RogerBW's Blog

Cinema Paradiso 07 February 2022

1988 drama, dir. Guiseppe Tornatore: IMDb / allmovie. Salvatore the famous filmmaker learns that Alfredo is dead; but who was Alfredo to him? Released as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso in Italy.

As with Paris, Texas, a large part of the film – at least in the prize-winning 124-minute cut, and I'll come back to that – is about slowly revealing the answer to that opening question. And the answer is that when little Salvatore ("Toto") was a poor kid being raised by a widowed mother in post-war Sicily, Alfredo ran the local cinema, and grudgingly took Toto on as an apprentice projectionist. Don't say father-figure, but…

One of Alfredo's jobs is to excise, at the direction of the local priest, anything deemed unsuitable for exhibition – and then, in theory, to restore it when the print is returned, though as a natural-born archivist I find his lackadaisical attitude viscerally unpleasant. But this does mean that Toto, looking at the snipped sections, gets to fall in love with The Movies – the idea of them, really, more than any one film – and so it goes.

Of course there is one key symbolic moment: after all, the apprentice has to replace the master, and if the master is his friend he doesn't want to. So the favoured son of a rival cinema kills the master, and… no, that's a different sort of hero's journey. But one night there's a fire, and Alfredo ends up blind, so once the cinema is rebuilt Toto has to take over.

That fire, though… I can't help seeing it as a bit heavy-handedly symbolic. It happens when a film is so popular that not everyone can get into the limited number of showings, and Alfredo points the projector out of the window so that everyone can see it shown on a wall. And I at least couldn't help seeing this as taking the holy mystery out of its safe place and into the world; it's a blasphemy, and he's punished for it. (There's no diegetic reason why that should be the particular night a fire starts, or why Alfredo can't deal with a fire the way he's done before.)

What the plot comes down to is: a few years later, Alfredo told Toto to get out of this stifling little town and never come back, and Toto took him seriously, to the point of inviting his mother to visit him in Rome but never going back to visit her in Sicily. There was a Girl, but she wasn't there at the rendezvous.

And that's not terrible. It's missing a lot – we never learn much about Salvatore's personality beyond "is a self-interested child" and "likes film" – but it works, even if sometimes the tugging at the heartstrings is rather blatant. It can be sluggish – I don't mind a slow film but I do like some awesome camerawork to look at – but it basically works.

But then there's the 2002 director's cut, adding another 49 minutes to the film and changing it, in Roger Ebert's opinion, from an amazingly mature film for a young director to the sort of film he'd expect a young director to make. Seems the Girl did try to keep the rendezvous after all, but Alfredo hid the note, and that's why adult Salvatore has never been able to connect with women. Also he meets her again after the funeral, and she's married now, but they screw one last time, and nobody goes away feeling particularly happy about it. The "adolescent" phase in the original release is mercifully short, wrenching us as it does from a kid discovering the magic of film to a generic male coming-of-age story, and this extra material is very much in the latter camp. Ah well. Commercial pressure once more produces a better film than the director alone could manage.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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