Cinema Paradiso (Paradise Cinema in English) – 4 Stars (Excellent)
In my search for films that are not well known but tell a great story with an excellent presentation, I discovered “Cinema Paradiso” by Italian Director Giuseppe Tornatore.
Tornatore intended the film to be an obituary for traditional movie theaters (like Paradise Cinema) and the movie industry in general, but after the film’s critical acclaim and box-office success, he changed his mind and apparently never publicly mentioned the demise of films again.
Many critics credit Cinema Paradiso with reviving Italy’s movie industry, which would later produce “Mediterraneo” and “Life is Beautiful”. Tornatore deserves even more credit than his directing effort; he also wrote the story and screenplay with some collaboration from Vanna Paoli.
Giuseppe Tornatore joins a very select group of writer/directors who have been able to create great films in a dual role. Most writer/directors fail miserably in their effort. I would elevate Tornatore to the same level as Tim McCanlies in “Secondhand Lions” and Kirk Jones in “Waking Ned Devine”, both excellent pictures. It takes a lot more than gumption to create an excellent film, it also takes enormous talent, heart, sensitivity and maturity.
So just how successful was Cinema Paradiso? Among its 19 wins and 12 nominations for excellence was the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, and Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
Cinema Paradiso will capture your heart when you see 6-year-old Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (played by Salvatore Cascio) become captivated by the local cinema in his small, native Sicilian Village. He misses his father, who becomes a World War II victim, and through guile and a high interest level, convinces the cinema projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) to mentor him.
There are three “Totos” in the film—the younger (Salvatore Cascio), the teenager (Marco Leonardi) and the adult (Jacques Perrin). Perrin is a real-life film producer. Cascio steals every scene he is in with his incredible facial expressions, inquisitive mind and indomitable determination to learn how to be a projectionist.
Along the way, he gets into a lot of trouble. He loses his mother’s trust by spending money he is given to buy bread for the family on an admission fee to see a film at the theater. He cons Alfredo the projectionist into giving him some film that causes a fire in his home and threatens his sister’s life. He causes Alfredo to break his promise to Toto’s mother that he will no longer let Toto into the projectionist’s booth.
Ultimately, the flammable film also causes a fire and destroys the Cinema Paradiso and, in a harrowing act, Toto saves Alfredo’s life but Alfredo loses his sight in the disaster. After the Paradiso is rebuilt as the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (New Paradise Cinema), Toto, who has learned to be a projectionist, is hired as a child to do so because he is the only one in the village who knows how.
The bond between Alfredo as a surrogate father to Toto will only grow deeper when Toto enters his teenage years. He will seek out Alfredo for advice on life when he falls in love with the beautiful Elena (Agnese Nano), who comes from a rich family and enters into a forbidden relationship with Toto.
Alfredo will encourage Toto to leave his village for Rome and never return if he is serious about a career in the movie industry. Toto will eventually grow up to become a famous movie producer in Rome.
Cinema Paradiso starts when Toto learns that his beloved Alfredo has died. Toto has not been back to his village and to visit his mother and sister in 30 years. The question is: Will he return for the funeral? After reliving his life in flashbacks during a sleepless night, he boards a plane home to find himself again. The total story is too good to reveal much more here.
Cinema Paradiso is all about relationships. The relationship of a mother to her son, of a surrogate father to a son, of a boy to a girl, of a young romance, of a village’s citizens to its theater, and of intergenerational gatherings among the villagers.
The release of Cinema Paradiso in 1988 proves the adage that if success was easy every film would achieve critical acclaim and would be a box-office smash. The original version released in Italy was 155 minutes (2 hours, 35 minutes) and had a poor response. After shortening the film to 123 minutes (2 hours, 3 minutes), it became an instant success.
I saw the 123-minute version that was released in the United States and was disappointed that there was no indication of what ultimately happened in Toto’s relationship with Elena. I have since learned that Director Giuseppe Tornatore released a 173-minute version (2 hours, 53 minutes) in 2002 that contains exactly what I wanted to see. Find and watch the longer version if you can, it just adds to an already excellent film.