Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso) (1988)

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso) (1988)
Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Written by: Giuseppe Tornatore, Vanna Paoli
Starring: Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Agnese Nano
(124 minutes/174 minutes, Color)

There are some movies that end, and you get up and leave. There are some that end, and you smile, then you slowly rise to your feet. Then there are others, where leaving would seem like a betrayal. As the credits roll, or even after they are finished, you sit quietly in your seat. You're not thinking, really, you just can't leave.

Cinema Paradiso deals with our pasts and how we come to terms with them. The movie welcomes you into it with loving and gracious arms wide open, and embeds you in its familiar geniality and wisdom. Before it is over, the audience will have made a home within its characters and modest little Italian town. Much like a home, it fills you with tremendous joy and overwhelming nostalgia. When it ends you are left bare, but better for having seen it.

Home is such a confusing place, Cinema Paradiso reminds us. It's the place we can never escape from, no matter how far we travel or how much progress we make. Home always haunts us, and the past is always right behind us, poised to knock on the door and let loose a flood of memories called back by a single sound, or song, or smell. We are where we came from, many people say, and after watching this film, I'd like to offer up a small adjustment: We are who we came from.

Cinema Paradiso opens on Salvatore "Toto" Di Vida as an adult, receiving a phone call from his mother. She lives only an hour away, but he hasn't seen her in thirty years. She tells him that his childhood mentor, Alfredo, has died. It is nighttime. Salvatore tells the woman in bed next to him that Alfredo is "no one." She goes back to sleep. Salvatore remains awake, remembering.

Salvatore grows up in a small Sicilian town called Giancaldo. His sister is frequently sick, and his mother dresses in black. His father has not returned home from World War II, though the war ended three years ago. Salvatore goes to school, where the headmistress smacks the boys with rulers for failure to remember multiplication tables. He plays with the other children in the town square, until they are chased off by the local homeless man, who proclaims the square is his. Salvatore's favorite place to go is the Paradiso, the local movie theatre. Alfredo, the projectionist, is affectionate toward the ten-year-old boy and allows him to stay in the projection room during films. Salvatore sneaks into films, or watches them with Alfredo. He peers out from behind curtains as the old local priest censors the films before public showings, ringing a bell to alert Alfredo of unacceptable and unnecessary carnality (in other words, a kiss).

Giancaldo has no cars, or television. It seems to linger in the past longer than most cities, slowly and skeptically inching towards the new technology of the 1950s. The Paradiso is really the town's only entertainment, and it is as lived in as a crumbling, generations old house. The floor is dusty and covered in straw, and the audience is packed in tight. Some stand against the walls, and others struggle to see past those ahead of them and gaze into small cracks in the door. There's no air conditionig, so most sweat. The crowd is noisy. They shout at technical difficulties, cry openly, and laugh raucously. In the artificial night of the theater, babies are nursed, old friends reconnect, and strangers fall in love.

Alfredo roughly shoves Salvatore out of the projection room almost every day, calling him a "pest." Later he sees Salvatore's mother angrily scolding Salvatore for wasting milk money, fifty lire, on the movies. Alfredo calms the mother. "You know he gets in for free," he says soothingly. "He probably dropped the money out of his pocket." Alfredo calls upon another employee to show what he found on the floor that night at the theater. A comb, a shoe shiner...and after a wink from Alfredo, fifty lire.

Alfredo is a simple man, living without children on modest means with his wife. He cautions Salvatore about fantasizing about the movies, telling him about how lonely the job of a projectionist is. "You talk to Greta Garbo and Clark Gable like an idiot," he says.

"Why don't you get another job?" Salvatore asks.

Alfredo hesitates. We see a hint of a smile on his lips. "Because I'm a nit-wit."
Elena and Salvatore

An acutely funny scene shows Alfredo, along with other night-school adults, trying to earn the equivalent of a grade school education. He tests along with the young students...including Salvatore. Alfredo gets stuck on the test. He whispers to Salvatore, who tosses him a crumpled wad of answers. The exchange: Alfredo takes Salvatore under his wing at the picture house.

Alfredo is everything to Salvatore: a surrogate father, mentor, and best friend. At that time, film strips were made of nitrocellulose. When a fire starts in the theatre, Salvatore is the one who saves Alfredo from the flames. And as Salvatore's life becomes more invigorating and difficult to navigate with adolescence, Alfredo is there to guide him, even as his own life becomes lonelier.

Certain moments in the film are filled with such abundant joy, I wanted to hug myself watching. Ciccio, the Paradiso's new owner, refuses to censor films. As a beautiful couple on the screen close their eyes and lower their faces together, a man in the back row of the theatre laments, "I have never seen a kiss on screen." But there is no cut. The audience gasps at first, and then cheers. The simple kiss brings radiant smiles to all faces.

As a teenager, Salvatore finds love with a young, blue-eyed girl named Elena. Alfredo cautions him against pursuing her; stealing a line from John Wayne, he laments about how "blue-eyed girls are the worst." When Salvatore eventually wins her affection, however, is when his life comes to a crossroads.

The question he's faced with is universal. When we desire to go out, make something of ourselves, and see the world, do we do so at risk of alienating everything that made us who we are? We can go and live life vibrantly, and on the edge, but how can we forget about those back home? What debt must be payed to them? After his mother calls, Salvatore's past comes crashing down on his shoulders, as it must for all of us at some point. The choices we make in life are ours, but it is a lie to say we don't have to justify them to anyone else. There are those we owe it to.

Tornatore shot Cinema Paradiso in his hometown of Bagheria, Sicily. Anyone watching the movie can tell how personal a project it is for him. Tornatore gave an interview about how the Paradiso is based on his own local cinema, in which, as a child, he saw everything from Kurosawa pictures to John Wayne westerns. The original version of Cinema Paradiso shot ran more than two and a half hours and was a financial failure in Italy. Tornatore trimmed it down, Miramax trimmed it down more, and when released internationally, it was a hit, even winning the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The cut plot points contained an entire second storyline for the film, revolving around adult Salvatore encountering a grown-up Elena and discovering the reason for her abandonment all those years ago. In 2002, fourteen years after the film was originally released, a 174-minute director's cut was released on DVD. Roger Ebert said it plays almost like "its own sequel." Indeed, it is almost like viewing a brand new Cinema Paradiso. The effect of the changes is a shift of emotion. While nostalgia and bittersweet feelings are present in both versions, the predominant feeling in the Director's Cut is bittersweet. Which version should you see? Without a doubt, see both versions. The theatrical is a marvelous achievement by itself, and with the cuts added back in, it becomes almost epic in its emotional scope. Both versions are very nearly perfect. Everything written above and below applies to both. The only solution is to take both movies together as a single masterpiece, one of the greatest in cinematic history.

Cinema Paradiso is a story of love and longing. Once you've seen it, it's a story you can never escape from. Everything in it rings true to me, from its sometimes painful sadness to its unabashedly sentimental and beautiful finale. The movie left me contemplating. What I was contemplating, it's hard to narrow down. Life? Regret? Family? How about all of those things, but even more complicated to describe? Even the most stony audience member will leave this film with tears in their eyes and a heart full of love.

Anyone who appreciates magic in the movies will long remember a scene where a crowd gathers outside the cinema at midnight. The last showing for the night is over, but they still want to see the picture. The theatre is closed, and they aren't allowed inside. There are cries to Alfredo, imploring him for help. He smiles slyly to Salvatore. "Shall we give them what they want?" he asks. The ten-year-old nods eagerly. Alfredo rotates the mirror in front of the projector, sliding the image along the wall and out the window, where it is reflected and then projected hugely onto the wall of a nearby house. The men on the street eagerly run to the house, entranced by the image. Ennio Morricone's lucious score swells. Alfredo puts his arms around Salvatore.

This is a gorgeous movie, full of feeling and grace. It doesn't give the audience all of the answers, rather it, much more rewardingly, encourages them to seek the answers themselves. In the end, Cinema Paradiso is a haunting film about life and all of the emotion it can bring with it: sadness, laughter, happiness, and tears. It will always be waiting to welcome you back with open arms. Bellissimo!

The theatrical version of Cinema Paradiso was rated PG by the MPAA for unspecified reasons. The extended cut was rated R for some sexual content. Both versions contain muted sexual references and mature thematic material, but everything is handled discreetly and with poise. The extended cut is probably best for older teens who have the patience to watch it, but the PG-rated version is a great film for families who want to discuss the movie's thematic material with their kids.

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