Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso is one of the most enchanting and magical tales about the love and nostalgia of going to the movies. Its an epic story about a young boys childhood love for films in the village of Giancaldo, Sicily and how he spends every waking moment at the local movie house titled Cinema Paradiso, which in a way becomes a surrogate father for him after his father is killed in the war. Night after night Toto becomes entranced with the awe and wonder of the movies as he watches Alfredo who is in control of the projection booth unleash his dream-like images right on the theatre screen. Toto eventually becomes fascinated with the projection booth and at first Alfredo tries to chase the young boy away. But within time he begins to accept his presence within the projection booth and the two develop a long lasting friendship that spans over decades. Throughout the story we become familiar with the lively and colorful Felliniesque movie-house customers as they illustrate the passion and enjoyment of all different types of movie watchers. Right when the lights dim down and the movie begins the audience watches the movie screen in awe, and we watch the movie audience in awe, being witnesses to romances blossoming, babies nursed, cigarettes smoked, wine drunk, victories cheered, and villains being booed at. When released in 1988 Cinema Paradiso became loved by critics and audiences alike and the film won the Academy Award for best foreign language film. And yet interestingly enough, the film that critics and audiences loved wasn't necessarily the film that director Giuseppe Tornatore intended to make. The studios trimmed 51 minutes from the original film which went into much more detail about the love between Salvatore and Elena. We always place our faith in the director of the film, in that they are the intended visionary of the story and that they are always right; and its the studios who interfere and want to change the film who are butchers and who are in the wrong. And yet, this one of the few times in which I agree with the studios and believe the shorter cut is the more effective film. I still recommend seeing both versions and to judge for yourself on which one you personally prefer, because in its own way those extra 51 minutes in the original cut play as an entirely new film with an entirely different meaning for the story.
The film opens in Rome during the 1980s, as famous Italian film director Salvatore Di Vita, returns home late one evening, where his girlfriend (one of many supposedly) sleepily tells him that his mother called earlier and the two had a long talk. Salvatore asks his girlfriend why his mother called and she tells him that his mother told her that someone named Alfredo has died and his funeral is being held tomorrow back in his hometown in Giancaldo, Sicily. The girlfriend is shocked that Salvatore hasn't seen his mother in 30 years and she says to Salvatore "When she wants to see you she comes to Rome." His girlfriend asks if Alfredo was a relative and Salvatore tells her no, and to not worry about it. It is obvious that Salvatore shies away from committed relationships, and does not open up to others.
The film then flashes back to Salvatore's childhood which takes place a few years after World War II and is the final years before television. Six-year old Salvatore (nicknamed Toto) is a mischievous son of a recent war widow. Young Toto is caught falling asleep during mass and the local priest is furious. The only movie theatre in the village of Giancaldo is Cinema Paradiso which shows a wide variety of films ranging from Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne and countless other classic films and is the place in which Toto discovers his love and passions for cinema; spending every free moment there. Every weekend men, women and children scramble in Cinema Paradiso to cry, laugh and shout at the movie screen as they watch romantic melodramas in which the men and women on screen look intensely at one another and slowly move in to kiss, until suddenly with the quick jerk of a jump-cut, they are standing apart exchanging a expression of deep love and significance.
This is because the local priest turns up every week before showing the newly arrived film to censor all the romantic scenes. Alfredo is the man in control of the projection booth and he routinely gives the priest a early screening, as the priest sits alone in the auditorium with his hand poised over a bell, and at the slightest move in which the characters on the screen are about to kiss, he rings the bell and the movie stops for Alfredo to snip the offending footage out of the film. These lifeless strips of celluloid gets piled up in a old canister and will collect dust as this footage will never be seen by the townspeople.
Toto is taken with Alfredo the fatherly projectionist and is entranced with the way Alfredo works the projector throwing the film images on the theatre screen. Alfredo, takes a shine to the young boy but repeatedly chases young Toto out of the projection booth when he tries to sneak in and have a peek. "You mustn't come here. I told you and told you...like talking to a wall. If the film catches fire...as little as you are, you'll go up....voom," Alfredo says to Toto. When Toto sees the clipped strips of the film he asks if he can have them. Alfredo tells Toto that he can't give them to him because he's got to splice them back in the film when he returns it. Toto knows Alfredo is lying and calls him out on it when he notices the piled up celluloid from past films inside the canister. Alfredo says, "Sometimes I can't find the right place, so they stay here. Anyway they kiss too much." Alfredo loses his patience with Toto and all his questions and kicks him out of the projection booth yelling, "Don't come back or I'll thrash you." (But not before Toto steals a few strips of film)
In a Felliniesque like scene Toto is in class as one of Toto's friends is called up to class to answer a math problem. The student repeatedly keeps getting the question wrong, even with the private assistance of Toto's signaling him the correct answer. The weekend arrives as Cinema Paradiso is piling up with men, women and children who are excited to see the new picture. Toto attends and is disciplined when he is caught looking through the projection hole, which is where the light of the projector shines through. The movie starts and it's John Ford's Stagecoach and when the movie cuts to a news break Toto looks up in awe at the projector light. During an intense scene from a Luchino Visconti film the audience is drawed into an intense romantic scene, but the tension in the audience dies out when the clip is cut and the clip jump cuts to a later scene. The audience is disappointed and one person in the audience yells, "I knew it! Twenty years I've gone to movies and never saw a kiss."
After a short clip of a Charlie Chaplin film the movie is finally finished and everyone exits the theatre for the night. Toto sees his mother waiting for him at the corner of the road and he knows he is in trouble. His mother confronts him on the milk money she game earlier him and asked where it is. She knows he spent it again on the movies and angrily starts to thrash him yelling, "You spent it on movies? Movies! Always movies!" Alfredo sees the commotion and runs up to interrupt. Alfredo lies for Toto and gets him out of trouble by telling Toto's mother that her son saw the movie for free and gives her the milk money that she originally thought was spent.
One afternoon while taking a walk with the local priest Toto sees Alfredo riding past on his bike and so Toto fakes a leg injury so Alfredo will ride him into town. While riding on the back of Alfredo's bicycle Alfredo and Toto have a discussion about Toto's father and how Alfredo knew him well before he went off to war. When Alfredo arrives to Toto's home Toto's mother runs out of the house hysterical because Toto almost started a fire to the house by accidentally leaving his film strips (that he stole from Alfredo) near the fire pan which ignited a fire and burned several of their possessions. Toto's mother is tired that all she hears from her son is movies and tells Toto that when his father returns from the war he is going to greatly discipline him. Toto yells back crying and informs his mother that his father is dead and that she can't accept it and is only in denial. Toto's mother politely asks Alfredo to promise to not let Toto in the projection booth any longer, and Alfredo gives her his word.
At another movie screening at Cinema Paradiso Toto wants to be allowed up in the projection booth but Alfredo is trying to keep his promise to Toto's mother by not letting him up there. When Toto sees Alfredo's wife arrive with her husband's food that gives Toto a reason to go up to the booth, so he can deliver the food to Alfredo. When entering the projection booth with Alfredo's food Toto tells Alfredo that he told his mother that he didn't give him the film strips that started the fire and also that he didn't 'really think' film could catch on fire. After being completely honest with Alfred Toto turns to head back downstairs when Alfredo has a change of heart and decides to let him stay.
Alfredo explains to Toto how the projector works and Toto is completely fascinated with the machine asking Alfredo if he could train him. Alfredo tells him no saying, "Because it's no kind of job for you. You're like a slave...and always alone. You see a film 100 times. You've got nothing else to do. You talk to Garbo and Tyrone Power like a looney bird. You work like a burro. Even holidays...Easter, Christmas. You only get Good Friday off. And if they hadn't stuck Christ on a cross...we'd even work then." Toto asks why Alfredo just doesn't quit the job but Alfredo believes he is a imbecile and not good to do anything better. While Alfredo uses the restroom Toto quietly changes the reel without asking Alfredo. When Alfredo realizes this he is furious that Toto touched the equipment and again kicks Toto out of the booth and bans him for life yelling at Toto from the top of the tower. Toto yells up to Alfredo "Up yours!" and quickly takes off home.
That quickly changes though when Toto's class is one day interrupted because auditor's have to use the room to take their exam for the grade school diploma. All the young students laugh at the adults who arrive to take the exam, as ironically one of the adults taking the test is Alfredo. During the exam Alfredo seems to be struggling and tries to peek at Toto's answers. Toto laughs and won't let Alfredo see his answers unless Alfredo promises to teach him how to run the projector with Alfredo reluctantly agreeing.
Alfredo stands by his promise and teaches young Toto everything about being a film projector. Unfortunately during one of the news broadcast that cuts in the middle of the pictures, they announce the names of several dead soldiers, and Toto sees his father and so Toto and his mother go visit where Toto's father was buried. One evening at the Cinema Paradiso the theatre reaches it's maximum seating capacity and a angry mob of customers aren't allowed to enter the theatre to see the picture. Alfredo says to Toto, "A mob doesn't think. It has a mind of its own. Spencer Tracy said that in Fury. Well, what do you say? Shall we let the poor devils see their film?" In one of the most magical scenes in the film Alfredo reflects the movie out of the window booth and out across the town square so that the images can float on a wall and right above the heads of the audience that couldn't see the picture. Toto is enthralled by this and decides to head outside in the street to watch the movie with others. Unfortunately a fire starts in the projector (high inflammable Nitrate film was in routine use at the time) and Cinema Paradiso goes up in flames with Alfredo still in the projection booth. Toto quickly runs in and saves Alfredo's life by pulling him out of the fire but not before the film reel explodes in Alfredo's face leaving him permanently blind.
The theatre is completely burned down and the priest says to the townspeople, "What do we do now? We have no more entertainment. Nothing. Where'll we going to get the money to rebuild." Fortunately the Cinema Paradiso is rebuilt by a town citizen, Ciccio, who invests his football lottery winnings in it. Toto, though still a child, is hired to take over Alfredo's position and be the new projectionist, as he is the only one who knows how to run the machines. (Because of his height Toto uses a stool so he can reach the machines.) One evening while Toto is working in the projection booth Alfredo arrives escorted by his wife. "Any room for me in this new paradise?" Alfredo asks now permanently blind. Toto tells Alfredo that he has been working overtime and hasn't been attending school and Alfredo isn't happy about that because he knows young Toto is bright and school is important for him.
The film cuts ahead to several years in the future and Toto is now a teenager in high-school, and now prefers to be called Salvatore. His relationship with Alfredo has only strengthened over the years, and Salvatore often looks to Alfredo for advice — advice that Alfredo often dispenses by quoting classic films. Salvatore informs Alfredo about the arrival of a new non-combustible film strip that isn't flammable. Alfredo says, "Progress always comes late." Not only has film technology changed over the years but the films that are now being viewed at Cinema Paradiso are no longer censored by the church. The films that are now presented are much more provocative and racy (as kids are caught masturbating to sex scenes in the theatre) and the local priest is offended on what is now accepted on the screen as he says, "I won't watch pornography."
Salvatore has started experimenting with film-making, using a home movie camera, and he has met, and captured on film, a girl, Elena, daughter of a wealthy banker. One day during school Salvatore sees that Elena dropped her books and he quickly runs over to pick them up and speak to her. At work Salvatore seems distracted and Alfredo knows its because of a woman. Alfredo asks Salvatore to describe the woman to her. Salvatore says, "My age, slim, long hair, brown. Big eyes, very blue, honest and direct." Alfredo says, "Love. No matter what you do they'll never be your friends. The bigger the man, the deeper his imprint. And if he loves, he suffers, knowing it's a dead-end street." Salvatore says that what Alfredo just nice was nice. Alfredo says, "I didn't say it. It was John Wayne in 'The Shepherd of the Hills.'" Salvatore runs into Elena again but can't seem to get the right words out of his mouth. One day Alfredo tells a story to Salvatore about a soldier who wanted to marry a king's daughter:
"Once upon a time, a king gave a feast. And there came the most beautiful princesses of the realm. Now, a soldier, who was standing guard, saw the king's daughter go by. She was the most beautiful one, and he immediately fell in love with her. But what could a poor soldier do when it came to the daughter of the king? Well, finally, one day, he managed to meet her, and he told her that he could no longer live without her. The princess was so impressed by his strong feelings that she said to the soldier: "If you can wait 100 days and 100 nights under my balcony, then at the end of it, I shall be yours." Damn! The soldier immediately went there and waited one day. And two days. And ten. And then twenty. And every evening, the princess looked out of her window, but he never moved. During rain, during wind, during snow, he was always there. The bird shat on his head, and the bees stung him, but he didn't budge. After ninety nights, he had become all dried up, all white, and the tears streamed from his eyes. He couldn't hold them back. He no longer had the strength to sleep. All that time, the princess watched him. And on the 99th night, the soldier stood up, took his chair, and went away."
One day while Alfredo attends mass with Salvatore, Salvatore spots Elena go into the confessional booth. Salvatore has Alfredo distract the priest so he can speak with Elena privately through the confessional booth. When Elena realizes it is Salvatore inside the confessional booth with her Salvatore tells her that she is beautiful saying, "When we meet, I can't say anything right...because you give me the shivers. But I'm in love with you." Elena smiles and says to Salvatore, "You're very sweet, and I like you very much...but I don't love you." At first stunned Salvatore then tells her that he doesn't care and says, "Every night after work, I'll come stand outside your house. And I'll wait. Every night. When you change your mind, open your window." Salvatore goes by his promise and stands outside her house ever single night, even through the pouring rain, and right to the celebration of the New Years. Eventually he leaves and heads to the Cinema Paradiso where she suddenly arrives proving to Salvatore that he had won her heart and the two embrace and kiss in the projection booth.
Salvatore and Elena are inseparable, but because of her father's disapproval of the relationship Salvatore loses her when her father takes her away for the summer. During the summer the two write to one another and deeply miss each other. One summer evening Salvatore lays outside near the sea shore while a storm begins and he says, "When will this rotten summer end? In a film, it'd already be over. Fade out: cut to storm. Wouldn't that be great? " When it starts to heavily pour Elena surprises him from on-top and kisses him saying how she had to come up with so many excuses for her dad to finally take her back to town.
Eventually Salvatore is called to do his military service in Rome and says goodbye to Elena promising he will continuously write to her. During his service Salvatore loses contact with Elena and the letters he wrote to her are returned to him undeliverable. When returning home Salvatore goes to visit Alfredo and the two head for a walk near the sea. Alfredo asks if Salvatore seen Elena and Salvatore tells him that he hasn't and no one knows where she is. Alfredo gives Salvatore an honest heart to heart and says:
"Living here day by day, you think it's the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything's changed. The thread's broken. What you came to find isn't there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time... many years... before you can come back and find your people. The land where you were born. But now, no. It's not possible. Right now you're blinder than I am."
"Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?"
"No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it's all me. Life isn't like in the movies. Life... is much harder. Get out of here! Go back to Rome. You're young and the world is yours. I'm old. I don't want to hear you talk anymore. I want to hear others talking about you."
Salvatore decides to listen to Alfredo and take the train out of town to Rome. He says his farewells to his mother, sister and Alfredo. Alfredo pulls Salvatore close and whispers to him:
"Don't come back. Don't think about us. Don't look back. Don't write. Don't give in to nostalgia. Forget us all. If you do and you come back, don't come see me. I won't let you in my house. Understand?"
"Thank you. For everything you've done for me."
"Whatever you end up doing, love it. The way you loved the projection booth when you were a little squirt."
The film flashes forward to the present time where an adult Salvatore (who is now a successful and world famous film director) for the first time in 30 years takes a plane back to his hometown Giancaldo, Sicily to attend Alfredo's funeral. Salvatore has obeyed Alfredo, and when he finally arrives home he realizes the town has changed greatly, and now understands why Alfredo thought it was so important that he leave. Salvatore arrives to his mothers home and the two embrace as she shows him that she made up his old bedroom for his short stay. During Alfredo's funeral service Alfredo's widow tells Salvatore, "He must be glad you came, Toto. He always talked about you. Always. Right up to the end. He really..really loved you. He left something for you. Before you leave...come see me." Salvatore learns that Cinema Paradiso is to be demolished that Saturday to give way to parking lots. Alfredo takes one last walk inside Cinema Paradiso as it has been closed now for several years because of lost of interest after the rise of TV and home video.
On Saturday he attends the demolish of his beloved theatre as Salvatore looks around and recognizes many old faces who attended the cinema when he was a projectionist there. Alfredo's widow gives Salvatore something that Alfredo left for him which is an unlabeled film reel and the old stool that Salvatore once stood on to operate the projector. The morning before Salvatore flies back to Rome he tells his mother how he has always been afraid of coming back saying, "And now, after all these years, I thought I was stronger...that I'd forgotten a lot of things. But in fact, I find out I'm back to where I started as if I'd never been away. Yet when I look around I don't recognize anyone. And you, Mama...I deserted you. Ran out on you like a bandit...without any explanation." His mother comforts her son and says that she was glad he left without explanation and went out to do what he always wanted to do. But she would like for her son to one day settle down with a woman he loves.
When Salvatore returns back to Rome he watches Alfredo's reel inside his film studio and discovers that it is a very special montage for him. It contains all the romantic scenes that the local priest ordered to be snipped out from the movies over the years and Alfredo spliced all the sequences together to form a single film as Salvatore watches with joy and has made peace with his past.
Cinema Paradiso was originally released at 155 minutes but because of poor box-office within its native country, the studios forced the film to be drastically shortened to 123 minutes for the international release; which became a instant success. The 123 minute cut won the Special Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes film Festival and the 1989 Best Foreign Language film Oscar. Fortunately the director's cut which is a 173 minute version was finally released in the U.S. on the DVD titled: Cinema Paradiso: The New Version. Now new audiences and curious die-hard fans can finally watch the director's original vision which was marketed as "What really happened to the love of a lifetime?"
The New Version adds an entirely new third quarter that occurs after Alfredo's funeral. Salvatore glimpses at a young girl during the funeral who closely resembles Elena as so he decides to follow her to her home in which he is eventually reunited with his long lost love; who is the girl's mother. The two spend time with one another and eventually make love in a car that overlooks one of their adolescent locations that they once shared together. Salvatore discovers that Elena has married an acquaintance from his school years, who has become a local politician of modest means.
Afterwards, Salvatore feels slightly cheated, as he strives to rekindle their romance, and while she clearly wishes it were possible, she rejects him, instead choosing to remain with her family and to leave their romance in the past. During their brief night together, a frustrated and angry Salvatore asks Elena why she never contacted him or left word of where her family was moving to. Salvatore learns that the reason they lost touch was because Alfredo had asked her not to see him again, fearing that Salvatore's romantic fulfillment would only destroy what Alfredo sees as Salvatore's destiny, which is to be successful in film. Alfredo tried to convince her that if she loved Salvatore, she must leave him for his own good. Elena explains to Salvatore that, against Alfredo's instruction, she'd left a note with an address where she could be reached and a promise of undying love and loyalty. Salvatore obviously never knew of, or found, her note and thus lost his true love for more than thirty years.
The next morning Salvatore returns to the now decaying Cinema Paradiso and frantically searches through the piles of old film invoices that are pinned to the wall of the projectionist's booth. There, on the reverse side of one of the dockets, he finds the handwritten note that Elena had left him thirty years earlier. Effectively, it was Alfredo's silence that had kept the romantic adolescents apart, so that Salvatore would then move on to achieve great things. The film ends with Salvatore returning to Rome and viewing the film reel that Alfredo left for him, which now has a completely different interpretation and is much more bittersweet. Salvatore now sees Alfredo as both the source of great love in his life and of great loss.
They're a few reasons why I greatly disliked Cinema Paradiso: The New Version, and it was mostly because I never really believed in the love story. Don't get me wrong, it works for the theatrical release of the film, because at least in that version I can accept that Salvatore and Elena believed that they were in love with one another because they were young, naive and haven't yet experienced the harsh realities of life. But it should be obvious that the older a person gets the wiser they are on the stupidity of young love and they come to the realization that they're no such things as 'happily ever after' or 'love at first sight.' Because of my pessimistic feelings on the love story and of teenage romance in general I believe the added scenes in the New Version drastically weakened the film and resorted for the story to play out more as a predictable and clique soap-opera that overstayed its welcome.
I'm willing to accept overly sentimental and emotionally manipulated movies, and with melodrama the audience member has to somewhat suspend their disbelief and just enjoy the movie as pure entertainment. I am completely aware that they're other moments in the film that don't make much logical sense and only exist for the simple fact on creating an added amount of melodrama. (For instance: I understand Salvatore's need of moving away to make something of himself, but to going as for as not feeling the need to contact his mother for 30 years doesn't make much logical sense. Or that a movie theatre in a poor part of Sicily was somehow able to get access to such a variety of different international films, or that a infatuated young man who hasn't even spoken more than 20 sentences to a woman can already claim he is in love with her and is willing to stand outside her window for weeks without her thinking that he might be slightly unbalanced.)
Melodrama is an important staple in the cinema and they're several respected film artists like Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg who have proved over and over again that they can create films that obviously manipulate an audiences emotions and pull at their heart strings, and at the same time have it be high art. I highly respect it because I believe melodrama is the type of genre that is easy to make, and yet it's almost nearly impossible to make well. Within the few moments of melodrama that occur in Cinema Paradiso it is achieved effectively well, but once the love story starts to take central stage in the New Version, the film seems to lose much of it's original magic that the earlier parts focused on which were the themes of nostalgia, childhood innocence and the magic of going to the movies.
Another reason why I had a problem with The New Version was that the character of Alfredo was drastically changed from a mentor and a fatherly figure of love who knew what was best for Salvatore, to a bitter old man who cheated Salvatore out of the only woman he ever loved. Even if Alfredo's intentions were noble or even correct in that Salvatore's relationship with Elena would have been self destructive and detrimental to Salvatore's future; shouldn't Salvatore come to learn and realize that for himself? What right does Alfredo have to unfairly make life changing decisions for another person?
Of course those are just my opinions on Cinema Paradiso: The New Version and have actually talked to several people who prefer that version over the theatrical one. Still, I'm happy to finally have seen The New Version, as I look at it not just as an alternate version, but an artists entirely different interpretation on the story, even if I don't necessarily prefer it. I just hope the New Version doesn't replace the old version, or vice versa; and that film lovers will have the ideal solution to be able to choose from the 1988 version and the 2002 version. Whether it's the original theatrical version or The New Version, Cinema Paradiso over the years has grown in stature and is regarded by many critics and film watchers as a classic, being particularly renowned for the iconic 'kissing scenes' montage at the climax of the film and the touching music score which was composed by legendary Ennio Morricone. Winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1989, the film is often credited with reviving Italy's film industry which later produced other popular and highly acclaimed films like Gabriele Salvatores's Mediterraneo and Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful and the film was ranked #27 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010. Like Francois Truffaut's masterpiece Day for Night, Cinema Paradiso is a sweet and personal love letter to the joy of the cinema that expresses why we love to go to the movies. And yet, I believe the movie is much more than just that. I look at it as a form of nostalgia about the innocence of childhood, and an eulogy of a lost time when going to the movies was a enchanting and magical place for people to come together. Cinema Paradiso was released in 1988 which was at a time where home video and television was booming and unfortunately took over much of the film industry. Most people by that time didn't need to go out and head to a movie theatre because most of them began owning their own personal theatre right in their homes. Because of this, more people even today are now viewing films alone in their home (I know I am), and laughing out-loud, jumping from fright or shedding a tear isn't the same when your all by yourself, because the joy of experiencing a movie is expressing those emotions with other people. This film is an homage to that lost era and to a time in which people went to the movies to laugh together, cry together, and be scared together; it was a chance for people to unite and share a commonality of all their fears, hopes and dreams, which is one of the reasons why we started going to the movies in the first place.