Cinema Paradiso opens with a single shot of a balcony overlooking the ocean. A red bowl rests on the ledge. Big music swells around this image as the credits roll by. In a movie about watching movies in a movie theater, why is this the first shot? Why is this the shot that still lingers in my mind as I think about this film? Why did the director decide to go for an artistic opening instead of a more obvious plot driven opening? Because Cinema Paradiso is a normal movie wrapped in an artistic and experimental shell.
This movie is about a boy and his relationship with an older man (eww… not like that you perverts). He sits in a projection booth while the projectionist lifts heavy equipment, loops the film strips and projects an image for dozens of the local townspeople to enjoy. As he grows older, this boy becomes a skilled projectionist himself and also a smitten lover. He falls in love with a woman from a more upper class background and gets his heart broken. He is sent off to the Army to do his mandatory service miserable. When he comes back, he visits his projectionist friend one more time and he gives him some life advice. Will this young man who always looked up to his projectionist be able to take it or will he be stuck in stasis for the rest of his life?
I sailed through the plot description, because that is almost secondary to the movie itself. It isn’t about this boy’s emerging independence. Instead it is about his love of movies and the community it provides a small town in Sicily. The best parts of the film involved us watching the movie theater crowd get swept away in dozens of Hollywood pictures. This crowd is a loud lot full of old people sleeping, young boys master bating (I think that has got to be my favorite scene in the movie), people falling in love, getting prostitutes, eating and generally enjoying themselves. Early on in the movie, there is a scene where a priest is shown the movies by himself. He watches them to edit out any vulgar imagery (which usually means an onscreen kiss). Every time he finds something offensive, he rings a bell and the projectionist slips a piece of paper on the frame to be edited out later. Later on that same movie is shown but without the romantic payoff of the kiss. The audience howls and throws things. For years they must have been unable to see an onscreen kiss and that is part of the experience. This film was able to capture the togetherness that happens when a movie theater is full. And that is its main strength. And where the director is able to show his artistic prowess. He is able to show the different dynamics of a small Sicilian town through the eyes of a loving artist. There is one scene later on in the film when the young boy is now a teenager and he is dreaming about his love. A movie is playing in the background of this open air theater and reflects his emotions. He lays back and closes his eyes only to be surprised by not only a flutter of rain, but also his love’s lips. In that moment, the director is playing with those scenes of ultimate romance that is being cut out of the reels, while also showing you a truly romantic image to propel the plot forward. He is asking the audience where reality and the movies end and where they begin.
There are some major problems with the movie. The teenage years of the young boy seems to drag the film down and the sudden shift of the projectionist becoming a sage is an old person trope that I have grown weary of. But these problems don’t take away from the amazing first part and the devastating ending. If you watch this movie, be aware of the problems, but also try to get lost in the director’s obvious love for the communal power of the moving pictures.