In the summer just past, I received an early evening phone call from a friend asking me whether I would like to have a spare ticket for a showing of Cinema Paradiso at an open-air cinema in Kew Gardens. I jumped at the chance. The novelty of the outdoor movie experience coupled with a critically acclaimed film I had not seen, was too much to resist. I got there as soon as I could, accepted my complementary miniature tub of ice cream from a vendor (danke schön, Häagen-Dazs), and joined the considerably large audience with my friends.
Cinema Paradiso is a 1988 Italian film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore that is the story of a director, Salvatore Di Vita, and his lifelong love affair with cinema. It starts in Rome, where an ageing Salvatore is told of the passing of a man named Alfredo, from the village where he grew up. The story then shifts via flashback to him as a boy (nicknamed Totò) back in the village of Giancaldo, Sicily. Totò (played to adoring effect by Salvatore Cascio) is a mischievous boy who, like the majority of the village inhabitants, gets his entertainment from the local movie theatre – the Cinema Paradiso. Life in the town revolves around the cinema – it is the social hub and everyone can be seen there. Even the staunch priest who censors the films of all their risqué content (a kiss here, a bare shoulder there) can be seen in the ranks. Totò, intrigued by the workings of the cinema, pokes his nose in and finds Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist. After initially shooing him away they become firm friends, and Totò looks to Alfredo to fill the role left open by the absence of his own father as he grows up.
The film weaves its story wonderfully through the smaller moments between the characters. I loved these little details as they invested me a great deal into the world. Quite a few times I chuckled at the antics of certain villagers as if I had known them for a long time. But some of the most touching moments came from the conversations between Alfredo and Totò, with the former sometimes including the occasional film quote.
Some might accuse the film of straying into predictability when a love interest for the teenage Totò is introduced, and I too did groan inwardly a bit. This accusation is however, premature. Where the film succeeds is to show how a young man indoctrinated by Hollywood romances, approaches his own fledgling romance. His love for Elena (Agnese Nano) is used to great effect as a contrast to his love for cinema, and their comparison is deeply thought-provoking. I must also mention the fantastic sweeping score composed by Ennio Morricone that adds much to the emotional layers of the story.
When we rejoin Salvatore upon his return to Giancaldo after a very long absence, the tone is bitter-sweet as together we reminisce on his idyllic life in the village and the way cinema and Alfredo shaped him into the man he has become. The final scene where Salvatore receives the gift left to him by Alfredo is simply beautiful and a moving love-letter to cinema, as is the film itself.
I could go on more about how the film tugged at my heartstrings and made me all nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even around but it’s brilliance can be summed up well by the reaction of the audience at the open-air cinema. Around 15 minutes from the end, rain began to fall turning a summer evening into a wet one. The audience barely moved; umbrellas went up, raincoats were adorned – everyone remained transfixed. At the roll of the credits, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause. Now that, is the power of cinema.