To the casual viewer, Cinema Paradiso can seem like a plodding film, but this pacing is almost necessary since it reflects the passing of the years for one individual. It has been 30 years since Toto left his hometown as a young man never to return. Now he gets a call from the mother he never talks to, with the message that Alfredo has passed away.
The memories become coming back from when he was a young boy in the post-war years. He had a knack for getting into trouble, falling asleep as an altar boy, and getting scolded by his mother. She was especially displeased with his obsession with the movies played at the local theater called Cinema Paradiso. It is there where Toto has his first encounters with the great legends of film, but also perhaps more importantly, the projectionist Alfredo. Initially, the middle-aged man finds the boy a nuisance but slowly a close bond forms between the two. Alfredo teaches little Toto the tricks of the trade and the movie hall flourishes with packed houses all the time. You see, it was the age when movies were a family affair, and the whole town showed up to be entertained. They were the perfect escape from disillusioned post-war years. However, there still is a local priest who censors all kissing in film because after all, that’s highly objectionable. Very racy indeed.
One such night a near fatal accident occurs when the projector overheats then burns the film setting the whole projection room ablaze. Toto barely pulls out Alfredo alive and he is permanently left without sight. From that day on his young prodigy takes over the job but never forgets his mentor and friend. The boy is soon turning into a man and it means young love and a stint in the army, and still Alfredo is around for him. He is always ready to give a bit of homespun wisdom from a movie or do a simple favor. However, finally on the advice of his old friend Toto left town and never returned in order to make something of his life.
Now he finally returns to pay his respects and the old has passed away. Some familiar faces still inhabit the town but the Cinema Paradiso is about to be demolished and the end of an era has arrived. The days of cinema halls are waning as videos and the like grow bigger. As a gift to his friend Alfredo left Toto (now Salvatore Di Vita) one last reel of film containing a montage of big screen kisses. It is less a lesson in Italian and American classics and more of a lesson in life. Our relationships matter. More on that later.
Cinema Paradiso made me crave watching films with a big audience because that is something modern moviegoers often do not experience. Movies were initially meant for the masses (ie. Sullivan’s Travels) and they were meant to be enjoyed in community with one another. That’s part of their magic I suppose.
This is also a highly sentimental, highly nostalgic look at film, but as I alluded to before, it is less about film and more about the people. I tried to recognize actors and films while I saw bits and pieces of old black and white footage, but then I realized it was arbitrary because the audience members are what really mattered. As Alfredo points out in one of his last chats with Toto, “Life isn’t like in the movies. Life…is much harder.” However, the reward of living life is great despite the risk involved, and so it is necessary to leave the movie theater, television, or your laptop behind at times. Life and the relationships that fill it are the most paramount of all and although nostalgia is wonderful there is something to be said for living in the present. That is some of what Cinema Paradiso teaches us and it is a message to take to heart.