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Cinema Paradiso: a Movie Buff's Paradise
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-10-19 10:12:43
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I am currently in the process of preparing a syllabus for a course on Italian Cinema titled “Italian Film: from Roberto Rossellini to Roberto Benigni,” to be added to the curriculum of next year’s summer program in Urbino. The syllabus includes all the best renowned Italian film directors and what the critics consider their best film: Roberto Rossellini (Roma Città Aperta, 1945), Vittorio De Sica (Il Ladro di Biciclette, 1948), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Mamma Roma, 1962), Federico Fellini (Eight and a Half, 1963), Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow Up, 1966), Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo e Giulietta, 1968), Sergio Leone (C’era una Volta il West, 1968), Luchino Visconti (Morte a Venezia, 1971), Bernardo Bertolucci (L’Ultimo Tango a Parigi, 1972), Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, 1988), Roberto Benigni (La Vita è Bella, 1997).

paradiso01_400As the above chronology indicates, the first film on line is Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta. However, I have opted to begin the viewing with Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso; the rationale for that decision is not that Tornatore is in any way superior to the other directors but because his is a unique movie: it is a meta-movie, that is to say, a movie about movies: a sort of movie buff’s paradise; an eulogy to movies and movie making and a celebration of great films.

In the famed Cinema Paradiso which frames most of the narration we are treated to snippets of classical movies beginning with Charlie Chaplin silent movies, down to the neo-realist Italian classics above indicated, American Westerns (funny to hear John Wayne and native Americans speak perfect Italian…), American classics such as Gone with the Wind, and The Searchers, Ulysses (with Kirk Douglas, also speaking perfect Italian) and much more. Any movie buff will immediately recognize those scenes reviewed at the end in the famous “kissing scene montage” or pieces censored by the local priest, who showed the movies to the locals, and put together by Alfredo, the projectionist.

paradiso02_400Perhaps it is such a unique feature that assured Cinema Paradiso’s instant success as a classic in its own right. What most people immediately remember about the movie is in fact that famous “kissing scene” montage at the end of the film. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign film in 1989 and it is often credited for renewing Italy’s film industry which after the frenzy of the sixties and seventies (the era of Fellini’s movies) later on produced Mediterraneo and Life is Beautiful. It also won the Special Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festval. It stars Jaques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Leopoldo Trieste, Marco Leonardi, Agnese Nano and Salvatore Cascio, with haunting music by Ennio and Andrea Morricone.

Told in a flash back, it tells the story of the return to his native Sicilian village of a successful film director (Totò, or Salvatore) for the funeral of his old friend Alfredo, who as above mentioned was the projectionist at the local “Cinema Paradiso,” the one who allowed Totò to help him in movie projection and in whose movie cabin Totò discovers his passion for movies. Alfredo becomes a sort of wise father figure to Totò who has lost his father in World War II. He dispensed wisdom by quoting from classic films. He wished his young friend, whose life we follow from the age of six or so till his departure as a young man from Sicily, to succeed even if it meant breaking his heart in the process and advising him toparadiso03_400 forget his native region (Sicily) and even his family. The film has an intriguing combination of sentimentality, comedy, nostalgia, pragmatism. It explores issues such as coming of age, reflection about the past in adulthood, emigration, career choices in conflict with family life.

That last theme goes back to Aristotle who presents the contrast between family, career and health in his Nicomachean Ethics and asks the question: how do we harmonize these three important components of human nature? Can they be harmonized or do they remain in permanent conflict? We see in the movie that indeed Salvatore becomes a famous director like Fellini (who also ran away from home at an early age) but the price is heavy. It means not returning to his native town for some thirty years and hardly knowing his mother, sister and nephews and nieces.

Tied to this theme is that of emigration understood as a yearning and a journey to move from an undesirable situation to a better place, which can be a physical place but could also be an intellectual and/or a spiritual paradiso04_400place. Here too the price is steep. Totò loses the love of his life, Elena and never marries. Only at the end he finds her already married with two children.

I’ll refrain from revealing much more of the movie’s plot. Suffice to say here that the movie is a must for all movie buffs. It deserved all the awards it won, for besides being a meta-movie whose form has just as much to teach as its content, it is a poetic eulogy to movie-making; a classic masterpiece that will reveal something new and unexpected every time one views it: a sort of journal of the journey of our life: from cradle to tomb.

This time around I was personally struck by something I had not noticed some twenty years ago when I first viewed the film with my own mother: how important memory of one’s past is to make any kind of sense of one’s present and future. I too, like Salvatore at the end of the movie, kept reminiscing about my own life and the career choices and the career sacrifices made, or perhaps not made, to harmonize family life career and health. In a strange sort of way that kind of recollection leads to a modicum of harmony and resignation. It is similar to the experience of reading a personal diary after a thirty year hiatus.

In the movie, that insight on the importance of memory arrives for Totò only when he is in his fifties. Shakespeare had it on target: maturity is all. I suppose it can only arrive when one has gone over the threshold of “nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita” [the middle of the journey of our life], to say it with Dante. Indeed, without memory, reflection and recollection one can hardly hope to discover “l’amor che move il sol e le altre stelle” [the love that move the sun and the other stars], to quote the end of Dante’s Divine Comedy again.

Totò too discovers such a love at the end of the movie, or does he? Hard to tell, for unlike Alfredo, he is not dead yet and the movie that is his life goes on to its inexorable end, and in the end there is the beginning, and in the beginning (the origins) there is the end of the journey that is the universe. And as T.S. Eliot put it, echoing Dante: The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

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Asa2009-10-19 11:21:44
What a beautiful and fantastic film! I'll have to make more of an effort to locate it on DVD!

Francesco Tampoia2009-10-20 20:50:16
Dear Emanuel

Compliments for your syllabus, I am sure that your students will understand and enjoy the picture of Italian life and identity following your course on Italian Cinema titled “Italian Film: from Roberto Rossellini to Roberto Benigni,” Very nice selection.
Francesco Tampoia

Thanos2009-10-22 07:23:05
Perhaps one of the best films the last two decades!

Jean2012-04-20 06:47:29
Very nicely put together, (in the process of watching) I hope I get as much out of it like you.

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