A musical carousel of whimsy and sorrow, “Cinema Paradiso” demands that we not fall prey to nostalgia in this cinematic life or the next. But by movie’s end, where a lonely man weeps as he watches leading lips sharing banned kisses, the swirl of emotion we felt in “Cinema Paradiso’s” first act comes whirling right back to our front row, allowing us to even forget the out-of-focus moments of director Giuseppe Tornatore’s ode to the movies.
As we watch Toto, a young Italian boy who is enchanted by cinema and the projector room, we’re immediately reminded of our own fiendish childhoods, where teachers were worse than Nazis and anything that could result in fun was a worthwhile pursuit. When we meet Alfredo, sulking his bare middle-aged shoulders as he compares his projectionist job to slavery, we can’t help but be reminded of our own misplaced lives, somehow veering off our intended cobblestone path, where our noble ambitions and dreams amounted to nothing more than endless stacks of film reel invoices from companies who don’t know our name. Toto and Alfredo are characters that represent the folly and the foible of daily life.
It’s a harsh blend of escapist and realist standpoints, with “Cinema Paradiso’s” first act resulting in a circus of unexpected emotion and storytelling. Federico Fellini didn’t direct this film, but one can feel the slapstick, farcical nature of the great Italian director’s movies present in “Paradiso,” like when townspeople gather in hordes to protest the theater and then watch a movie outside. There aren’t any real stakes at this stage in the “Paradiso,” and that’s what makes it so joyous.
It’s when we enter acts two and three, where Toto is a younger man with a romantic interest of his own, that the movie loses some of its magic. We still get the charm of the cinema, where Toto still dutifully works as a projectionist after Alfredo has gone blind. But we don’t really connect to these characters anymore, with their movies feeling more like a burden than a treat. To be fair, it’s hard to trump Salvatore Cascio’s performance as the boy Toto, his mile-long-grin and swimming pool eyes evoking more joy than an adult ever could. Even in sequences, the friendship of Toto and Alfredo is portrayed with maturity and nuance. Alfredo serves both as a mentor and an equal to the still young Toto, his body a metaphor for time’s cruel punishment.
The movie is brought to life by the performances and the touching score of Ennio Morricone, a composer known for his ingenious use of the human voice like in the Dollars Trilogy. In “Paradiso,” the composer finds a new musical method of speech through cascading violins and a playful movie theme. This isn’t a movie about the movies as much as one would think. “Cinema Paradiso” exists to show us our past isn’t something that can be unraveled like a thread on a loose sweater. It’s always part of us, and is the thing most responsible for pushing us on a supposed path to greatness. In “Cinema Paradiso,” it’s not the past that makes Toto or Alfredo, but how they battle with their choices of prior years’ that defines who they are.