Cinema Paradiso (1989)

D: Giuseppe Tornatore
S: Philippe Noiret, Jacques Perrin

Perhaps the best known foreign-language film of its era, Cinema Paradiso derives its reputation not from artistic excellence or cinematic innovation, but from its ability to touch the hearts of its audience and reawaken their love and appreciation of the movies. Centred on the reflections of a film director on his life and relationship with cinema, the film cannily places itself within a social and psychological space which camouflages its manipulation of nostalgia.

As a small boy, Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio), is the vessel of our own unselfconscious wonder at the enchantments of the big screen. His sense of excitement is beautifully conveyed by one of the most convincing child performances ever seen, allowing us to live Toto's life in substitute for our own. Furthermore, by setting the film in the cinema's 'golden age', and establishing a sense of time and place suitably remote yet familiar, Tornatore skilfully explores the role and function of the cinema as a social medium, complete with its divisions and provocations of class, religion and labour.

Though our background may not be of rural Sicily, our sense of innocence and purity are inevitably linked to rural idylls, and the familiar local archetypes; the excitable priest, the grumpy projectionist, the arrogant rich, lustful schoolboys and girl next door, are culturally non-specific despite their ethnic inflections. The fact that it is semi-autobiographical and shot near the place of Tornatore's birth belies the careful structure and intricate craftsmanship of his screenplay and direction.

Similarly the film's choice of significant motion pictures viewed by the local populous inevitably reflects popular international tastes rather than perhaps some of the more historically rooted ethnic successes (it is a fortuitous co-incidence that Visconti's La Terra Trema was set and shot in Sicily, but no accident that it is employed by Tornatore to explore the relationship between representation and reality as his characters react to it).

Its midsection dealing with adolescent angst is also not only the stuff of characteristic life experience, but of cinema itself. The 'coming of age' film is one of the primary narratives of world folklore, and consistently proved one of the European Art House's most commercially successful sub-genres (as well as the engine of the American youth films of the 1950s and teenage sex comedies of the 1980s). Again, its deployment here is both culturally specific and cinematically self-conscious, yet invisible within the domain of character and narrative convention.

Cinema Paradiso is also a paternal story. It reflects the relationship between the the medium and the audience through Alfredo's influence on Salvatore and the subsequent refiguration of that relationship as Salvatore enters and takes control of the world of his spiritual father when he becomes a film director, eliminating his need for the father in the first place. This leaves him feeling empty, and Salvatore's sense of disillusionment about his life and work demonstrates the jaded self-absorption of the European Art House, so angry and frustrated about the mechanisms of its own construction as to be unable to feel a genuine emotion.

But that it reaffirms the place and position of the paternal in its emotionally wrenching climax (which is, after all, merely a montage of movie moments) creates a sense of hope and joy unlike the despair more characteristic of European films of its era. It is in rediscovering his love of the cinema through his grief for the loss of Alfredo that Salvatore restores his sense of purpose and of meaning. The present makes sense only when seen through the eyes of the past, but lived with a genuine belief in the here and now which implies all things are possible; just like at the movies.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.