Films about Filmmaking, Part II: Cinema Paradiso (1988)

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Man, that “week (or so)” was long, eh? Like, biblically long. This is Part II of a three-part series on films that explores the magic of filmmaking, with old-looking cameras and projectors in the spotlight, so to speak: (1963), Cinema Paradiso (1988), and Hugo (2011). Continuing in reverse order, I turn to Cinema Paradiso today.

Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, Cinema Paradiso is ostensibly about the relationship between a curmudgeonly projectionist and his young rapscallion assistant, both of whom live in post-WWII Giancaldo, a small, sleepy Sicilian village apparently untouched by modernity. Apparently, but not really. Though Scorsese’s Hugo would ultimately rely on Brian Selznick’s fictionalized portrait of another old man-young boy pairing—that of Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès—one wonders how much this Tornatore picture had influenced Scorsese. (Some critics a few years back wondered the same thing: see here and here.)

Like Hugo, Cinema Paradiso uses the odd couple motif to explore the history of filmmaking, though, produced in 1988, we’ve retreated back to the pre-digital era, when film was still mainly a physical, celluoid phenomenon. (Recall that Scorsese’s film about film was actually shot in 3-D.) This is what stands out about Cinema Paradiso: the physicality, the tangible quality of film. Cut to: scene of Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), our elderly projectionist, screening a romance for the local priest (Leopoldo Trieste), and, when a bell is vigorously rung by said priest, dutifully flagging a scandalous kissing scene and, later, cutting it from the film reel. Early on in the film, little Toto (Salvatore Cascio) stands by, quizzically pondering the point of all this sadly discarded celluoid—and we, the audience, do the same thing, once we realize that the heart of the film has been cut.

But, above and beyond the puritanical censorship of film (that worrisome priest eventually gives over to a local Don, who, after taking over the Cinema Paradiso theatre, insists that the kissing scenes be left alone), Tornatore—through the personage of Toto—examines the delicacy of an art form that had to be cut, spliced, and physically woven through a reel; that was, at least for a time, succeptible to fire (and this plays a key part in the plot); and that, by the 1980s, was becoming vulnerable to the rising popularity of “video.” The film begins in the present, the 1980s, when (we eventually discover) the adult Salvatore “Toto” DiVitti (Jacques Perrin) has become an important filmmaker. His mental retreat to his childhood both indicates where he got his start (on the cutting floor of a little village projection booth) and celebrates an art form that was born out of the combination of human passion and technological know-how.

So, despite obvious differences in style (more on this below), Hugo and Cinema Paradiso have this belief in common: that humans are mediators between the head that thought up the technology and the hand that (laboriously) cranks the projector. There is, moreover, a little moralizing of the Langian sort in both films: in Hugo, film critic and historian Rene Tabard gathers together old Méliès films and screens them; in Cinema Paradiso, projectionist and film lover Alfredo gathers together the numerous kissing scenes from the old films he had once cut, and splices them into a single print, which is, in the present of the film, screened by his one-time assistant, Toto. Without humanity, “film” would only be so much discarded celluoid on the cutting-room floor, and cameras would only be mute or dead objects, as likely to destroy (through fire) as to bring life (through stories on screen).

It is in the depiction of such “restoration” that we find the essential difference between Scorsese and Tornatore. Scorsese was almost exclusively exploring the visual, technological component to bring stories to life, and—most notably—the ability for new forms (including digital) to “restore” the past. In contrast, Tornatore was interested in the complexity of the present’s relationship with the past, how memory always disguises and distorts the past by recreating fragments into a whole, when the opposite is actually the case. So, when Toto the adult visits Giancaldo, he discovers that his childhood village has been modernized, with a new highway slicing through the countryside and a parking lot filling what used to be a beautiful town square; in addition, the old theatre has fallen into disrepair. Yes, memory is pieced together up to a point, in the form of Alfredo’s spliced-together film, and in the form of Tornatore’s film; but the return to the past brings much pain, including the realization that, as Alfredo says to the teenaged Toto (Marco Leonardi) in his lecture on love, “Life is not like in the movies,” and that, as Toto’s mother tells him when he sees her in the present, only “phantoms” live in Giancaldo.

But though each director differs in tone or general attitude, it’s fair to say that both of them champion the theatre as a communal space. We see this commonality in Hugo, when Méliès’s old films are shown to an appreciative audience in the 1930s, and in Cinema Paradiso, when the “drama” onscreen in the Giancaldo theatre competes with a variety of dramas within the physical space of the theatre (a couple starts a courtship, the younger kids tease an older man who sleeps through the feature, an older man teaches a boy how to run a projector). Tornatore just happens to tint his film with a little more gray, apparent when Alfredo’s old print (surely an homage to 1940s and 1950s films) is screened not to a captive audience but to a more or less empty theatre.

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