‘Toto’, played brilliantly by Salvatore Cascio, is a mischievous young boy with a passion for the movies, spending hours at the cinema he wriggles his way into the heart of the beloved projectionist, Alfredo who shows him the ropes in the projection booth and then convinces him to leave the small town of Giancaldo to seek his destiny. Already aware of life and death, living with his widowed mother after World War II took his own father, Toto grabs life with both hands and exuberantly navigates his childhood, through school, work, mandatory Military and then on to the big city to pursue his dreams.
Giuseppe Tornatore captures the purity of the moving image and how, at its essence, its ability to bridge the gap between generations and social classes. The Cinema Paradiso is the hub of the square in the small town and it’s shot to emphasize it central importance to the story. The camera itself is a fan of the building, pausing for a moment to take in the glory of it. The slow pan across the square and the lingering mid shots of audience members work to introduce this place to us, the viewer. It takes us back to simpler times as we see mothers nursing their babies, couples – young and old, workmen and teenagers basking in the light of the make believe world of the movies. The possibility to escape into fiction with friends to all; John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin offered some respite from their hard working lives.
The friendship between Alfredo and Toto is so endearing, we feel connected to both an ageing man as well as the spritely youth in Toto. It’s really wholesome to watch a community so collectively in tune with their surroundings and neighbours, especially in this current climate that involves living through a pandemic, that amongst many sadness’, social isolation has been a big one with a potentially lasting impact.
What I find quite sad, overall when watching the film is how this particular cinema is representative of the the establishment of the ‘picture house’, ‘movies’, ‘cinema’ declined rapidly amidst the invention of the television. During the tragic event of the fire that occured in the Cinema Paradiso, the story is almost showing us a physical realization of this decline. When the cinema is aflame, the camera focuses on the posters of the famous Hollywood stars, their faces gradually taken over by the flames. In each technological advancement, a little bit of the human social experience is chipped away at. It also cleverly presents the history of censorship, as the town’s priest who is the a loyal attendee at the movies, goes prior to the community to ring his bell when an act of carnal desire occurs during the film, which Alfredo must then edit out, by hand.
As the film progresses, we watch Toto grow up and in turn, experience various hardships resulting in the loss of that sweet childhood innocence at the beginning of the film. Toto lives through the movies he projects at the Cinema Paradiso and when his reality doesn’t live up to that magic, his disappointment is palpable. By the time he returns to Giancaldo as a middle aged man played by Jacques Perrin, his eyes are missing that sparkle that shows excitement and anticipation. The script here allows space for the Ennio Morricone’s brilliant score to soundtrack Toto’s reflections and regrets.
A brilliant coming of age story as well as a sad but profound realization of the decline of cinema. It maintains a celebratory nostalgia for what cinema once gave people by showcasing the simplicity of it, the entertainment of the week. I am left wishing for someone to build an equivalent to Cinema Paradiso in my hometown, or perhaps simply a return to the essence of movies themselves. Pure cinema is entertainment, with a magical ability to bring people together.