Written by Wan Tyszkiewicz
This is one of the most successful foreign-language films ever made. Yet on its release in Italy, it practically disappeared overnight and was a box-office flop. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes and also an Oscar in the foreign language category in 1989, this was, and still is a film lovers’ film about film, made by a film neophyte (Giuseppe Tornatore). A film which ponders the cinema viewing experience.
It’s more than 25 years since ‘Cinema Paradiso’ was first released and it has subsequently been re-released all over the world. ‘Cinema Paradiso’ consistently appears in lists of top 100 best films ever made. Nostalgic and touching in its telling of a small boy’s joy of cinema and his relationship with the projectionist (Philippe Noiret). The story is set in a Sicilian village just after the Second World War, where a small boy, like many other children, has lost his father. The local cinema is a source of cheap entertainment and escape for six-year old Salvatore, nicknamed Toto, who finds refuge in the dark watching black and white film footage under the watchful eye of the etruscan father substitute figure Alfredo.
The film is beautiful in the way it captures cinema as an experience and returns us to a time when cinemas were magnificent palaces with elegant baroque proscenium and the swish of rich red velvet curtains. Plush seating and wooden armrests have been replaced with polyurethane seats, linoleum wipe clean floors where the sound bounces around the auditorium often deafening the viewer. Today’s multiplex offers nothing like the experience of the grand cinema auditorium of a few decades ago. Back then, going to the cinema was a big experience – one that you might have waited a whole week for – anticipating the film, the venue and the person you were going with.
Throughout the country there is a mini revival of these wonderful monuments to cinema – venues like The Rex in Berkhamsted Hertfordshire – where the cinema has been lovingly restored to its former art deco aesthetics complete with a bar, table service and food. Yes, you pay considerably more for a ticket, but the film screenings are in the main special; combining current films with a great choice of less mainstream and more art based films.
Back in 1988, film and cinema was just beginning to go through a complete transformation. In Hollywood, this was largely due to the dominance of a few studios and the ubiquitous blockbuster. Combined with the rise of the multiplex, which became the main cinema venue by the mid 90s, we had all but lost the magic picture palaces of old. ‘Cinema Paradiso’ brings back that era and wonder of cinema and the ability to lose oneself in the screen for a couple of hours. The original film was a hefty 155 minutes long, with the director’s cut set at about 171 minutes. But towards the 1990s, the Miramax Group started their acquisition for distribution of key international films in an attempt to bring the foreign-language category to a wider American and international audience. There were some sacrifices in this strategy – one of them with regards to ‘Cinema Paradiso’ was the chopping of the film to a mere 120 minutes.
A few years ago I attended The Venice Film Festival. Sat on the table next to us was Harvey Weinstein and his family and a few stars (Rachel Weisz, Darren Aronofsky). I was completely puzzled about the chain-cigar-smoking Weinstein and his entourage. They seemed the most unlikely mix. But research shows just how hard Miramax have championed art films, primarily in the foreign-language category. Say what you like about the man and his company, he has vision, and without that vision and strong-arm campaigning tactics when it comes to the Academy Awards, some of us would never have noticed ‘My Left Foot’, ‘The Intouchables’ or that absolutely grotesque Oscar winner ‘Life is Beautiful’. The great Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci once referred to Harvey Weinstein as “the little Saddam Hussein of cinema” – ouch.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Italy almost completely lost its way in cinema, while America, the UK and independent filmmaking became the dominant force for quite a few years. The rise of video during the 1980s, and the advent of DVDs all had a major impact on cinema and cinema venues. ‘Cinema Paradiso’ is a sweet and emotional look back in time – a short journey into the past that captures the joy and excitement of going to the cinema and the incredible talent and art of the cinematic process that resulted in a film long before special effects and CGI transformed our current experience.
‘Cinema Paradiso’ is my top recommendation for a gathering. Get as many generations together as possible and watch this film as a family. Years back, that is exactly what used to happen. The family would spend a few hours in the lush surroundings of their local cinema – a break from their spartan homes and tight budgets. If you watch this wonderful film, have tissues at the ready because there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Philippe Noiret, Enzo Cannavale, Antonella Attili