Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #85
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Phillippe Noiret and Salvatore Cascio
I wouldn't say that I've particularly seen a lot of Italian films, but I've seen enough to share the opinion of those who feel that the Italians are responsible for the most beautiful national cinema in the world. Perhaps not the best (though they would almost certainly be in the top five), but unarguably the most beautiful. Roger Ebert has even recently posited that the films of Federico Fellini are as gorgeous and moving in audio only, and, well, he isn't wrong. There's something inherently beautiful about the Italian language itself that translates wonderfully to the screen and makes directors who choose to film in it instantly demanding of one's full attention. Not all beautiful films are good films, though, and even some of Fellini's work is a little too obsessed with its own beauty to be good for much. Such is not the case with Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, one of the best Italian films that I've ever seen. Like Fellini's 8 1/2, it is a movie about the movies, but instead of focusing on the process of making films, it invites us to the cinema that screens them. There we are sucked into the world of projectionists Toto (played by three different actors over the film's five decades) and Alfredo (played by the inimitable Phillippe Noiret, a brilliant French actor who would go on to give one of the finest performances I've ever seen three years later as Pablo Neruda in Il Postino). Over the incredible chronology of the movie, we become so attached to these two men that the event used to frame it – Alfredo's death, revealed in the first five minutes – becomes progressively sadder as the film goes on.
The relationship between Toto and Alfredo is crucial to the film's plot, and their father-son-like bond is what allows the script to breathe, but it's not what Cinema Paradiso is about. It's about the way that we react to art – movies, in this case – and how it impacts our lives. It's about the permanence of images on a screen while life remains utterly transitory. And most importantly it's about how, in spite of the ever-changing nature of being, some things will always be exactly the same as we remember. The film takes the old "You can never go home again" adage and turns it on its head as Toto returns to the town he grew up in after thirty years away for Alfredo's funeral and finds that the old Cinema Paradiso is to be demolished and that his long-lost love has married an old schoolmate of his. At the demolition of the theater, as Toto looks around at the sea of people watching it fall, he sees that everyone is exactly as he left them. They're older, and their lives have changed, but the lovers are still in love, the cinema's proprietor is still business-minded, and the town hobo is still crazy. It's comforting to him, even if it doesn't provide total catharsis. No, that's saved for the final scene.
I'll save you the spoilers, but for those who have seen the film, I'm about to talk about the scene in which Toto unpacks what Alfredo left him in his will. Okay, are you with me? I seriously almost cried. My eyes stung with tears that I didn't let roll, but by God, I could have. It's a gorgeously shot scene, and it wraps all of the tender emotionality inherent in the film into two minutes or so. It serves as more of a postscript than anything; the movie doesn't lose anything if it never existed, but it's the very definition of beautiful, and it reiterates a central theme of the movie, that films have the power shape our lives and affect us in deeply personal ways. I'm just wondering how many royalties Tornatore had to pay for the scene. It had to be a lot.
The Good: The final scene, and Phillippe Noiret's performance.
The Bad: Salvatore Cascio, who plays Toto ages, let's say, 17 to 23 or so, isn't very good.
The Skinny: #85 does sound just a bit high to me, but I would be okay with it closer to #100.