May 30, 2007
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Grade: 49/100

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Stars: Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Alfredo

What it's about. In post WWII Italy, a boy (Salvatore Cascio) befriends the projectionist (Philippe Noiret) of a small town movie theater, apparently the only source of entertainment within miles. The bond between the two is cemented over the years, until the boy has grown into a young man (Marco Leonardi), and has scored a major romance with his dream girl, Elena (Agnese Nano).

How others will see it. This Italian film was wildly successful in international markets. Its trophies include an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. As I write this, it is ranked #94 in the Top 250 at So, many people love this film. What do they see in it? There's the themes of coming of age, love gained and lost, the love between a boy and his father substitute. These themes resonate, but classic film lovers get an added bonus. The first half of the movie contains numerous references to such heralded films as Stagecoach and The Earth Trembles.

How I felt about it. It's the sum of little things that bothers me about Cinema Paradiso. Things that don't seem quite right. For example, Alfredo gives young Salvatore snippets of censored film. Fair enough, but they catch on fire at the family home, which seems unlikely. Worse, the small town theater appears to be standing room only at every showing, and everyone in the audience is emotionally involved. They're laughing, crying, or jeering. Cinematic, yes, but unlike the zombie audiences that frequent theaters then and now. It's a romantization.

Also slightly embarrassing is the depiction of little town's characters. There's the nutcase who thinks he owns the town square, the guy who falls asleep in the theater every time and colorfully reacts to being awoken, the snob who spits on the lower class from the upper class balcony (don't worry, he gets his comeuppance), and the excitable and easily manipulated priest. Again, we have exaggeration for nostalgic and comic effect. Admittedly, many are charmed by these characters, but the eloquence that adds depth is absent. Is it really funny to drop a bug into a narcoleptic's open mouth?

Most unlikely of all is the child Salvatore's dramatic rescue of Alfredo from a fire. This experienced projectionist can't prevent or put out a fire, or even know when to run for safety? Once he has fallen, the child not only enters the theater to save him, but drags the heavyset man down a two-story staircase, feet first, without giving him a concussion from his head banging on the steps.

And it continues. Salvatore at age 17 is not merely our protagonist, he's the best looking young man in Italy. And the girl he falls for is perfect, and falls in love with him because he makes the romantic sacrifice of standing for weeks beneath her balcony, without interference from either her family or his. As if.

I plead guilty to hacking this well-regarded film unmercifully, but bear with me for some final complaints. Now middle aged (though his special other appears twenty years younger), Salvatore returns to the small town for Alfredo's funeral (Alfredo must have been nearly 100 by then) and learns that the theater is shut down and will be demolished in just a few days. Some coincidence after 30 years.

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