The Bildungsroman has been adapted quite a number of times in film. In a typical coming-of-age story, the main protagonist, usually male, must undergo the process of growth, which entails maturity, wisdom and even sexual awakening. Cinema Paradiso, from director Giuseppe Tornatore, tells the story of a young man Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita who goes through such process. The movie, however, strays from the cookie-cutter by incorporating an interesting narrative: the love of film.
The story is told in flashbacks, which starts with a phone call telling the death of Alfredo (Phillipe Noiret). The news eventually reaches adult Toto (Jacques Perrin) and the scene cuts to the World War II era and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Throughout the film, Toto’s journey towards adulthood is clearly outlined and related with great focus on his passion for movies. Young Toto (Salvatore Cascio) starts his love affair with the moving pictures in the town’s theater, Cinema Paradiso. There he meets Alfredo, the projectionist, and their relationship as mentor-apprentice begins. In typical coming-of-age fashion, Toto undergoes struggles that tested and hardened his moral fiber and, sure enough, his love for movies. He becomes a dedicated projectionist while experimenting on making his own using an 8mm camera. Adolescent Toto (Marco Leonardi) then weaves through his teenage years where sexual exploration and romantic ties are par for the course. His dramatic departure from the town of Giancaldo provides the film with the closure it needs for Toto’s meanderings toward personal maturity.
Cinema Paradiso is simple yet complex in the way it presents its theme and overall narrative. The story of young Toto is by far the most interesting part of the film for it clearly outlines all the characters that would help him in his development. The movie is explicit in providing the audience with a view of Toto’s love for film in two scenes: first, when he sneaks in the theater, Cinema Paradiso, to watch Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste) reviews the matinee line-up for any morally offensive scenes, which mainly involve kissing; second, when Toto improvises dialogues for the cut outs of reel he picks up in the projection room.
One-half of the main character is Alfredo, the theater’s projectionist, and the archetypal Old Sage. He serves as Toto’s main guide throughout his early years, teaching him the ways to manage the theater’s projector and giving him nuggets of wisdom. Alfredo is the “wizard,” separated from the community by his solitude high up in the projection room. Yet his skills allow him and the rest of Giancaldo to meld seamlessly together in joyful—or tearful—consummation of movie-watching.
Another strong point of the film is its expert use of space. Michele Haneke used space in Caché to create a cinematic divide between the characters of the film and the audience that transcended the physical bounds of reality and therefore creating, in what many theorizes, an effect that “breaks the fourth wall.” Tornatore makes it literal by filling the movie with symbolic spaces. First, we have the projection room, the mysterious tower. The room is complicated, filled with movie posters and discarded reels. It is where the magic of film is produced and only the entitled projectionist, the hermit, in a sense, holds the power to bring forth its wonders. Second, the theater, Cinema Paradiso, provides a distinct political atmosphere. Seated at the top are the elites, uncondescending, privileged and entitled; the masses are at the bottom. Yet the theater brings together these people from diverse walks of life in a unified activity. Regardless of the status they hold, both those seated on top and those on the bottom are equal. Lastly, Toto’s room near the end is an altar of his childhood and adolescent years. It contains forgotten relics that serve as remembrances of what had been and what is. The apparent disparity of adult Toto and the room serves to encapsulate his journey.
Finally, dissecting this film is not complete without unraveling some of its symbolic mysteries, and Cinema Paradiso is fraught with meaningful symbolisms. The most apparent and explicit is the lion’s head where the projection light goes through. Lion is a beast with utmost ferocity and passion. The sudden animation of the lion’s head serves to foreshadow what will be for Toto and Alfredo. Passion is the fire that awakens man’s deepest desire, and that fire will consume both main characters in a dichotomous fashion: Alfredo’s being caught in a frenzied blaze in the projection room after a mishap; and Toto’s fervent passion for film and eventually filmmaking.
Even the most subtle of scenes can bring forth the most meaning. After Toto’s enlistment in the army, he goes back to Giancaldo and finds it unchanged. Alfredo asks him to take him to the beach where probably the turning point for the movie is revealed. There, sitting on the rampart and surrounded by rusting anchors, Alfredo tells Toto that there is nothing left for him in Giancaldo. He appeals to him to go back to Rome and find himself a future. Alfredo’s monologue draws parallel to the anchors that surround them both. The rusting iron serves as Toto’s attachment to Giancaldo: old and decaying. Realizing that he indeed has to move on and break away from the ties that bind him in the now lonely town, Toto decides to leave and the movie veers toward its most tearful moment.
Cinema Paradiso truly shines in its expert use of cinematic elements that do not draw away from the general storytelling. All scenes and shots, no matter how short, contribute to the larger story. In its final moments, we are entreated to seek out our roots and remove any fears of gravitating in the melancholy of remembrances. And like a ball of yarn, our experiences serve to enrich us and must therefore unravel to connect what is and what was.