Italy has had a love affair with movies for as long as images have flickered on the screen. In the mid-1950s, there were over 17,000 cinemas in the country, and it is the land that produced Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Sergio Leone, Franco Zeffirelli, and Vittorio de Sica. But, as with the US and other countries, after that high water mark in the ‘50s the number of cinemas contracted as their audience was lured away by television. In 1988, writer/director Guiseppe Tornatore created a nostalgic and bittersweet love letter to those bygone days with the movie Cinema Paradiso.
The movie begins in the present day, with the mother of a successful film director trying to reach her son in Rome to tell him his childhood friend Alfredo has passed away in their home town in Sicily. When the director, Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), arrives home late, his live-in lover passes on the message. He brushes it off, but as he lays in his bed, his eyes are sad and haunted by memories. There’s no sleep that night as he drifts back to his childhood when he was known as “Toto” and to his friendship with Alfredo.
At the end of WWII, Toto (Salvatore Cascio) is a eight-year-old obsessed with movies who is constantly pestering Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist at the Cinema Paradiso, to show him how to work the projector. He follows the village priest into the theater after mass one day and watches as the priest previews a new movie for unsuitable content. The priest makes Alfredo cut out anything sexual, beginning with kisses. (As a patron moans while watching a movie, “In twenty years, I’ve never seen a woman kiss on the screen.’) Toto gets Alfredo to give him some of the cut footage, which Alfredo does to get rid of him. Toto stores it in a can under his sister’s bed, but it’s too close to a heater and the silver nitrate film almost burns down their house. Toto’s mother Maria (Antonella Attili) prohibits Toto from going into the projection booth again.
Toto is devastated, but fate gives him another chance. The illiterate Alfredo has been attending night school, but it’s not going well for him. He asks Toto for help, but Toto demands Alfredo teach him how to run the projector in exchange for his tutoring. Soon the two become close friends as they work together. It’s an idyllic time, until a horrifying accident costs Alfredo his sight. Toto continues on as projectionist into his late teens. By then, Toto (now played by Marco Leonardi) is experimenting with his own 8mm movies. He also experiences the highs and lows of first love when he falls hard for Elena Mendola (Agnese Nano), the blue-eyed banker’s daughter.
After his military service, Toto is pushed by Alfredo to pursue his dream of working in the film industry. Alfredo tells Toto that only after he has been away for a long time will he have a chance to return home and find what he left behind. After 30 years away, the adult Toto returns for Alfredo’s funeral – and finds his friend has left him a very special gift.
The delight of Cinema Paradiso is in Tornatore’s eye for detail. The audience in the theater is a microcosm of the village, captured in beautiful detail over the course of the years. Along with the love of movies and Toto’s love of Elena, there’s a powerful familial love story between Toto, who lost his father in the war, and Alfredo, who has no children.
Helping the movie’s impact is a gorgeous score by Ennio Morricone that is equal parts haunting and romantic, echoing the great themes of the golden age of movies. Blasco Giurato’s cinematography is particularly beautiful in capturing the village in the evening.
The movie was an Italian/French coproduction, and drew its cast from both countries. Philippe Noiret was a well-known actor in French cinema who did over 150 films, but he didn’t speak Italian. During filming, he spoke all of his lines in French, and then they were dubbed in Italian afterward. When the film was released in France with the language dubbed, they used Noiret’s regular voice. Noiret passed away in 2006, at the age of 76.
There are three versions of this movie. The original cut ran 155 minutes, but Tornatore also did an expanded version that was just short of 3 hours. There’s also a shorter version (124 minutes) that was released internationally. That shorter version won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 1990 Academy Awards. It also won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes that year, and was nominated for 11 BAFTAs (winning 5) along with numerous other awards.
Tornatore has gone on to write and/or direct over a dozen more movies to date, including Malena, The Legend of 1900, and Everybody’s Fine, with Marcello Mastroianni. The last picture was remade in English in 2009 with Robert De Niro in the main role. Cinema Paradiso counts, though, as his masterwork, and a love letter to cinema lovers throughout the world, and throughout time.