Movie Review: Cinema Paradiso (1988)



by Alan F. Zundel

I time-traveled last Thursday evening thanks to the University of Oregon’s Department of Romance Languages. They arranged a free showing of the award-winning 1988 Italian film, “Cinema Paradiso,” at the Bijou Arts Theater.

“Cinema Paradiso,” written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, is structured around the memories of a famous film director (played by Jacques Perrin) who learns of the death of the former projectionist of the local movie house in the Sicilian village where he grew up. It is a beautiful meditation on the days of classic movies and the movie houses where small town communities coalesced as enthusiastic audiences for this most popular of art forms.

Just being in the Bijou takes me back to the days of my youth in the 1960s, when there were still many movie theaters that were more than the sterile boxes found in your local mall. My grandmother sometimes took us to the grand movie palaces in downtown Detroit, such as the cathedral-like Fox Theater, with its multi-layered plush curtains, gold-painted flourishes, and Moorish arches. Even our local Eastwood Theater seemed glamorous on the inside, although that may have been only through the eyes of a naive juvenile.

Although I learned to love movies by watching them on TV, I soon realized that movies on TV were like the saints pictured on holy cards—nothing like encountering the real thing. The real thing was in those theaters. Only there could I become fully enraptured, watching movies with other dream-worshippers in faux-sacred enclosures insulated from the mundane problems of life.

The Bijou Arts was converted from a church (and, I’ve heard, funeral home) originally built in 1925. The main screening room has a polished wooden ceiling with carved beams hovering over forty feet above you, the seats have that old-fashioned fuzzy upholstering, and there is a lobby with ticket counter, concessions and seats for waiting all in one intimate location.

What a perfect venue for screening a movie about movie nostalgia!

In the first part of the movie the fictional director’s memories take him back to his childhood, when his father was away in the war (and, as the boy suspects, dead) and the projectionist became a mentor for him. The mischievous boy, nicknamed Toto (Salvatore Cascio), loves the movies and is fascinated by the projection room, where the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noire), must clip scenes of kissing that offend the parish priest.

The movies are shown in the Cinema Paradiso, a small former church (shades of the Bijou!) that is really just a tiny hall with a few rows of removable chairs, but which also has aesthetic touches like the plaster lion’s head through whose open mouth the movies are projected.

Memories of this happy time end with a fire in the projection room which blinds Alfredo and burns the church down. Because Toto had observed and helped Alfredo in his work so often, he is offered the job as projectionist when a local man who won the lottery builds a new and better Cinema Paradiso.

In the second part of the movie Toto is now a young man who, in additional to working as the projectionist, has a home movie camera that he experiments with. He still maintains his friendship with Alfredo, who offers him counsel derived from lines in movies he has heard over the years. Toto needs his counsel when he falls in love with Elena (Agnese Nano), a young woman from a wealthy family. He wins her love but Elena’s family moves away and Toto is drafted, ending their budding romance.

When Toto returns from his service Alfredo tells him to leave and never return to their small village, as he has the potential for a better future than the town can offer him. Toto does leave, but in the final part of the movie has returned to his hometown for Alfredo’s funeral. His memories of the movie house, Alfredo, Elena, and his past overwhelm him, and then Alfredo’s widow reveals that Toto’s former mentor left one final gift for him. This final gift is a touching surprise paying homage to romantic love in the movies.

“Cinema Paradiso” justly won a number of awards, including the 1989 Academy Award for best foreign language movie. It still holds up well today, nearly thirty years later, and its style—the aspect ratio, the use of shadow and light, the classic composition of the shots—invoke the period of movie production and exhibition that it depicts.

Writer/director Tornatore obviously approached it as a labor of love, even shooting some scenes in his own hometown. Note the many subtle touches, such as opening with a carefully composed shot of the sun shining on the sea as framed by the window of a darkened room—a metaphor for watching a movie in a movie theater.

The cast is uniformly excellent and the script is just perfect, conveying the humor and tragedy of life’s passages and love in its many dimensions. It is a modern classic. The ending section, slower and more meditative with the repetitive use of thematic background music, is perhaps the only part of the movie that modern audiences might have some impatience with.

Maybe it is because I am now an older man myself and have been returning to the creative pursuits of my youth, but I was thoroughly enchanted watching this film. If you are a movie lover I highly recommend viewing or re-viewing it, especially if you have a chance to view it on the big screen, and most especially in one of the restored older movie theaters that dot the country.

Restored theaters deserve our support for preserving a movie-watching experience that is not easily duplicated in more modern theaters.


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