On hearing that his old friend Alfredo has died, famous filmmaker Salvatore ‘Totò’ Di Vita looks back on his childhood in the fictional Sicilian town of Giancaldo. His flashback begins shortly after the Second World War when, as a small child, he fell in love with the world of movies. Alfredo, the avuncular projectionist at the local ‘Cinema Paradiso’, befriends and trains the boy, until a double tragedy hits: firstly, Totò learns that his father has died on the Russian Front; then, a fire destroys the cinema and blinds the old man. The movie theatre is reopened with the investment of lottery-winner Ciccio, who employs Totò as the new projectionist. As the plot jumps forward into his teenage years, Totò falls in love, gets called up for military service and has his heart broken, before leaving Giancaldo behind to pursue his dreams. Back in the present, his return after many years for Alfredo’s funeral finds the cinema closed down and the town changed beyond recognition.
The intentions behind Cinema Paradiso are not difficult to identify. Simultaneously a nostalgic paean to a golden age of Italian film-going, and a lament at a contemporary crisis in the nation’s cultural polity, Tornatore’s Oscar-winning1 sensation is a didactic, emotionally manipulative exemplar of that most marketable of European genres: the ‘heritage film’. Its evocation of a simpler time is reductively quaint in its recourse to well-worn stereotypes of the Italian South, but through its representation of the movie theatre (as both a social institution and a source of artistic output) the film offers an intriguing glimpse into the Italian experience of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The cinema, here placed at the intersection of identity and cultural memory, acts as the mediator for a post-war sensibility, and the arbiter of the nation’s transition to modernity. The silver screen, indeed, provides the prism through which the film’s characters view the world around them and, through alignment with the figure of the young Totò, we too are placed in the position of a child, peering in fascination and wonder at the magic of the movies.
An emblematic scene comes early on when Totò, having pilfered individual frames of celluloid from Alfredo’s cutting-room floor, holds them up in turn to the flickering gas-lamp on the family dinner table. Each dusty frame provokes a brief utterance enacting a scenario lifted from Hollywood genre convention (‘Shoot first, think later.’/’Hey you bastard, hands off that gold!’). This sequence captures not only the wonder, but the malleability, of the cinematic medium; the wide-eyed child is not content merely to absorb the Dream Factory’s stories, but inscribes his own narratives into these tantalising fragments of filmic fantasy. Here Totò literally views his surroundings through the filter of cinema.
Such conceits permeate Cinema Paradiso, overtly framing each stage of Totò’s coming of age as a process mediated through cinema. Kept in the same tin box as his treasured film stock, for example, are photographs of his long-lost father whose image, appropriately, is conflated with that of Clark Gable in the child’s mind. Later, when the teenage Totò first sees his beloved Elena, it is through the eyepiece of a handheld cine-camera (and their first kiss takes place in the projection booth of the Cinema Paradiso). Finally, the protagonist’s loss of innocence is narrated when his surrogate father Alfredo, having previously expounded words of wisdom lifted from Spencer Tracy and John Wayne, impels Totò to leave Giancaldo behind and ‘discover himself’. When Totò asks if this is a line from Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda or James Stewart, the old man signs off by responding: ‘No Totò. This time I’m saying it. Life is not what you see in films. Life is much harder’.
Yet Cinema Paradiso’s engagement with the world of movies is more complex than the central character’s somewhat saccharine personal saga might suggest. Alfredo’s parting admonishment is in fact a disingenuous coda for a film that, throughout, so purposefully fuses the story of Italy’s post-war cinema with that of post-war Italy itself. By memorialising a specific ‘moment’ in the nation’s cultural history, Tornatore’s film offers a glimpse into the Italian experience in the years immediately following the Second World War, when a rapid transition towards a globally oriented outlook began apace. Giancaldo’s movie theatre is presented as the beating heart of the community: a civic hub and forum for loud exchanges of opinion,2 where various strata of society rub shoulders, where couples fall in love, and where the whole town congregates to laugh and cry (and, in one scene, die). More than this, though, the Cinema Paradiso acts as a facilitator, as the community negotiates a collective path through rapid changes in its cultural viewpoint: simultaneously a mirror for local identity and a window onto the outside world.
Nowhere is this more palpable than during the double bill that first introduces us to the townsfolk and their beloved cinema. The hushed solemnity that greets the preceding newsreel of Resistance veterans registers Italy’s recent wartime trauma, while the immediacy of the first feature – Luchino Visconti’s tale of hardship in a Sicilian fishing village, La terra trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) – is emphasised by a mirroring of film and audience (two men lament their illiteracy as they fail to understand the on-screen caption, which reads: ‘The Italian language is not spoken by the poor in Sicily’). Playing alongside these artefacts of local hardship, however, are the exhilarating products of another world, offering a participatory escapism to war-weary Europeans. Firstly, the action-packed trailer for John Ford’s seminal Western Stagecoach (1939) elicits excited Red Indian war-chants from the children in the front row. Then, the antics of Charlie Chaplin in The Knockout (Mack Sennett, 1914) have the whole town bursting into raucous laughter. By offering access to the allure of Americana, therefore, Giancaldo’s cinema registers the changes underway in Italian consciousness in the early post-war years as the output of Hollywood gained a telling foothold.3