns at an approaching kissing scene. Whilst Toto gleefully laughs, the priest furiously rings the bell, which provides the signal to Alfredo that he must cut this scene. Following this scene, the priest yells his disapproval in a stern “No!” upon the next kissing scene, and rings the bell once more, providing viewers with the notion that this private viewing is a censorial practice in motion.

Symbolically speaking, the priest may stand in as a Mussolini figure — one who watches, perhaps even takes pleasure, in the contents of cinema but proceeds to reprimand and renounce certain parts of it as per his own ideals (i.e., Mussolini’s dramatic exclamation — “This is not Italy!” — upon watching Visconti’s Ossessione), and then ensures that those parts remain unattainable to the general masses through censorship, which they believe is their prerogative in society. This scene also speaks volumes about the flawed nature of authority — for while this material is accessible and enjoyable to them, it indicates a sense of hypocrisy on their part, or the patronistic idea that they must have the right to watch everything and yet have the ability to prevent others from watching the same material. Perhaps if one wished to take a rather fairer approach to censorship, one would suggest that the priest could hand the reins over to Alfredo who is more than capable of taking directions and cutting such scenes by himself. However, the priest’s presence is necessary in depicting that very blatant hypocrisy that unfortunately privileges his voice in society over that of others. The priest also represents the traditionalist idea that the Catholic Church censured any overtly sexual acts, hence symbolizing the imposition of religious ideals on cinematic expressions as well. In comparing these scenes with real-life circumstances, one can see how the reel is often not far from the real, certain film scenes, such as those within Cinema Paradiso can often thematically reflect ideas of social significance in the real world.

It is then perhaps crucial to note how Cinema Paradiso’s style contrastingly differed from the tone Neorealist cinema embodied during its prime, significantly with the attribute that characterization in those films lacked substantial psychological depth, and were rather devoid of it, but with reason. Cinema Paradiso at its heart strays far away from these conventions, but this idea is particularly envisioned in a crucial conclusive scene. Beginning with a wide shot, a much older Toto, now an established filmmaker, is seated by himself in a theater. Very much like the priest in a former scene, he appears to have his own private viewing; only this time, no clandestine onlooker seems to accompany him. With the projectionist set to his task, Toto is left to his freedom and autonomy to watch what will appear on his screen, for this time he is not hiding behind the curtains, and there is no one to hinder him.

One could argue that much like the priest represented the antiquated, Toto symbolizes quite the opposite — he is the modern audience, free from the grasp of old-fashioned ideals and censorship, a viewer of the new age. As the screen counts down, the scene cuts to his immediate reaction. He is deeply focused and almost without movement, which gradually transitions into a look of wonderment. With a switch of perspectives, a montage of kissing, nudity, and altogether sensual scenes on the colossal screen dwarfs his head, and along with Toto, viewers witness an array of scenes that were originally censored by the priest. Accompanied by the music are Toto’s various emotions, externalized by his facial expressions. One moment his eyes turn glassy with tears, another moment he cups his mouth with his palms having become overcome with utter astonishment but pleasant disbelief. The black-and-white scenes juxtaposed with his colorful backdrop are perhaps another juxtaposition of the modern against the antiquated, not far from the ideas represented by the figure of the priest against that of young Toto. For a moment, adult Toto almost resembles the Toto of the past, for he breaks into a similar grin of satisfaction at the scenes. Eventually, his smile is wider and his tears more pronounced, and Toto presents a wider spectrum of emotion than ever in the film before.

The music slows down towards the end of the montage, which is also the end of the film, but not without presenting the bittersweet idea that this sequence was an indication of, and perhaps even an ode to, the character of Alfredo. When one is reminded of the former scenes with the priest’s aggressive bell-ringing and commands to cut every “scandalous” scene out, one is relieved and overjoyed to now know that instead of following those instructions, Alfredo saved every single one of those scenes for little Toto. The use of so many close-ups, long shots, and an overt display of emotionality significantly diverge from the rather stoic idea of “de-dramatization”. Moreover, with viewers putting two and two together regarding Alfredo’s contribution as saviour of the censored-to-be scenes, and Toto finally being able to watch them openly, much as several others in his time now would, the film provides a resolved ending to its viewers. Real-life viewers and Toto alike are given resolved endings in their own right. This ending speaks not only to his current state, but that to the course of his entire life so far too, for not only is his return meaningful, we know that cinema has had a lasting effect on his life due to his professional career in filmmaking. Cinema Paradiso succeeds in depicting the message that the beauty of cinema can outlive the overbearing authoritarianism of certain political (i.e. Mussolini) or religious (i.e. Catholic Church) bodies.

Lastly, Toto’s problems are highly personal and may not necessarily be relatable at all to the entire working class, like several Neorealist films. However, conversely, Toto manages to convert universal significance into personal value instead. For instance, one may suggest that Antonio’s struggle in The Bicycle Thieves is representative of the struggles of an entire class of people. On the other hand, Toto takes a significantly universal idea, that of the cinema, and makes it his own. The entire story is about his relationships (romantic, familiar, and friendships), his adventures, and his memories of the cinema whilst working with Alfredo. In a very loose recounting of one scene, Alfredo urges Toto to get out and to make a life of his own. Every incident in his life leads to his making a career and contributing to the source of his true passion — cinema. In the end, the story is representative solely of Toto’s relationship with cinema. This is perhaps an act of individualization in Italian cinema; a straying away from the very collectivist ideals that Neorealist films portrayed.

Unlike Antonio, who is drawn out to be quite the victim of his circumstances, Toto possesses the agency to transform his life into dream that he grew up on. While most of the people of his childhood residence town are left behind, he strives to create a better life for himself. Analogically speaking, viewers have been shown what is in Toto’s heart and mind through a very outward depiction of emotion and feeling, how he has adapted himself through his current position in his life as that of a successful filmmaker who strove to rise beyond his circumstances and follow his true calling, and lastly, what remains in him of his past experience, which could be interpreted as the reel of censored footage that binds his past with his present through one intangible force — his friendship with Alfredo. In its form, Cinema Paradiso is not just a diversion from convention; it is a testament to redevelopment and revolution in cinema, or any art form for that matter.

Some may argue that given all the above-mentioned notions, Cinema Paradiso is idealistic in its depiction of life. Although that may be true, Cinema Paradiso achieves idealism fairly and meaningfully because it portrays grief and destruction in equal measure but provides its characters with more psychological depth to be able to process these setbacks and to learn and grow from them. In Toto’s life, one could consider he had multiple “bicycles stolen”, so to speak metaphorically — the love of his life moved away, the theater once burned down nearly killing one of his closest friends, who he did lose eventually to an inevitable death. However, instead of moving around in circles desperately, Toto possesses the will to rise beyond his circumstances, instead of becoming a victim of them. If The Bicycle Thieves is a realistic depiction of the struggle of the working classes, Cinema Paradiso is a motivational portrayal of how the same working classes, with the same circumstances, can rise beyond their means and strive for resolution and happiness. Specifically, it shows us that the world of dreams and imagination, in this particular case the movies, can have a transformative and magical effect on one’s life.

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