This clear sense of mounting American influence is not, however, presented as a process of domination over native customs by a hegemonic force, but one of productive cultural blending, since numerous ‘classics’ of Italian cinema are shown commanding audiences’ attention alongside transatlantic imports (notably, In nome della legge/In the Name of the Law (Pietro Germi, 1949), Riso amaro/ Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1949) and I vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953)); nor is the cinema itself shown to be displacing older forms of social interaction. On the contrary, Cinema Paradiso shows the medium seamlessly integrating with, and enriching, more traditional civic hubs. When a crowd is locked out of the movie theatre, Alfredo charitably turns the projector around to display the comedy film I pompieri di Viggiu/The Firemen of Viggiu (Mario Mattoli, 1949) on a wall of the town square. Later, fishing boats line up on the waterfront to get a makeshift view of outdoor screenings. On each occasion, a key public space of Sicilian society – the piazza, then the harbour – embraces the communal experience of cinematic spectatorship.
The South of Italy4 has long possessed a potent mythic force in the national culture: at once a locus for Italy’s past and a canvas upon which to project the fears and desires of nationhood. In turning to his childhood home, Sicilian director Tornatore consciously plugs into this pre-existing discourse to frame his tale of identity and loss. His meticulous weaving of the cinema into the fabric of this setting – in part through these literal ‘projections’ of fantasies and aspirations onto the spaces of the community – therefore implicates the medium as an integral agent in this memorialisation of a bygone era. While the close-knit community of the South takes on its familiar symbolic mantle as something that modern Italy has lost, the cinema comes bound up within it. The film’s denouement makes this marriage of film-going and social nostalgia explicit. When the adult Totò returns to Giancaldo for Alfredo’s funeral, the familiar piazza has become overrun with billboards and heavy traffic. He looks up at the old Cinema Paradiso: a derelict shell awaiting demolition to make way for a car park. Ciccio, the former proprietor, explains that ‘recession, television, video’ have led to its closing. Once again the message is clear: the modern world, with its fast-paced technologies, has caught up with the cinema and the town simultaneously.
This is, doubtless, a suitably elegiac ending for a film whose emotional appeal has been so carefully constructed around nostalgia, memory and loss. It is in many ways an apt document of the cultural shifts occurring in the 1980s, as the nation’s cinema entered a seemingly terminal decline in the age of Berlusconi’s media empire. Yet this is to oversimplify the significance of Cinema Paradiso. This ‘heritage film’ is, as the generic label suggests, espousing a consummate ‘Italian-ness’, but not just one of picturesque, elemental backwardness that so easily emanates from the dusty antiquity of old Sicily. The Italy memorialised in this film is also the one that underwent bewildering sociocultural change in the post-war era, and whose very identity was mediated by an increasingly cosmopolitan outlook. Within this historical context, the cinema is positioned as an integral and wholesome component in the evolution of the nation’s cultural imaginary. In the film’s very final sequence, Totò opens Alfredo’s bequest: the countless ‘kiss scenes’ that had been cut out of films at the bidding of Father Adelfio to protect the town from moral degradation in the 1940s, now spliced together into one continuous reel. This symbolises more than just the wonder of the cinema. Just as Totò had reinscribed his treasured fragments of celluloid at the dinner table, so Alfredo has used the medium to engage in a creative process of experimentation. The old projectionist’s parting gift is to remind Totò and the audience of the excitement, not only of spectatorship, but also of appropriation and adaptation. The cinema, finally, is not dead.
1. Cinema Paradiso won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1990.
2. This depiction appears to be particularly close to the actuality. Christopher Wagstaff records that the social context of terza visione cinema (that of ‘third-run’ provincial cinemas) was one in which audience members would come and go, and talk loudly during the films, except for those parts that grabbed their attention (1992: 253).
3. In the immediate post-war years a backlog of American films was released into the Italian market and by 1946 foreign imports (most of which were American) were taking 87 per cent of the nation’s box office receipts (Wagstaff 1998: 75).
4. The ‘South’ of Italy, known as the Mezzogiorno, is a conceptual entity traditionally denoting a large and diverse section of Italy comprising the mainland regions of Campania, Molise, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria, as well as the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Italy. Production Company: Cristaldifilm. Director: Giuseppe Tornatore. Producer: Franco Cristaldi. Screenwriters: Giuseppe Tornatore and Vanna Paoli. Cinematographer: Blasco Giurato. Music: Ennio Morricone. Editor: Mario Morra. Cast: Salvatore Cascio (Totò as child), Philippe Noiret (Alfredo), Antonella Attili (younger Maria Di Vita), Leopoldo Trieste (Father Adelfio), Enzo Cannavale (Ciccio), Jacques Perrin (Totò as adult).]
Peter Bondanella, A History of Italian Cinema, London, Continuum, 2009. Rosalind Galt, The New European Cinema: Redrawing the Map, New York, Columbia University Press, 2006.
William Hope, Giuseppe Tornatore: Emotion, Cognition, Cinema, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Millicent Marcus, After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Christopher Wagstaff, ‘A forkful of Westerns: industry, audiences and the Italian Western’, in Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (eds), Popular European Cinema, London, Routledge, 1992, pp. 245–62.
Christopher Wagstaff, ‘Italian genre films in the world market’, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Stephen Ricci (eds), Hollywood and Europe: Economics, Culture, National Identity 1945–95, London, British Film Institute, 1998, pp. 74–85.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.