Cinema Paradiso (1988, Giuseppe Tornatore)

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Cinema Paradiso, the beloved 1988 work of Giuseppe Tornatore, probably launched the careers of a thousand movie projectionists; the easygoing, romanticized comedy-drama about coming of age in and around a theater in a small Italian town is, to say the least, a slick movie, a total crowd-pleaser. As a comedy, it’s faltering: unfunny goofiness in the Roberto Benigni vein. But as a tearjerker it scores, the same way Italian touchstone Bicycle Thieves scored. It also suffers from many of the same ailments.

Paradiso follows a young boy — Toto, played as a kid by Savatore Cascio, as a teen by Marco Leonardi, and bizarrely as an adult by Jacques Perrin — from his movie fetish at eight years old to a career as a great director, and focuses on his adolescence and his ties to the mentor who got him his job as a projectionist. There is a great deal of inflated misty-eyed nostalgia about movies, and especially about movies of the early 1940s. It’s all very polite, very direct, and earnest to the point that you start to feel like it’s your job to spoil its innocence. There’s more syrup here than the human body is meant to tolerate — and farcical stuff that doesn’t seem to belong.

I sympathize with the position of those who connected with this film on such a base level that it directly led them to an investigation of European films at large. I had the same reaction to The 400 Blows, a film that this one borrows from extensively. Another version of me might have gotten such a feeling from I Vitelloni, Small Change, Breathless, even Bicycle Thieves, who knows. Cinema Paradiso attains this automatic exuberance because it is directly and superficially about movies, therefore it gets to show clips from other people’s films, therefore it is permitted to use them the way Wes Anderson uses British Invasion singles you don’t remember.

For me, the problem is that for all the film’s introspection about cinema, beyond numerous closeups of faces of members of the audience responding to the giant theater screen in various Moving ways, beyond the easy way out of demolishing the theater at the end (and burning another one halfway through), the film doesn’t actually say very much at all about movies and their effect on the central character; there’s no true investigation of anything specific in any film that connects with him. Yes, there are a lot of keen and telling clips, but the movie’s actual sense of the emotional workings and function of cinema take a backseat to the conventional teenage love and mentor-student tale, which is only too appropriate since it offers very little in the way of cinematic firepower itself. It all feels a bit simplistic, as though there’s something Tornatore isn’t letting on. (There is a longer cut of the film in existence; having now seen the theatrical version twice, I will make a point to track down an expanded print next time to see if this impression changes.)

But it’s not fun to carp about this movie, because it also contains at least three of the loveliest moments any moviegoer will ever witness, all of which will be permanently remembered thereafter. First is the nighttime movie projected on the side of the neighborhood building; it’s somewhat irksome that this gets violated by being formed into a tragic plot point. Secondly: the speech Alfredo gives to Toto before the latter leaves town — bracing, troubling, emotionally complex, beautiful in its fire and urgency, and a painful but sobering indication of what it means to have to leave home. And then, of course, there is That Part. You know what That Part is if you’ve seen the movie and if you haven’t, you deserve to enter the film with no description and no preparation for That Part. But if my experience both times is any indication, you will need to cry and you will cry lots. I don’t know if any other movie I’m this sort-of-ambivalent about builds itself up to quite so devastating a finale.

[Revised version of a review written in 2007.]

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