Cinema Paradiso

| November 24, 2001

Cinema Paradiso is truly an amazing film. It is about love, growing up, leaving home, loss and success. Although it is set in a small hamlet in Italy, the topics are so universal that anyone can relate.
The movie starts in modern Rome where Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) a professionally successful, personally failed, middle-aged cinematographer returns to his stylish apartment and young girlfriend. He receives a message from his mother: Alfredo, the owner of the cinema Salvatore considered his true home, has died. This begins a long flashback to his childhood in his hometown of post-war Giancaldo, where he was known simply as “Toto.”
Toto lives with his hardworking mother and baby sister in a cramped house, waiting for his father to return from Russia. His only refuge from the near-poverty condition is the cinema. Through some maneuvering he befriends Alfredo, the projectionist, who teaches him how to run the projector and edit the films to meet with the Church’s censorship.
There is a fire in the cinema, and although Toto risks his own life to save that of his mentor, Alfredo (Phillipe Noiret) is blinded. Still a small boy, Toto becomes the projectionist of the new theater. As he grows into manhood, Alfredo is teaching him about dreams, women, and life in a small town.
Now a young man, Toto meets Elena (Agnese Nano), the beautiful daughter of a rich banker. With Alfredo’s help he wins her heart, leading to what I consider the most poignant kiss in movie history. Their romance dies when Elena’s father moves the family away. Alfredo tells Toto to leave Giancaldo, and never come back.
It is important to know just how significant “the screen kiss” is to Cinema Paradiso. Early in the film, the local priest previews each movie before it’s shown to the public, manipulating the power of his office to insist that all kissing scenes be removed. By the time the new cinema opens, however, things have changed. The priest no longer attends the movies and kisses are no longer censored. Later, following the funeral near the end of the film, Salvatore receives his bequest from Alfredo: a film reel containing all of the kisses removed from the movies is to be shown at the Paradiso. It is perhaps the greatest montage of motion picture kisses ever assembled. As Salvatore watches it, tears come to his eyes. The deluge of intense passion acts as a powerful reminder of the simple, yet profound passion that has been missing in his life since he lost touch with Elena, his one true love. It is a profoundly moving moment.
As the extended flashback fades away, Toto is again a middle-aged man with a string of failed relationships, flying back to the small town he left so long ago. He see that a lot has changed — the cinema which was once the center of life in the village is scheduled to be demolished, but many things stay the same — people he grew up with are still in the town, raising their families and living their lives. After the funeral, he finds that Alfredo has left him a poignant present, and that the old mentor still has a lot to teach.
A brief summary just can’t do justice to this film. It is worth watching, and watching again and again. Because it is subtitled, some of the subtle expressions and movements that make the scenes can be lost and each time I watch it I find something new.
Not enough can be said about the musical score. There is only one main theme, but it has many variations from the simple piano solo used to introduce the town to the soaring orchestra version, which accompanies Elena and Toto’s first kiss.
Be sure to sit through all the credits. While they are rolling, scenes from the movie are shown from different camera angles so you can see how other characters react. I have not seen this in any other review, in fact I saw the movie five or six times myself before I noticed it: BE SURE TO WATCH THE CREDITS TO THE VERY END. There is a twist during the last few scenes during the credits which adds an entirely new dimension to the movie.
For anyone who has ever left home, Cinema Paradiso will stir bittersweet memories. It is the film by which I judge all others.

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