It is the late 1980s. The setting is a dark, private theatre in urban Italy. Nothing is said. The only thing to be seen is the antiquated flickering of black and white images across a screen. But there’s an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and melancholy joy as a single clarinet gives way to a lush orchestra filled with a sense of unspoken understanding as we realize what exactly it is we are seeing.
To start a review by describing the final scene of a film is perhaps unusual. But the film itself begins at the end, and it is not until we look back at what has become the past that we are able to appreciate its significance. In order to understand the brilliance of Giuseppe Tornatore’s award-winning Italian film Cinema Paradiso (1988) one must return to the beginning. In rural Italy, there there is little to do but visit the town’s single movie house, where the films are censored by the town’s conservative, local priest. As a result the theatre becomes the community’s central form of paradise.
Salvatore Di Vita, a successful director who has lost his way in life, revisits his past following the death of an old friend and mentor, Alfredo, who first inspired his love of movies. Back then he was “Toto,” the mischievous altar boy who spent grocery money on movie tickets and spent much of his time tirelessly pestering the projectionist at the Paradiso. As his friendship with Alfredo develops, Toto learns how to operate the machines, and begins to pay attention not just to the films themselves but to the audience dynamics and reactions.
The Paradiso becomes a place of shared experience and miracles. It’s where people of different classes fall in love. Uneducated citizens engage in heated debates about the meaning of a particular line or scene. In a desperate attempt to relive a fleeting moment of excitement the working class members flock back to the theatre until they can recite entire films by heart. They all come together in one place at one time to laugh, cry, smile, and reflect. It is not a place, nor is this a film, that easily fits into just one genre. For a movie about movies, about life itself, could not possibly fit within the confines of a single category.
Eventually, Salvatore assumes the projectionist’s responsibilities at the movie house. He becomes a young romantic who dreams of recreating the glorious life he witnesses onscreen. At the urging of now-retired Alfredo, Salvatore decides to leave his hometown and the Paradiso behind him, without any intention of returning, to become a great film director. “Don’t give in to nostalgia,” Alfredo tells him. For as every movie that feels too short shows us, nothing ever really lasts forever.
Salvatore does indeed become the successful director he set off to be. And yet despite his admiring fans and apparently large number of girlfriends we realize that there is something missing from his life—the resolution that brings us back around to the beginning and helps us realize what it was all about. Much like any present moment in life, the final scene fails to mean anything until you look back at the whole story. But once you understand, you are left with a great desire to return yet again to the Paradiso. At the very least, you’ll understand the inspiration for the name of that little video rental place you pass on your way into The Village.
The strength of this film comes from its ability to identify the best things about films by doing those very things. Without being self-aggrandizing it manages to celebrate the subtle yet profound power of cinema as both a shared and individual experience. It communicates with and touches its audience on both deep and superficial levels without explicitly addressing its intent, rather by merely immersing people in the sights and sounds of another world. By turning the present into a past to be remembered and interpreted in the future it turns everyday life into a narrative with meaning.
Cinema Paradiso is currently available on Netflix Instant Streaming.