We resume our European tour following a brief departure in order to cover Sheffield Doc/Fest. This week we have a flight booked to exotic Italia, a country littered with film honours throughout its history. It gave us Federico Fellini, a sub-genre of a specifically Italian mystery-thriller hybrid (giallos) in the 70s, and of course the Spaghetti Western, most notably Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. In fact, it’s the most successful country in the Best Foreign Language Film category with 13 winners at the Academy Awards, narrowly ahead of France’s 12. But it’s the 1988 release Cinema Paradiso, itself an Oscar winner for that very award, that we look at here.
It’s fitting that we should choose a film that – as the title suggests – is very much involved with recounting memories of cinema. Cinema experiences are a recurring theme throughout, as is the socio-political background of Italy itself, meaning that the two main ingredients are part of Italian cinema’s heritage. One of the fascinating things about the filmmaking process is the amount of “final” copies a film can end up with, and so it’s important to initially note that – whilst IMDB gives it a running time of 155 minutes (the director’s cut) – as well as an alternate 173 minute version – it’s the leaner 124-minute theatrical version that I caught, and it’s that version that is being discussed here.
Cinema Paradiso is a sprawling tale throughout the decades of Italy’s past that dwells upon the themes of the day – war, censorship, illiteracy and community – although its primary focus is to serve as a love-letter to the cinema. Whilst it does focus on film to a large extent, Cinema Paradiso is particularly concerned with the sensations surrounding (and intrinsically involved with) a trip to the flicks in days gone by. And so this is not just any cinema experience – and certainly not a modern-day one – but instead a romantic notion of a classical, physical and communal experience. This feeling of nostalgia is one which transcends the on-screen material and radiates from it.
This is helped by the constant presence of the melodic score that lingers somewhere between the background and foreground in an undetermined vacuum of space. The incessant repetition of this simple tune – as pleasing as it is initially – should become irksome, but manages to refrain from becoming so somehow (much like the film as a whole). The gentle tones actually carry us through the film every bit as much as Alfredo and Toto or the themes of cinema and Italian society do. The warm, winding notes are reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli film or a Final Fantasy game, and they add to the feelings concerned with nostalgia of youth and fondness for a place called home.
This might sound dangerously close to a Wizard of Oz reference, but when the child protagonist is called Toto (which he is) then perhaps it was simply meant to be. The quite literal coming-of-age tale involves him becoming the protégé to the projectionist at a small auditorium. It largely takes place with Toto as a child in this impressionable state, but after a major incident the second half of the film moves on to his teenage years. The angst caused by unrequited love demonstrates his need to grow up and face the world, as he finds out he’s not quite in Kansas anymore.
The representations of the cinema experience as intimate and physical are shown and replicated in many forms throughout. The idea of the physicality is quite literally in the film itself: it’s explosive, flammable and causes problems. The nature of the work is hands-on and tiring. Alfredo cuts and splices film by hand; he tells stories of how projectors were even more difficult and arduous in terms of graft as he talks about his past. It’s a commendation to projectionists and other skilled, manual workers throughout history who undertook similar labours and burdens in order to fuel their passions. Its homage is to the birth of cinema and the projectionists acting as midwifes who made such an art-form possible with their positive involvement.
At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from displaying issues relevant to the period it covers. Its running time allows it to delve into themes of deprivation – lack of education, war and post-war struggles, and more – that are complemented by the comforts of the old-time theatre visits, with the cinema acting as a remedy for the people in times of hardship. It’s no accident and no surprise that the positive impact shown here is one concerned with community and cohesiveness, with the angry mob simply demanding more of what they love. The “intimacy” discussed above is apparent through this form, but additionally the role of censorship plays a significant part, and the loving montage which comes at the end is perhaps the scene for which Cinema Paradiso is best known.
In conclusion, Cinema Paradiso is a warm and fuzzy introspection of cinema itself from an Italian perspective. It somehow avoids being overly frothy and is best summed up as a classic that you just can’t help but be fond of. Not only is it an easy and enjoyable watch despite the layers on offer, but it’s one of those rare beasts: a film where an alternate longer version is more than welcome. The next time I watch it, it’ll gladly be the Director’s Cut.