If, as Martin Scorsese has suggested, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ say “everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two,” the latter capturing the “glamour and enjoyment” and the former showing the “aggression of it, how the camera violates,” (Thompson, 20) then surely Giuseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso, 1988) says to a similar extent, more than nearly any other film, so much about film spectatorship. While Tornatore’s picture captures a very distinct time and place, a unique era in motion picture viewing, its general themes, as they relate to the affects the cinema can have on a life, are universal and not restrained by any spatiotemporal border. More than anything else, this film stands as a love letter to watching movies in general, and watching them with a youthful eye (or mind) in a communal atmosphere in particular. That the film was a resounding success, especially in the United States—critically (currently with a 91% on the ever-popular Rotten Tomatoes Web site and recipient of the 1990 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) and commercially (it’s 2002 director’s cut rerelease alone earned $11,990,401 in America according to the Internet Movie Database)—is emblematic of the film’s narrative and aesthetic make-up.
In the best sense of the word, Cinema Paradiso is extremely conventional. It’s also highly emotive, and it exists to a considerable degree in the realm of shared experience and memory, thus additionally contributing to its more conservative storytelling and stylistic characteristics. The film was made for many, and for a foreign language film especially, these features allowed for the film to reach the utmost people. As opposed to the predominate American views regarding so many foreign works of the cinema, with Tornatoe’s film here he creates a picture that is (1) easy to follow, (2) easy to relate to, and (3) unobtrusive and traditional (see, non-“artsy”) in its construction. All of this, again, to take nothing away from the picture, certainly aided its reception, most notably in America.
In terms of its narrative progression, though with a flashback structure, albeit a modest one, the film remains primarily a linear work. While it begins in the present day, recalling previous works by Italian masters Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), it regresses back, through the recollections of our protagonist, Toto. Initially seen as an adult, we quickly move back to his youth as we see his relationships develop; relationships, that is, with the older projectionist father-figure Alfredo (whom we first learn has just passed away—this acting as the catalyst for the memories and the later part of the film’s action), with his mother, with his teenage crush, and with, perhaps most importantly, the cinema. The opening scenes with the aged Toto are brief, and up until we are brought fully into the present time period, when the past does cut to a shot of the older Toto recalling what we have seen, the moments are fleeting and we are quickly back into his youth. As such, though the film is told via flashback, after that initial establishment and the initial break in continuity, Cinema Paradiso does take a primarily successive and continuous mode of plot evolution.
These facts of the film’s narrative greatly aides it in its approval, comprehension, and its relationship with the audience. By and large, film watchers are most receptive of a work that is straightforward and clear in its narration. This methodology has been practiced and preached since nearly the dawn of the cinema’s invention, particularly so in Hollywood cinema. It’s more than just a matter of placating an unwilling-to-work audience however. A film told in this fashion, as Cinema Paradiso so marvelously demonstrates, allows for the maximum amount of viewer/character relations and plot involvement. When we follow a character as he or she develops as a person, when we see them undergoing a series of obstacles as we get to know more about them, we connect, we relate, and we understand. With Toto, as we see him as a boy, then a teenager, we get a sense of his being in a way that doesn’t often happen in a more abstract work.
Still, the film is not without some level of narrative ellipsis. Through a match cut (one of a number of similarly and frequently occurring stylistic functions) we go from young Toto to the older teen Toto, skipping several years in between. Again, however, through the film’s already established form of storytelling, this isn’t so much jarring as it is a way to keep the film moving along rapidly and to the point. This would also be the case as the young adult Toto leaves his town on the train, following which we are in the present day permanently. These decades of omission are not treated as mysterious moments of plot exclusions. They are, once more, simply skipped to proceed at a conventional tempo. While Cinema Paradiso’s international version clocks in at just over two hours, the timing and pace of the film is taut. Admittedly, the picture develops in an episodic nature, but through its economy of storytelling Tornatore keeps things flowing smoothly and effortlessly.
Among the devices utilized in Cinema Paradiso, this formulaic transitional strategy remains relatively uncontested by any other aspects of the film’s narration. The only possible exception, and it would be somewhat of a stretch, would be that through the film’s inclusion of scenes from multiple motion pictures a cinema-literate viewer can be slightly off-put and disjointed from total absorption in the fictional world by the repeated game of (even if subconscious) trivia in which one tries to name, or at least recognize, the various clips. Here, “Tornatore constantly plays his film off against the great works of Hollywood’s Golden Age, French poetic realism, and Italy’s own postwar classics in ways that provide an internal critique of the powers of cinematic fascination.” (Marcus, 200) While this feature may stand out to some as being incidental accompanying aspects solely for the knowing cinephile, what it also actually does is hammer home one of the main themes of the film, that of the cinema itself. For what better way to indicate the vastness of influence the movies can have in a life than to produce a film, as Tornatore has, that so deliberately provokes a movie-infatuated mind?
Somewhat less inconspicuously, Tornatore does allow for, stylistically, some notable flourishes. The penchant for match cuts has already been mentioned, and indeed this is repeated throughout the picture, as are aural matches, from bells and slams for instance. And though the editing of the film is seamlessly executed, it is not without some overt stylizations and moments of frenzy or whimsy (the montage of Toto and Elena eating a salad, running through the field, celebrating a birthday, kissing, driving, etc., is a good example of this). Some degrees of kinetic visuals are also evident in Tornatore’s choice of camera movement (lengthy tracks, rapidly moving dollies, a rotating perspective) and angles (canted framings and blatantly stylized compositions—see here Toto walking down the darkened street on New Year’s Eve with fireworks bursting). Tornatore is knowingly cognizant of these cinematic techniques, and their stimulating visual appeal, and he more than adequately uses the best of what illustrative tricks are at the disposal of the filmmaker. In a very subtle way, a love for the cinema’s stylistic devices comes through in the film just as much as a love for the cinema in general does.
What’s important to note with these features, however, is that, as opposed to, say, Godardian techniques, these examples of aesthetic ornamentation are not distancing but are, conversely, conducive to narrational involvement. For the most part, even with these occasional flights of cinematic fancy, like the narrative strategies, Tornatore employs fairly basic stylistic facets. As Peter Bondanella notes, he “is interested in a meta-cinematic, self-reflexive brand of cinema. But Tornatore rejects the kind of postmodern approach to his cinematic heritage typical of his contemporaries. … [he] may thus be compared to the great auteurs of another era, directors who combined technical skill, a heavy reliance upon literate scripts, and highly evocative imagery to produce an emotional response in his audience.” (454-455) Even with the above mentioned flourishes, he doesn’t really call explicit attention to the filmmaking process, nor does he set out to have the audience question his visual motives. It’s all part of capturing a very movie-inspired sense of wonder and beauty.
Crucially, as the film exists considerably within the walls of the movie theater and promotes the ideas of the cinema as it relates to the spectator, many of Tornatore’s visual stylizations revolve around glances. Be it characters watching the film (engrossed in the people and the world of make-believe), characters watching other characters (lustfully or adoringly), us in reality watching the film (immersed in the fictional happenings), or, seemingly at times, the projected diagetic film looking back and watching the audience, Cinema Paradiso is significantly about the gaze of the cinema, that often-analyzed aspect of the motion picture medium. Tornatore knows this is a powerful aspect of movie watching and plays on these notions by emphasizing the visual details of our filmic comprehension. This, in effect, works as both a stylistic (close-ups of eyes, sweeping pans over the attentive crowds) and narrative (signifying whom we should follow and relate to) strategy grouping.
Tornatore also produces, somewhat in accordance with the rather romantic makeup of the film in general, idealistic moments of narrative and style combinations in the more emotionally poignant passages of his film. Perhaps the most sentimental case of this fondness is when, unbeknownst to Toto, Elena arrives back in town and surprises him with warm embraces just when he’s at his most depressed, all of this taking place at night, outside, and in a rain storm no less. It’s representative of the film in a nutshell, it being an exceedingly touching work of sentiment, memory, and love. It is, to quote David Thomson, “mercilessly made, as a pump for tears.” (168)
With this incredibly popular film, Giuseppe Tornatore’s made Cinema Paradiso one of the great statements on film, by a film. We see that, for some, a movie theater is more than just a location of passive entertainment. It’s a place where memories are made and shared, where people escape, where people fall in love, learn about life, feel happy, feel sad, and on and on. And knowing this, and constructing his film thusly, Tornatore’s creates a film that not only reproduces these sensations but has the potential to produce them as well. Fashionable and common in terms of the story it tells and how it tells it, Cinema Paradiso is nevertheless an effective work, and a powerful one. Though it could be argued that these formulaic and romanticized aspects make for a less than challenging or substantial film, it could just as easily be contested that they epitomize what films do best: they move us, they inform us, they hold us captive and then carry us away in delightful or despairing rapture. Tornatore’s film shows, and embodies, movie magic and its place in the lives of so many.
Internet Movie Database: Nuovo cinema Paradiso. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095765/
Rotten Tomatoes: Cinema Paradiso. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/cinema_paradiso/
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Marcus, Millicent. After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Thomson, David. “Have You Seen …?” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Thompson, David and Ian Christia, eds. Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.