Cinema Paradiso

Review No. 402


The Bottom Line: Toto, I’m afraid we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Screenplay by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Story by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Collaborating Writer: Vanna Paoli
Alfredo: Philippe Noiret
Toto (child): Salvatore Cascio
Toto (adolescent): Marco Leonardi
Toto (adult): Jacques Perrin
Also Starring: Agnese Nano, Antonella Attili, Enzo Cannavale, Giovanni Giancono, Isa Danieli, Leopoldo Trieste, Nino Terzo, Pupella Maggio

Distributed by Miramax Films in Italy on November 17, 1988; and in the United States on February 23, 1990. Produced in Italian, English, Portuguese, and Sicilian by Italy. International cut runs 124 mins. Original Italian cut runs 155 mins. Rated PG by the MPAA (mature themes).

Cinema Paradiso was watched on January 26, 2013.

“Life isn’t like in the movies. Life… is much harder.” –Alfredo (Philippe Noiret)

Many individuals have told me to watch foreign films dubbed, not subtitled, and although I hate dubbing for one major reason (take a guess), I can’t say the rationale is inaccurate. They say reading subtitles for two hours is like reading a book that you may or may not care for, while hearing a foreign language spoken in the background.

I just can’t seem to fathom that theory for Cinema Paradiso, though. The film is in Italian. I know five phrases in Italian: buongiorno, buonasera, si, no, and figlio di una cagna. But the film uses its language to speak a broader language, an unwritten one that amalgamates any extravagant appreciation for film.

Cinema Paradiso is a wonder to behold for virtually any human audience. For film aficionados, it’s a two-hour tour around every golden arch in heaven. The story is essentially focused on what it means to fall in love, what it means to live freely. Young Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita is only six years old when he finds his passion in film. A mischief, Sicilian schoolboy, he meets the aging Alfredo in a projection booth at the Cinema Paradiso (“Paradise Cinema”) and is mesmerized. Alfredo soon shows the skilled child around the booth and eventually allows him to run it in his spare time. But when Toto expresses his desire to be in the booth forever, hearing the audience’s laughs, cries, and cheers as he rolls celluloid, he is warned against it.

Cinema Paradiso commences only a few years after the end of World War II. One of the main issues throughout the first half of the movie is that at the time, film strips were entirely flammable. If one was cranking slowly enough, or the later-invented machinery ruptured, the film could quickly catch fire. I suppose it’s fascinating to think about today, in an era of (gosh) digital projection, but you feel much differently watching how it acts as a catalyst for the events in the second half.

During the entire first half, Toto is warned time and again of this knowledge. In the very beginning of the film, we see a Roman Catholic priest cutting every romantic scene in an unnamed movie for the sake of decency. When he is done his orders to the projection booth, Toto notices the wasted celluloid on the floor. He asks if he can keep it, and is told it’s a present, but it must stay in the projection booth, or it will catch fire. Only after sneaking it out does he learn that this was not a joke.

It’s telling that Toto could do nothing to stop the mid-film events from occurring. There is a very sudden change: One moment, nearly every citizen is gathered in the square to watch a film projected on the facade of the Cinema Paradiso. Up in a balcony are Alfredo and Toto, gleefully watching the movie. Suddenly, it catches fire, and within a split-second, Alfredo is insisting on rushing to the projection booth himself, fixing the projector himself. The sudden act of heroism confines him to terminal blindness, but he can somehow see with a “sixth sense,” knowing when a camera is off focus without hearing a bit of the audience’s reaction; undoubtedly, it’s a feeling from having been acquainted with the “career” for so long. After the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (“New Paradise Cinema”) is opened where the ashes of the old development had formerly stood, there is no impairment in the friendship between Toto and Alfredo up in the projection booth, now run by the latter.

Describing Blasco Giurato’s spellbinding cinematography as much as needed is a lofty task, one that demands a separate review. There’s so much fragrant, effervescent beauty in the visual ilk, particularly in the closing shots. Cinema Paradiso manages to astound in its exquisite technical quality as much as with its vibrant story. The film’s sound is a masterwork by Ennio Morricone, the revered John Williams of Italy. The man began his work in 1961 and has orchestrated several hundred films and television series since. Of course, I haven’t heard all his mastery, but I always rank A Fistful of Dollars and The Untouchables among his best musically scored. Enter Cinema Paradiso and both those titles kneel in its grand, yet solemn, presence.

Cinema Paradiso is an unforgettable motion picture, singing the praises of going to the movies. It’s not a story about movies changed a life, so much as how it created one. The entire film is a flashback to a daydream that occurred to Toto, present-day. At this point, Toto has fulfilled at least 85% of his life. He is a renowned filmmaker living in Rome; he is living with the girl of his dreams; he has the same, absolutely perfect best friend that he had met three or four decades before. There’s more, but all of it, too, is because of his commitment to the Cinema Paradiso. Cinema Paradiso is a mesmerizing drama, powerfully mounted, yet soft spoken, humbled, and emotional to no end.

Postscript: There was also a director’s cut released in 2002, running 50 minutes longer than the international version, and 19 minutes longer than the Italian version.


Groundhog Day


10 thoughts on “Cinema Paradiso

    • It says something when I have to revisit that beautiful ending from The Purple Rose of Cairo just to refresh my memory of why I loved the last scene so much, whereas a movie as great as Cinema Paradiso has a finale that sticks with me still.

  1. I agree with Franz above. I liked it, but didn’t love it. Using your scale, I’d probably give it a B. When he’s a young boy the movie is magical, but then he grows up and all of the magic kind of just drained away.

    • I’ve looked back at your comment several times, and used it as a means to think back to the film again and again. I’ll be honest, I can see what you mean, but I had a much different interpretation. Toto fell in love with movies at the age of six. He made a friend for life. Movies brought him to his wife, whom he was still with in the 1980s. Movies also turned him into a big-name filmmaker, contrary to the projectionist’s expectations. I wouldn’t say that the magic “drained away.” I’d say it gave the rest of his life a direction.

  2. “I know five phrases in Italian: buongiorno, buonasera, si, no, and figlio di una cagna.” Haha!

    I’ve been meaning to see this one again, having bought the DVD (a bargain!) just a couple of weeks ago. I saw it for the first time back when I was a senior in high school and liked it, but didn’t love it. I distinctly remember that I stumbled upon it when I went on and searched for movies similar to “The Dreamers.” Boy, was that misleading!

  3. Good review – this is one of my favorite movies (well, yeah – I named my blog after it). 🙂 I’ve just done a list of my favorite movie endings, actually, and this is my number one. I never review films I really love like this one because I don’t think my words would do them justice. Funny thing is that I’ve never watched the director’s cut as it’s SO widely regarded as having ruined the magic of the original version for people.

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