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Cinema Paradiso. An Essay by Barbara Poyner

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Media Matters Cinema Paradiso An Essay by Barbara Poyner Cinema Paradiso directed and written by Giuseppe Tornatore (Italy 1988), Cristaldi Film (Rome) and Films Ariane (Paris), distributed in Britain
Media Matters Cinema Paradiso An Essay by Barbara Poyner Cinema Paradiso directed and written by Giuseppe Tornatore (Italy 1988), Cristaldi Film (Rome) and Films Ariane (Paris), distributed in Britain by Palace. This Franco-Italian co-production made in association with RAI, TRE and TFI Film Production and in collaboration with Forum Pictures reflects the economic realities of the contemporary Italian cinema. Since the decline of cinema audiences in the 1970s film makers have been obliged to co-produce with foreign companies (usually French) thus raising capital and ensuring a wider distribution and also to cooperate with the old enemy, television. Giuseppe Tornatore had worked for RAI TV from 1979, making films for the GLCT co-operative. Cinema Paradiso is Tornatore's second film as director. (He has subsequently directed a third.) He would, therefore, be seen as a reasonable risk by potential backers. The score by Enrico Morricone, who wrote music for spaghetti westerns including the haunting score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, would seem to be an ingredient for success. The choice of Philippe Noiret and Jacques Perrin to play Alfredo and the mature Salvatore would have been part of the deal with the French co-producers; Noiret, in particular, could be expected to draw French audiences. The French actress, Brigitte Fossey, who appeared in the original version of the film was cut out completely in the final version, however. The film, originally two hours forty minutes, was cut to two hours by the time it was shown at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, on the insistence of the producer, Franco Cristald. Apparently Tornatore regretted the decision but accepted it because of his respect for Cristaldi and his recognition of the latter's courage in backing him. This reminds us that art is subservient to commercial considerations even in the European Film Industry. The subject matter and themes of Cinema Paradiso, particularly growing up and loss of innocence, would not be contentious. The exploration of the relationship between life and the movies is an attractive theme for film makers and has been tackled successfully by a number of directors. Though set in Sicily, the film is sufficiently universal in its appeal to attract not only Italian audiences but art house audiences elsewhere. Whilst Tornatore's film has much in common with other European art house films, it is not at all obscure; furthermore the plot is fairly simple and aimed primarily at the emotions rather than the intellect. The inclusion of the child actor Salvatore Cascio as the young Salvatore would also contribute to the film's attraction. Its popular success - at least in art house terms - might have been foreseen. The relatively spare dialogue coupled with the lush music manipulating the audience's response to the images would make the film accessible to foreign audiences. Having won awards at Cannes in 1989 Cinema Paradiso won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film in the same year. (How could Hollywood resist so flattering a tribute?) This, of course, guaranteed its continuing success in the cinema at home and abroad (though not perhaps in the purely commercial cinema) and additional income was derived from the sale of videos, records and cassettes. Despite the film's critical acclaim, I do not know whether it enjoyed success with ordinary audiences and I doubt if it reversed the trend to close cinemas. Tornatore related the following anecdote to John Francis Lane, Screen International, in May 1989: (Salvatore Cascio, the young Salvatore) had never been to see a movie in the cinema so one Sunday arranged for a screening of E.T. in our Paradiso for him and other kids working on the film. None of them showed up. They'd all seen E.T. on pirated cassettes. That's the cinema today. Film Narrative Cinema Paradiso deals with the relationship between Toto (Salvatore di Vita) and Alfredo, the projectionist, at the cinema of a small Sicilian town in the post-war years. Alfredo, who assumes the role of the young Salvatore's father who was killed in Russia, not only teaches the boy how to project movies but becomes his mentor, offering advice and support and finally encouraging the young man to leave home in order to develop his talents in the wider world. Salvatore becomes a famous film director, and is living in Rome in some style at the beginning of the film when he receives the news of Alfredo's death. At the end he returns to Sicily, his first visit for thirty years. In contrast to Hollywood but in common with many French and Italian films there is little conventional action; the film explores relationships. Furthermore, the central relationship between Alfredo and the young Salvatore is a non-sexual one between two males; a quasi father-son relationship. The film's love interest, though a deeply felt and formative experience, is subsidiary. As the title suggests Cinema Paradiso is a film about the movies (though about much else as well) and a lot of its appeal derives from the pleasure of enjoying post-war films along with the Sicilian audience of the 1940 and 1950 (though their activities are often more interesting than the action on the Paradiso screen). Like A Bout de Souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) where Paul Belmondo as Michael Poiccara mimics Bogart, and a number of later films, Tornatore's film explores the theme of the relationship between films and life. One of the subsidiary themes is the tremendous social and economic changes in post-war Sicily, a topic of interest over and above the film's purely cinematic qualities. The film's impact derives from a good script, fine acting (Salvatore Cascio as the child is hard to resist), superb camera work, editing and design and the haunting score that manipulates our emotions. On close study we note the effective use of imagery - particularly the frame and the storm - the ability to make correspondences and allusions and the elegance of the structure. There is scope too for the viewer to engage actively with the narrative. The narrative is built up by the posing of questions, most of which are answered sooner or later, and the setting up of oppositions. The film (basically simple in structure: childhood, youth, maturity) uses two time scales - about 36 hours on one level and over 40 years on another - working through the device of flashback. Though we may admire the manipulation of time we are never puzzled by it. Cinema Paradiso does not fall neatly into the classic Hollywood narration pattern of normality - crisis - normality; in this respect we are reminded that it is a product of European tradition. I propose to discuss the film's narrative structure, concentrating primarily on the opening and closing sequences. Opening Sequences Cinema Paradiso begins with an austerity typical of the film as a whole. Our attention is focussed on a single bulb growing in a bowl centred on a table on a balcony with a calm sea beyond. A net curtain flutters in the breeze. Not surprisingly perhaps, given the centrality of the movies in the central image. Haunting music which we soon recognise as one of the many versions of the film's theme tune, hints that our emotions will be engaged in the film. The camera gradually pulls back to reframe the tableau with french windows, a table with a bowl of lemons (another of the film's recurring motifs which seems to be associated with Sicily) and a shadowy interior. We realise that we are in a Mediterranean country and that the house is prosperous. 'Cinema Paradiso' in neon lights is superimposed on the shot of the interior as are the opening credits. We are promised paradise and for the post-war Sicilian audience the cinema does provide a temporary paradise. The camera pans through the shadowy interior to an elderly woman in black, suggesting a black and white film. The woman is trying unsuccessfully to contact someone by phone, punctuating her attempts with comments to a younger woman, also in black and dimly lit, whom we identify as her daughter. The black clothes suggest both a traditional society and mourning. The opening dialogue gives us quite a lot of information: the elderly woman is trying to contact her son, Salvatore di Vita, who has not been home for 30 years. In the course of the sequence the light increases (as we are enlightened) and colour becomes more evident. There is a close-up of the mother (inviting us to identify with her) as she tells her daughter He'll remember ; memory is one of the film's themes and we cut to the film. We cut to lemons again as she tries Rome once more. The film cuts to a night scene in a city, gradually revealed as Rome, accompanied by the theme music which serves as a linking device. There is a high tracking shot, the camera tilts down to focus on a Mercedes, viewed from the front, which almost fills the screen. We glimpse a shadowy driver, obviously a man of substance, whom we soon realise is the elusive Salvatore di Vita. We cut to a dimly lit luxurious flat. The similarity of light levels suggests links between the Rome and Sicily scenes as well as suggesting night-time. The only sounds are those of a man of about fifty moving about the flat, taking off some of his clothes. We are waiting to know more about him. An oriental bell tinkles in the draught. The man turns off the light and goes into the bedroom. Shots of french windows recall the windows in Sicily and reintroduce the frame image. There is a cut to the bed. The light is switched on revealing an attractive woman in the large double bed - we are some distance from conservative Sicilian society. She tells him of his mother's phone call. As the camera moves in to a medium close-up of Salvatore lying in bed, hands behind his head, we focus our attention on him, identifying with him. The light level decreases and the girl informs him, She said someone called Alfredo is dead. The funeral is tomorrow. She articulates our questions, Who is he? A relative? These questions - more pressing because of the slowness of the preceding sequence - are the mainspring of the narrative. No... The unsatisfactory answer makes us keener to know. There is the sound of a storm as Salvatore turns on his side. The camera zooms in to a close up, further focussing our attention on, and allowing us an intimacy with him, since it is his past we are about to share. The storm increases, heightening the drama and engaging our emotions; the figure is alternately lit up and in darkness. Tornatore - like many of his precursors including the director of Ulysse from which we see a snippet later - uses the storm to suggest turbulent emotions. The bell tinkles again. The questions we have been asking:- Who is Alfredo? What is his relationship with Salvatore? Why has Salvatore cut himself off from his family? Why is he so prosperous? Will he return to Sicily for the funeral? - will be answered in the film, the first two questions in the next sequence. The theme music - slower - is heard as we cut to another dark scene. The camera pans and zooms in allowing us to identify a church. The camera zooms in further focussing on a small altar boy (we presume this is a flashback with the young Salvatore). We cut to a shot - taken as if from behind the altar - of a priest consecrating the wine during mass with the boy kneeling in the background. It is as if we are observing the scene from the perspective of the adult looking back on childhood. We realise the child is asleep. We have a close up of the child accompanied by the theme music, lighter in texture (which we will come to associate with the childhood scenes). The child wakes - too late - and rings the bell. The priest grimaces. The gentle humour of this moment introduces a mood which will characterise this section of the film. The match cut, suggesting the mature Salvatore's association of ideas, is a device used to move from past to present and vice versa. We cut to the priest, apparently in the vestry, berating the child for falling asleep, followed by a physical struggle: physical punishment, we soon learn, is part of Salvatore's childhood, its almost comic treatment reminding us of the Commedia dell'arte tradition. The child excuses himself on the grounds that they don't have lunch at his house. His poor background is suggested and an aspect of his character established: this child is good at wriggling out of trouble. If the priest represents the church we are not being invited to show respect. We cut from a shot of a statue in the vestry to another religious statue. There is a high shot (as if from the projection room?) of the priest entering a room which we assume at first to be a church, but which is gradually revealed to be a cinema. This, however, is a cinema where the church has control. We cut to the projection window, proudly surrounded by a lion's head - a recurring image - then finally to the projection room and the projectionist, soon identified as Alfredo. An over-the-shoulder shot of the sitting priest allows us to share his activity - previewing the week's movies for censorship purposes. Many cinemas, as in Tornatore's home village, were owned by the church. We see the opening sequence of Jean Renoir's The Lower Depths, a title that neatly summarises the church's view of many of the films. Films, integral to this film's subject matter, are a means of dating events; identifying them provides a pleasant game for the viewer. We cut from the projectionist, framed in the projection window, to the young Salvatore known, we soon learn, as Toto - having an illicit look through the curtains. Now we know why the child falls asleep! We cut to the priest. We see in turn the enjoyment of each character. A close up of the priest's hands fingering a bell reminds us of the other bells; it is also the subject of comedy since this sound of the bell ringing tells Alfredo when to excise the kisses. The treatment may be comic but the church really did control the viewing of small communities. In the darkened cinema the camera moves in to a detail shot of the small bell. We then cut to a lighter scene with a large bell ringing (for school?). There is a high angle shot of an enormous square, devoid of traffic. People - small therefore depersonalised - are running. It is windy; thus we are linked with the opening sequences and the Rome sequences. The setting of Salvatore's youth is further established as we see people going about their business. The lighting gives a bleached effect: perhaps it was colourless or merely not very significant. There is a cut to the cinema building, the first exterior shot of the (original) Paradiso. We cut to the projectionist, now named as Alfredo, with his projector. He is accompanied by the child, Toto, whom he is lecturing about the danger of the flammable nitrate film; this point is important for the plot. Bogart and Ingrid Bergman look down from a poster. The movie stars, we soon discover, provide most of Alfredo's wise words. The central relationship and theme have been established in situ; man and boy bound together by their love of the cinema. The opening sequences have raised questions and answered some of these. They have also introduced some of the oppositions central to the narrative: the child and his adult self, youth and maturity, Salvatore and his mother, Salvatore and Alfredo, Salvatore and Sicily, Sicily and Rome, film and life. Here we have the dynamic for the rest of the film. The Central Body of the Film The central part of the film can be divided into seven development sequences which answer questions and develop themes raised in the opening sequences. We briefly cut back to the mature Salvatore in Rome on three occasions of emotional intensity, reminding us that it is his memories we are sharing. 1. Toto's obsession with the movies and struggle to get to the projection room. School, seen as a brutal yet comic affair, has little importance for the child. At home he provides his own dialogue for the scraps of film cut for censorship purposes but never respliced, which he has taken from the projection room. He even spends money given to him by his mother to buy milk on a cinema ticket. Fortunately, thanks to the intervention of Alfredo who pretends the child got in free and dropped the money, his mother spares her blows. After Toto's illicit film stock catches fire, Alfredo promises the child's mother not to lead him astray. However, Alfredo tries in vain to dampen the child's enthusiasm for the movies and finally agrees to let him into the projection room and teach him his trade in exchange for answers in an elementary school certificate which Alfredo is trying to pass. In these sequences we see the beginnings of the relationship between Alfredo and Salvatore. The relationship is summed up by the use of the medium shot with the man, boy and the projector, the latter almost a character. The use of shot-reverse-shot suggests the intensity of the relationship. Cutting between the projection room and the cinema auditorium where the goings on of the actively participating audience are at least as interesting as the kiss-less films, the director suggests period, indicates the passage of time and provides a humorous microcosm of society. The ironic juxtaposition of images is often a source of quiet humour. The choice of films screened at the Paradiso is not always significant but the extract from Visconti's La Terra Terma is since it is a serious film about poverty in Sicily; poverty in Tornatore's film is less realistically portrayed. In contrast to the devotion of the adult Salvatore's elderly mother, the young mother of the child seems lacking in affection for her son; she seems to favour her daughter and frequently beats Toto. Although the child's father has not yet been reported dead, the childless Alfredo assumes the role of surrogate father and mentor, offering the wisdom of the movie stars. The square, like the cinema, is a microcosm of life but since we frequently view goings on from the projection room, that is from above, we remain detached from the vignettes of real life, the shepherd with his sheep or the old lady spinning. The movies seem more real. In fact, 'real-life' sometimes copies the movies as when a man posting a cinema poster falls from his ladder after his laces have been tied together by mischievous boys, or when the Neapolitan faints on hearing the news of his win in the lottery, like a character in a Rene Clair film. The basic theme has been established. We see the development of the relationship between Salvatore and Alfredo. Minor characters are sketched in, like the supercilious character who spits from the balcony on the people in the cheaper seats below; in fact many characters remain two-dimensional or caricatures. As in the opening sequence the music manipulates our emotions, guaranteeing the appropriate response. The conflict between Salvatore and Alfredo is resolved; the conflict between mother and son remains. 2. Growing up - Disaster The cinema has become the centre of Toto's life. He is now Alfredo's unofficial assistant. It is from a news-reel that we have confirmation of the death of the child's father. His grief-stricken mother passes a bombed building as she returns home, having signed for her widow's pension: the building, one of the few signs of the recent war in the film, is a metaphor for her shattered life. In contrast to the visual message the accompanying music, an upbeat version of the theme tune, suggests that the child is unmoved by the loss; this impression is further reinforced as the child gazes fascinated at a poster advertising Gone With the Wind. For Toto the real tragedy is yet to come. Cinema audiences continue to experience life vicariously and at first hand - we even see a couple having sex. One night Alfredo, who is compared with a magician, shows he can indeed do anything; feeling sorry for people who have been unable to get in to a popular film, he proje
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