CR Movie Club: Cinema Paradiso

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This is CR Movie Club. Each week in quarantine, we’re revisiting a classic film from yesteryear to explore why we loved it in the first place and how it holds up over time.

My first recollection of Cinema Paradiso is of its achingly beautiful soundtrack, which my family listened to nearly every day at breakfast growing up. It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally watched the movie and all of the tender notes of Ennio Morricone’s accompaniment came to life within Giuseppe Tornatore’s Italian film about how the cinema shaped a young boy’s life. But beyond being a movie about movies, Cinema Paradiso shows the indelible impact of nostalgia and love, both utterly unforgettable and unavoidable.

Originally released in 1988, Cinema Paradiso was a flop in its home country. Two years later, however, after a new cut was released, the film gained critical acclaim including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and a suite of BAFTAs. It was Tornatore’s second feature, shot in his Sicilian hometown, where the Piazza Umberto I poses as the center of a post-World War II village.

This is where Salvatore “Totò” Di Vita (Jaques Perrin), a successful filmmaker, returns in flashbacks, after learning that Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), a close friend and mentor had passed. Building a career in Rome, Di Vita hadn’t been back in 30 years. As he reminisces about his origins, we see the young Totò (Salvatore Cascio) drawn to Alfredo’s work as a projectionist at the titular movie theater, enchanted by the silver screen. The boy will do anything to see the movies, poking his head through the curtains of the cinema, spending his family’s milk money on a ticket, and whining at Alfredo until he acquiesces and allows him to watch from the projection booth.

The theater is the social center of the town where people laugh together, cry together, scream at the screen, at each other, and engage in not-so-discreet debauchery. From Charlie Chaplin to steamy Hollywood flicks, the Cinema Paradiso shows a wide range of popular titles, all pre-censored by the town priest who directs Alfredo to cut any on-screen kisses from the film reel. No matter what the feature, the house is always packed with familiar faces–who become caricatures in the small town–from a man that crudely spits over the theater’s upper balcony to a couple who’s own love story begins in the theater. Like Totò, all of these people flock to the cinema as an escape.

Totò doesn’t actually make his getaway until heartbreak and an insistent Alfredo drive him to turn his back on his home. The teen Totò (played by Marco Leonardi) devotes himself to a girl who reciprocates his love for a while, but eventually fades from view. While this romance is as obvious and foolish as we expect it to be, it feeds the adult Mr. Di Vita’s sense of wistfulness that’s felt throughout his flashbacks. After realizing that the girl of his dreams wasn’t coming back for him, he pays a visit to Alfredo, who tells Totò to go to Rome and never look back. “Life isn’t like the movies,” he insists.

When he finally returns for Alfredo’s funeral, Di Vita learns that the Cinema Paradiso is being demolished the next day. As he walks through the ruins of the old theater, it seems that the golden years of film are over. The place he has been reminiscing about for the entire movie is a shadow of its former self. It reminds us that nostalgia often comes with rose tinted glasses, as does love in hindsight. It makes us wonder, was it worth it?

But Alfredo assures us so. Back in Rome, Di Vita plays an old reel of film that his friend left for him. Alfredo’s final gift for Di Vita is a spliced montage of all of the passionate kisses that the priest had Alfredo cut from the movies. Nostalgia wells in Di Vita one last time as embrace after embrace appears on the screen, and the love shown solidifies Di Vita’s own, for the past, for his one true romance, for his friend, and for the Cinema Paradiso.

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