An Essay by Barbara Poyner
directed and written by Giuseppe Tornatore (Italy 1988), Cristaldi Film (Rome) and
Films Ariane (Paris), distributed in Britain by Palace.
This Franco-Italian co-production made in association with RAI, TRE and TFI Film Production
and in collaboration with Forum Pictures reflects the economic realities of the contemporary
Italian cinema. Since the decline of cinema audiences in the 1970s film makers have been obliged to co-produce with foreign companies (usually French) thus
raising capital and ensuring a wider distribution and also to cooperate with the
old enemy, television.
Giuseppe Tornatore had worked for RAI TV from 1979, making films for the GLCT co-operative.
is Tornatore's second film as director. (He has subsequently directed a third.) He
would, therefore, be seen as a reasonable risk by potential backers.
The score by Enrico Morricone, who wrote music for spaghetti westerns including the
haunting score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
, would seem to be an ingredient for success.
The choice of Philippe Noiret and Jacques Perrin to play Alfredo and the mature Salvatore
would have been part of the deal with the French co-producers; Noiret, in particular,
could be expected to draw French audiences. The French actress, Brigitte Fossey, who appeared in the original version of the film was cut out completely in the final
The film, originally two hours forty minutes, was cut to two hours by the time it
was shown at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, on the insistence of the producer, Franco
Cristald. Apparently Tornatore regretted the decision but accepted it because of
his respect for Cristaldi and his recognition of the latter's courage in backing him. This
reminds us that art is subservient to commercial considerations even in the European
The subject matter and themes of Cinema Paradiso
, particularly growing up and loss of innocence, would not be contentious. The exploration
of the relationship between life and the movies is an attractive theme for film makers
and has been tackled successfully by a number of directors. Though set in Sicily, the film is sufficiently universal in its appeal to attract not only Italian audiences
but art house audiences elsewhere. Whilst Tornatore's film has much in common with
other European art house films, it is not at all obscure; furthermore the plot is
fairly simple and aimed primarily at the emotions rather than the intellect. The inclusion
of the child actor Salvatore Cascio as the young Salvatore would also contribute
to the film's attraction. Its popular success - at least in art house terms - might
have been foreseen.
The relatively spare dialogue coupled with the lush music manipulating the audience's
response to the images would make the film accessible to foreign audiences.
Having won awards at Cannes in 1989 Cinema Paradiso won the Oscar for the Best Foreign
Film in the same year. (How could Hollywood resist so flattering a tribute?) This,
of course, guaranteed its continuing success in the cinema at home and abroad (though
not perhaps in the purely commercial cinema) and additional income was derived from
the sale of videos, records and cassettes. Despite the film's critical acclaim, I
do not know whether it enjoyed success with ordinary audiences and I doubt if it
reversed the trend to close cinemas. Tornatore related the following anecdote to John Francis
Lane, Screen International
, in May 1989:
"(Salvatore Cascio, the young Salvatore) had never been to see a movie in the cinema
so one Sunday arranged for a screening of E.T
. in our Paradiso for him and other kids working on the film. None of them showed
up. They'd all seen E.T.
on pirated cassettes. That's the cinema today."
deals with the relationship between Toto (Salvatore di Vita) and Alfredo, the projectionist,
at the cinema of a small Sicilian town in the post-war years. Alfredo, who assumes
the role of the young Salvatore's father who was killed in Russia, not only teaches the boy how to project movies but becomes his mentor, offering advice and support
and finally encouraging the young man to leave home in order to develop his talents
in the wider world. Salvatore becomes a famous film director, and is living in Rome
in some style at the beginning of the film when he receives the news of Alfredo's
death. At the end he returns to Sicily, his first visit for thirty years.
In contrast to Hollywood but in common with many French and Italian films there is
little conventional action; the film explores relationships. Furthermore, the central
relationship between Alfredo and the young Salvatore is a non-sexual one between
two males; a quasi father-son relationship. The film's love interest, though a deeply felt
and formative experience, is subsidiary.
As the title suggests Cinema Paradiso
is a film about the movies (though about much else as well) and a lot of its appeal
derives from the pleasure of enjoying post-war films along with the Sicilian audience
of the 1940 and 1950 (though their activities are often more interesting than the
action on the Paradiso screen). Like A Bout de Souffle
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) where Paul Belmondo as Michael Poiccara mimics Bogart, and
a number of later films, Tornatore's film explores the theme of the relationship
between films and life. One of the subsidiary themes is the tremendous social and
economic changes in post-war Sicily, a topic of interest over and above the film's purely
The film's impact derives from a good script, fine acting (Salvatore Cascio as the
child is hard to resist), superb camera work, editing and design and the haunting
score that manipulates our emotions. On close study we note the effective use of
imagery - particularly the frame and the storm - the ability to make correspondences and allusions
and the elegance of the structure. There is scope too for the viewer to engage actively
with the narrative.
The narrative is built up by the posing of questions, most of which are answered sooner
or later, and the setting up of oppositions. The film (basically simple in structure:
childhood, youth, maturity) uses two time scales - about 36 hours on one level and over 40 years on another - working through the device of flashback. Though we may
admire the manipulation of time we are never puzzled by it. Cinema Paradiso
does not fall neatly into the classic Hollywood narration pattern of normality -
crisis - normality; in this respect we are reminded that it is a product of European
I propose to discuss the film's narrative structure, concentrating primarily on the
opening and closing sequences.
begins with an austerity typical of the film as a whole. Our attention is focussed
on a single bulb growing in a bowl centred on a table on a balcony with a calm sea
beyond. A net curtain flutters in the breeze. Not surprisingly perhaps, given the
centrality of the movies in the central image. Haunting music which we soon recognise as
one of the many versions of the film's theme tune, hints that our emotions will be
engaged in the film. The camera gradually pulls back to reframe the tableau with
french windows, a table with a bowl of lemons (another of the film's recurring motifs which
seems to be associated with Sicily) and a shadowy interior. We realise that we are
in a Mediterranean country and that the house is prosperous. 'Cinema Paradiso' in
neon lights is superimposed on the shot of the interior as are the opening credits. We are
promised paradise and for the post-war Sicilian audience the cinema does provide
a temporary paradise. The camera pans through the shadowy interior to an elderly
woman in black, suggesting a black and white film. The woman is trying unsuccessfully to contact
someone by phone, punctuating her attempts with comments to a younger woman, also
in black and dimly lit, whom we identify as her daughter. The black clothes suggest
both a traditional society and mourning.
The opening dialogue gives us quite a lot of information: the elderly woman is trying
to contact her son, Salvatore di Vita, who has not been home for 30 years. In the
course of the sequence the light increases (as we are enlightened) and colour becomes
more evident. There is a close-up of the mother (inviting us to identify with her) as
she tells her daughter "He'll remember"; memory is one of the film's themes and we
cut to the film. We cut to lemons again as she tries Rome once more.
The film cuts to a night scene in a city, gradually revealed as Rome, accompanied
by the theme music which serves as a linking device. There is a high tracking shot,
the camera tilts down to focus on a Mercedes, viewed from the front, which almost
fills the screen. We glimpse a shadowy driver, obviously a man of substance, whom we soon
realise is the elusive Salvatore di Vita. We cut to a dimly lit luxurious flat. The
similarity of light levels suggests links between the Rome and Sicily scenes as well
as suggesting night-time. The only sounds are those of a man of about fifty moving about
the flat, taking off some of his clothes. We are waiting to know more about him.
An oriental bell tinkles in the draught. The man turns off the light and goes into
the bedroom. Shots of french windows recall the windows in Sicily and reintroduce the frame
image. There is a cut to the bed. The light is switched on revealing an attractive
woman in the large double bed - we are some distance from conservative Sicilian society.
She tells him of his mother's phone call. As the camera moves in to a medium close-up
of Salvatore lying in bed, hands behind his head, we focus our attention on him,
identifying with him. The light level decreases and the girl informs him, "She said
someone called Alfredo is dead. The funeral is tomorrow." She articulates our questions,
"Who is he? A relative?" These questions - more pressing because of the slowness
of the preceding sequence - are the mainspring of the narrative.
"No...." The unsatisfactory answer makes us keener to know.
There is the sound of a storm as Salvatore turns on his side. The camera zooms in
to a close up, further focussing our attention on, and allowing us an intimacy with
him, since it is his past we are about to share. The storm increases, heightening
the drama and engaging our emotions; the figure is alternately lit up and in darkness. Tornatore
- like many of his precursors including the director of Ulysse
from which we see a snippet later - uses the storm to suggest turbulent emotions.
The bell tinkles again.
The questions we have been asking:- Who is Alfredo? What is his relationship with
Salvatore? Why has Salvatore cut himself off from his family? Why is he so prosperous?
Will he return to Sicily for the funeral? - will be answered in the film, the first
two questions in the next sequence.
The theme music - slower - is heard as we cut to another dark scene. The camera pans
and zooms in allowing us to identify a church. The camera zooms in further focussing
on a small altar boy (we presume this is a flashback with the young Salvatore). We
cut to a shot - taken as if from behind the altar - of a priest consecrating the wine
during mass with the boy kneeling in the background. It is as if we are observing
the scene from the perspective of the adult looking back on childhood. We realise
the child is asleep. We have a close up of the child accompanied by the theme music, lighter
in texture (which we will come to associate with the childhood scenes). The child
wakes - too late - and rings the bell. The priest grimaces. The gentle humour of
this moment introduces a mood which will characterise this section of the film.
The match cut, suggesting the mature Salvatore's association of ideas, is a device
used to move from past to present and vice versa.
We cut to the priest, apparently in the vestry, berating the child for falling asleep,
followed by a physical struggle: physical punishment, we soon learn, is part of
Salvatore's childhood, its almost comic treatment reminding us of the Commedia dell'Arte tradition. The child excuses himself on the grounds that they don't have lunch at
his house. His poor background is suggested and an aspect of his character established:
this child is good at wriggling out of trouble. If the priest represents the church
we are not being invited to show respect.
We cut from a shot of a statue in the vestry to another religious statue. There is
a high shot (as if from the projection room?) of the priest entering a room which
we assume at first to be a church, but which is gradually revealed to be a cinema.
This, however, is a cinema where the church has control. We cut to the projection window,
proudly surrounded by a lion's head - a recurring image - then finally to the projection
room and the projectionist, soon identified as Alfredo.
An over-the-shoulder shot of the sitting priest allows us to share his activity -
previewing the week's movies for censorship purposes. Many cinemas, as in Tornatore's
home village, were owned by the church.
We see the opening sequence of Jean Renoir's The Lower Depths
, a title that neatly summarises the church's view of many of the films. Films, integral
to this film's subject matter, are a means of dating events; identifying them provides
a pleasant game for the viewer. We cut from the projectionist, framed in the projection window, to the young Salvatore known, we soon learn, as Toto - having an illicit
look through the curtains. Now we know why the child falls asleep! We cut to the
priest. We see in turn the enjoyment of each character. A close up of the priest's
hands fingering a bell reminds us of the other bells; it is also the subject of comedy
since this sound of the bell ringing tells Alfredo when to excise the kisses. The
treatment may be comic but the church really did control the viewing of small communities. In the darkened cinema the camera moves in to a detail shot of the small bell. We
then cut to a lighter scene with a large bell ringing (for school?).
There is a high angle shot of an enormous square, devoid of traffic. People - small
therefore depersonalised - are running. It is windy; thus we are linked with the
opening sequences and the Rome sequences. The setting of Salvatore's youth is further
established as we see people going about their business. The lighting gives a bleached
effect: perhaps it was colourless or merely not very significant. There is a cut
to the cinema building, the first exterior shot of the (original) Paradiso. We cut
to the projectionist, now named as Alfredo, with his projector. He is accompanied by the child,
Toto, whom he is lecturing about the danger of the flammable nitrate film; this point
is important for the plot. Bogart and Ingrid Bergman look down from a poster. The
movie stars, we soon discover, provide most of Alfredo's wise words. The central relationship
and theme have been established in situ; man and boy bound together by their love
of the cinema.
The opening sequences have raised questions and answered some of these. They have
also introduced some of the oppositions central to the narrative: the child and his
adult self, youth and maturity, Salvatore and his mother, Salvatore and Alfredo,
Salvatore and Sicily, Sicily and Rome, film and life. Here we have the dynamic for the rest
of the film.
The Central Body of the Film
The central part of the film can be divided into seven development sequences which
answer questions and develop themes raised in the opening sequences. We briefly cut
back to the mature Salvatore in Rome on three occasions of emotional intensity, reminding us that it is his memories we are sharing.
1. Toto's obsession with the movies and struggle to get to the projection room.
School, seen as a brutal yet comic affair, has little importance for the child. At
home he provides his own dialogue for the scraps of film cut for censorship purposes
but never respliced, which he has taken from the projection room. He even spends
money given to him by his mother to buy milk on a cinema ticket. Fortunately, thanks to the
intervention of Alfredo who pretends the child got in free and dropped the money,
his mother spares her blows. After Toto's illicit film stock catches fire, Alfredo
promises the child's mother not to lead him astray. However, Alfredo tries in vain to dampen
the child's enthusiasm for the movies and finally agrees to let him into the projection
room and teach him his trade in exchange for answers in an elementary school certificate which Alfredo is trying to pass.
In these sequences we see the beginnings of the relationship between Alfredo and Salvatore.
The relationship is summed up by the use of the medium shot with the man, boy and
the projector, the latter almost a character. The use of shot-reverse-shot suggests the intensity of the relationship. Cutting between the projection room and the cinema
auditorium where the goings on of the actively participating audience are at least
as interesting as the kiss-less films, the director suggests period, indicates the
passage of time and provides a humorous microcosm of society. The ironic juxtaposition
of images is often a source of quiet humour. The choice of films screened at the
Paradiso is not always significant but the extract from Visconti's La Terra Terma
is since it is a serious film about poverty in Sicily; poverty in Tornatore's film
is less realistically portrayed. In contrast to the devotion of the adult Salvatore's
elderly mother, the young mother of the child seems lacking in affection for her
son; she seems to favour her daughter and frequently beats Toto. Although the child's father
has not yet been reported dead, the childless Alfredo assumes the role of surrogate
father and mentor, offering the wisdom of the movie stars.
The square, like the cinema, is a microcosm of life but since we frequently view goings
on from the projection room, that is from above, we remain detached from the vignettes
of real life, the shepherd with his sheep or the old lady spinning. The movies seem more real. In fact, 'real-life' sometimes copies the movies as when a man posting
a cinema poster falls from his ladder after his laces have been tied together by
mischievous boys, or when the Neapolitan faints on hearing the news of his win in
the lottery, like a character in a Rene Clair film.
The basic theme has been established. We see the development of the relationship between
Salvatore and Alfredo. Minor characters are sketched in, like the supercilious character
who spits from the balcony on the people in the cheaper seats below; in fact many characters remain two-dimensional or caricatures. As in the opening sequence the
music manipulates our emotions, guaranteeing the appropriate response. The conflict
between Salvatore and Alfredo is resolved; the conflict between mother and son remains.
2. Growing up - Disaster
The cinema has become the centre of Toto's life. He is now Alfredo's unofficial assistant.
It is from a news-reel that we have confirmation of the death of the child's father.
His grief-stricken mother passes a bombed building as she returns home, having signed for her widow's pension: the building, one of the few signs of the recent war
in the film, is a metaphor for her shattered life. In contrast to the visual message
the accompanying music, an upbeat version of the theme tune, suggests that the child
is unmoved by the loss; this impression is further reinforced as the child gazes fascinated
at a poster advertising Gone With the Wind
. For Toto the real tragedy is yet to come.
Cinema audiences continue to experience life vicariously and at first hand - we even
see a couple having sex. One night Alfredo, who is compared with a magician, shows
he can indeed do anything; feeling sorry for people who have been unable to get in
to a popular film, he projects the film onto the wall of a house in the square. In an amusing
reminder of the blurred line between life and film real people stepping out onto
the balcony invade the projected image. Alfredo, looking indulgently down on the
crowd outside, forgets his warning about the danger of fire. In the manner of the movies
flames leap into the air, accompanied by dramatic music. The cinema burns down but
the severely-burned Alfredo is rescued by Toto. This sequence shows the depth of
the relationship between them. It also marks a turning point; Salvatore is no longer the weaker
partner. Things are also about to change in the town.
As the flames roar we briefly cut back to Salvatore in Rome.
3. A New Beginning - Salvatore's Career takes off
The priest articulates the community's sense of loss to the tolling of a bell. In
fairy tale style the Neapolitan decides to invest his lottery winnings in a new Paradiso
and Toto, though under age, is to be the projectionist under Alfredo's guidance.
Although the new cinema is consecrated by the priest in a scene typifying Tornatore's
quietly ironic style, things are never the same again: films are more daring and
kisses no longer cut; although the relationship between Alfredo and Salvatore is
still central, it is now the man who visits the boy at work; the boy's relationship with his mother
has changed now he is the breadwinner and she even goes to the cinema herself.
In a brilliantly daring sequence Tornatore has the almost blind Alfredo touch the
boy's face whilst he offers advice about the future; when he takes his hands away
the child has become a young man. The passage of time is also indicated by the advent
of colour and nudity on the screen (whilst both the usher and young patrons masturbate vigorously).
The range of audience activity has also moved on, we realise, when we see a small
time prostitute plying her trade.
4. Salvatore - film maker and lover
Salvatore, later to become a successful director at Cinecitta, starts shooting a documentary
but is sidetracked when he sees a beautiful newcomer to the town. Consistent with
the film's theme she is first seen through the camera lens and the young man can
re-run her in the projection room. Elena, like 50. Hollywood actresses, has little
life of her own; she is there to be looked at. Unlike the film as a whole, this section
conforms to the pattern of classical narrative. Will he or will he not get the girl,? we ask. Because Elena is well dressed and middle class we suspect that class will
complicate the issue. Alfredo is content to take on a secondary role as confidant
and mentor, offering wisdom from John Wayne and others. An ironic scene in which
the audience weep at a sentimental film and a member of the audience pre-empts the dialogue,
followed by a comic cycle ride to collect the first reel (they have, we realise,
seen the second first) provides a nice counter-balance to the - albeit self-conscious
- sentimentality of this section of the film.
Alfredo helps Salvatore in his pursuit of Elena and connives with the young man in
an amusing scene in the church. The older man monopolises the priest's attention
with feigned doubts whilst his young friend slips into the priest's place in the
confessional, thus gaining intimate access to the girl. We see each character in close up, framed
and through a grille; despite their temporary intimacy a barrier remains between
them. It is not a scene which encourages respect for the church.
In a melodramatic sequence the young man waits outside the girl's flat. The image
of dates being crossed off on a calendar jokily reinforces the parallel with old
movies as well as dating events - the close of 1954. Storms predictably reflect emotions.
The hero seems to have been rejected and walks despondently away as celebrations are
heard inside the flat and fireworks rise into the sky. In Hollywood style he tears
up his letters, then returns to the projector. However, we see - before he does -
the girl's arrival. Their first cinematographic kisses take place in the projection room, the
finished reel unheeded in the heat of the moment.
An idyllic courtship is economically suggested, for example, by lovers hand in hand
in a cornfield beneath a blue sky accompanied by up-beat music. The idyll ceases
abruptly; the girl's father intervenes and takes her away. Salvatore sweats out the
summer, showing movies outside beside the port. His drawn-out torment is suggested by the
voice-over of him reading Elena's letters as we see him in a variety of lonely situations.
A shot of anchors on the beach reminds us that Sicily is an island and Salvatore
is inevitably attached to it. As the epic Ulysse
runs on the screen, our hero, apparently experiencing passions as violent as those
of the mythical hero, muses 'in a film it would be over.' On cue the storm breaks,
the girl returns. In a movie cliche they kiss passionately in the rain.
He seems to have got his girl.
There is a second cut to Rome, linked by the sound of the storm before
5. Military Service
The departing Salvatore's isolation is emphasised in a high shot of the square, empty
except for his bus. In the following brilliantly economical sequence where military
type music accompanies rapidly cut shots of marching boots, moments of lassitude
and returned letters the period of military service is evoked. The question posed in the
previous section is answered; he did not get his girl.
6. Return to Sicily and the decision to go to Rome to work in the movies
A companion shot of the bus in the square marks Salvatore's return. Close-ups of a
more mature looking youth invite us lo identify with him as he looks at his home-town
through new eyes. Alfredo's decline, suggested when we see him in bed, is temporarily
reversed by the young man's return. On the beach beside redundant anchors, suggesting
ties and wider horizons, the friends talk. The pattern of close-ups and shot reverse
shot tell us there has been no loss of intimacy; this is the central relationship
in Salvatore's life. Alfredo, no longer borrowing his wisdom from the stars urges, 'Life
isn't like the movies ... it's much harder ... go back to Rome...' Salvatore is about
to embark on the next stage of his journey through life.
We now know why Salvatore di Vita has been away so long, why he became a film director,
why - even after thirty years - he is so preoccupied by the news of Alfredo's death.
We cut back to Rome where in a dramatic silence, the adult Salvatore sits up in bed.
We see Salvatore embracing his mother before a longer and more poignant farewell to
Alfredo who forbids his return. This sequence exemplifies the importance of the relationship
with Alfredo, more important than his family. It also explains why di Vita has not returned home. As the train draws out and the young man looks back at his past
watched by a mother only now showing the affection we are to see in her older self,
the priest arrives, too late to say good-bye. This perhaps shows us just how irrelevant
the church was to the young man.
In a sequence typifying the film's elegant structure we cut from the train leaving
the station in Giancarlo, taking Salvatore to begin his career in Rome, to an in-coming
plane; the mature elegant di Vita, reflected in the window, then in a taxi window,
looks out at the new motorways symbolising the profound changes that have occurred in
Sicily during his absence.
Thirty years have elapsed since the previous scene, several hours since the scene
at the beginning of the film.
We cut to Salvatore's mother knitting as she waits (a reference to Penelope?) When
she gets up to welcome him the knitting unravels (as the years of waiting slip away).
A long shot of mother and son in the hall emphasises the spacious proportions of
the new house, contrasting implicitly with the one-roomed childhood home. The elderly lady's
shyness and deferential solicitude for her son contrast with her tempestuous relationship
with the child. The daughter, apparently the favourite of childhood, is absent. The mother shows Salvatore 'his' room (where, of course, he's never been before),
now a sort of shrine with bike, projector, film, the photographs he left behind.
We are somewhat surprised, given her initial hostility to the cinema. The accompanying
music manipulates our emotions, investing the scene with resonances from the past. We cut
from picture to picture and back to a surprised Salvatore. Finally we cut to a photograph
of Toto and Alfredo, thence to a close up of Alfredo alone reminding us why Salvatore is there.
There is a neat cut to the coffin, linking with the funeral procession, shot from
behind to allow us to join the procession. We cut alternately to the widow and Salvatore,
so we identify with the chief mourners. The widow speaks of Alfredo's love for Salvatore. As the procession moves through the town's narrow streets (very different from
Rome) our attention is drawn to the cars and the adverts which typify the changes
to the town left thirty years previously. The film cuts to the derelict Cinema Paradiso, thence to Salvatore looking at it, thence to the procession looking at him. The look
is fully exploited in this sequence; we share his and their emotions as they remember
Salvatore's and Alfredo's relationship with it. We cut to the cinema owner, who deferentially explains to his former employee, now Mr. Di Vita, that the building, empty
for six years since audiences failed to come any more, is to be demolished and replaced
by a car park. We remember the packed houses and crowds fighting to get in. Tornatore is making a point about the contemporary Italian cinema.
We see the coffin lifted from the hearse and carried into the church by Salvatore
and others. In the background we hear a bell tolling triggering associations with
bells earlier in the film. The economy with which the funeral is treated contrasts
with the lengthy funeral cortege scene preceding it.
Immediately we cut to a close up of a can of film, Alfredo's legacy to Salvatore.
The widow tells him that Alfredo never asked to see him, insisted that he must never
return here. We remember their last meeting. Past and present, image and reality
are joined together.
In the next shot Salvatore is seated at a table looking towards the curtained window
seen in the film's opening shot; his mother stands attentively at the other side
of the table. Furniture and table cloth reflect the family's new prosperity and we
remember the young widow at the table in Toto's childhood home. Whilst the elderly woman's
stance reflects a new solicitude for her son, the table between them suggests their
lack of closeness. A long silence increases the tension. It is finally broken by
Salvatore. "Now after all these years I thought ... that I'd forgotten a lot of things.
I find I'm back where I was as if I'd never been away." We recall Alfredo's advice
to the young man on his return from military service, urging him to leave Sicily
for good, only then would he be able to appreciate his own people. The camera moves in for a
more intimate scene. The director uses two shots and shot reverse shot, allowing
us to identify with them both as Salvatore admits that he hated his mother and she
replies that she never expected anything else, assuring him that he was 'right to leave'. We
remember that in the very early scenes Toto was generally being beaten by his mother
whilst Alfredo had become a substitute parent. A final moment of intimacy is suggested
when the mother regrets that her son's phone is always answered by a different woman,
none of whom have love in their voice. We see close-ups of the mother and extreme
closeups of the son as they reflect on this. In this scene the mother seems to fit
the stereotype of the self-sacrificing Latin mother.
We cut to a shot of the square and the cinema with a blue sky above (the weather was
surprisingly often inclement for the Mediterranean in the earlier part of the film)
. The camera moves back to show the crowd assembled for the Paradiso's demolition.
As the building crumbles and the Paradiso's sign falls to the ground we cut to capture
the reactions of the spectators, Salvatore and the cinema owner included. Not surprisingly
the latter has tears in his eyes. During this sequence the theme tune both manipulates our emotions and evokes memories of the cinema's heyday. As the dust clears,
as though through the mists of time, the madman seen earlier in the film proclaiming
his ownership of the square, reappears still making the same claims. As he weaves
his way through closely parked cars we realise some things have changed and others haven't.
We hear a plane taking off before the film cuts to the accompanying image, economically
suggesting Salvatore di Vita's return to Rome. We cut to a closeup of a can of
film which, because of the similarity of an earlier shot, we recognise as Alfredo's
posthumous gift, thence to a plush viewing room. A shot of the projectionist reminds
us that this time Alfredo is not running the film. The audience, consists of
Salvatore alone, implicitly recalling the Paradiso's motley clientele. The camera
zooms in on him in shadow, watching the screen. We cut from Salvatore to the screen
and back again as he views, with increasing pleasure and amusement, the censored
kisses and embraces from the 1940's which Alfredo had failed to splice back into
the film. This is the film promised to a puzzled Toto who failed to see how something
could belong to him if he could not take it away. Alfredo had kept his promise
and another question has been answered.
The theme music, at its most lush and triumphant, accompanies this final sequence
which draws to a close in a note of triumph and good humour, bringing past and
present, the adult Salvatore and Alfredo together. We are reminded of their
joyous relationship and the elder's influence on the younger. How else could a film
about the movies finish but with a film? Neatly both Alfredo's and Tornatore's
films draw to a close with the old fashioned black and white FINE.
For those who can not tear themselves away, the concluding credits are superimposed
on snippets from the film accompanied by the still-triumphant theme tune.
All the strands have been drawn together and the questions raised in the opening
part of the film answered. Whilst not conforming to the standard classical narrative
pattern its elegantly circular structure and tidy ending is competely satisfying
to the audience. This is a film which rewards viewers for engaging actively with it but
because it is ultimately comfortable rather than challenging, it is a film of 'pleasure'
not a film of 'bliss'.
In an interview with John Frances Lane of Screen International
at Cannes in 1989 Tornatore said, "With Cinema Paradiso
I wanted to make a fantasy about the times when movie making was an excitement...
I had to create everything as a period film. I didn't want to be realistic. Realistic
or not the film represents people, places and in situations in a certain way.
- and, by extension Southern Italy.
One of the films screened at the Paradiso was Visconti's La Terra Terma
(1948), a film partly funded by the Communist party which used non-professional
actors speaking dialect. It is about poverty and exploitation. In contrast Tornatore,
himself a Sicilian, glosses over the poverty of post-war Sicily (maybe because
he was not born until 1956). The child tells the priest they don't eat lunch, children
are de-loused, we see bombed buildings, but we don't feel
the poverty. There is no reference to the Mafia, politics is barely touched on:
Fascism is alluded to indirectly in the newsreels about the Partisans; there is a
token Communist who leaves for Germany watched by a supercilious character in front
of the Cerclo dei Noboli. The black-clad widows suggest conservatism. The scarcity
of motor vehicles, and characters like the spinner suggest a traditional and
underdeveloped country. References to the classical hero, Ulysses, suggest a society
with its roots in prehistory.
Modern Sicily with its elegant motorway bridges seems part of modern Italy, a country
envied by other Europeans for its design. Consumerism has arrived: advertisements
look down on a traffic congested square. However, widows wear black, even after
forty years mothers defer to their adult sons, the independent minded Alfredo has
a church funeral preceded by a substantial funeral cortege. It seems to be a closed
society: we don't see any newcomers, after thirty years' absence. The demolition
of the New Paradiso tells us that cinema audiences are declining in Italy as elsewhere
because of competition from television and video.
The brief view of Rome suggests a metropolitan sophistication, elegance and prosperity
contrasting with the provincial nature of small town Sicily. Rome is also shown
as the centre of the cinema industry - which, of course, it is.
As the church building dominates the square, so the church has a stranglehold on
society. Its presence in the cinema is hinted by the holy statue, and the priest
has the power to censor films before they are viewed by his flock. This was
not a complete exaggeration, the Cento Cattolico Cinematografo established in 1936 to
censor films continued to classify films, according to the church's lights. The
representation of the priest as a gullible fool reminds us of the long tradition
of anti-clericism in Italy. On the other hand, people in the South seem to elect for a Catholic
burial, however independently minded they seem in life!
Female characters are not fully developed and they play subordinate roles, usually
defined by a relationship with a man; they are mothers, wives, widows. The young
wife remains devoted to her absent husband. She betrays little affection for the
young Toto whom she regularly beats; however, once Salvatore becomes the breadwinner,
he displaces his sister in their mother's affections and she assumes the role of
caring, subservient mother. Her devotion is such that she keeps Salvatore's bedroom
as a sort of shrine and she waits like Penelope. There are no recriminations when Salvatore
returns after thirty years, only gentle understanding and a desire for her son's
happiness. The sister becomes increasingly shadowy and is absent when her brother
finally returns home. Alfredo's wife is another devoted woman, only appearing in the
film to serve her husband, for example, she brings his lunch to the cinema. The girl
in bed in Rome may be modern and glamorous but she too is there merely to serve
Salvatore. Beautiful, well-dressed Elena, the object of the young Salvatore's love, has
no independent life. She is there to be loved and looked at- and looked at again
on film! Although she is from a professional background, daughter of a bank manager,
she is completely subservient to her father's will as we see when she leaves the island
for ever. The female teacher, who reinforces instruction with blows, is a caricature.
Italian women, even from Sicily, reinforce our prejudices by being elegantly dressed.
This is a society dominated by men. Salvatore and Alfredo are the main characters.
Both are shown flatteringly; Salvatore good-looking, intelligent and creative
becomes a successful film maker. Alfredo, the surrogate father, is friend and
mentor to the young man. Neither have any unpleasant characteristics. Men have power; the
priest, despite his ironic portrayal, wields spiritual power, the cinema owner has
economic power. The 'characters' in the film, the madman who believes he owns
the square, the man who spits on the people sitting in the balcony, are men. Men dominate
by sheer numbers; we see a class of boys at school, most of the cinema audience
are men and boys - perhaps girls had other duties. It is, not surprisingly the
men who get excited about the absence, and later the inclusion of, sex in the films.
As far as Northern Italians and other Europeans are concerned, the film probably represents
Sicilian society in a manner consistent with their prejudices!
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