Since the blog was originally dedicated solely to movies (before it expanded to include other fields0, it should hopefully come as no shock that movies are a fairly integral part of my life. I always loved movies as a youth, but my status as a movie aficionado didn’t really set in until my first trip to Disney World the summer after my 9th grade. While I love virtually every inch of Disney World, MGM Studios remains my undisputed favorite of all of the parks (after three separate visits over the last decade), and even though it’s essentially a glorified tour, MGM Studio’s Great Movie Ride is also my favorite ride at the whole of Disney World. Sitting through that (and to a lesser extent, the Backlot tour) opened up a love of classic and modern cinema that has only gotten stronger with each passing year. During that initial trip, I bought a trivia book about AFI’s Top 100 American movies and tried to devour as many of the films on the list as I could, and when I returned as a freshman in college, I bought not one, not two, but three books on movies, including a comprehensive Oscar history book, a massive coffee table book that is an illustrated history of cinema from the late 1800’s to the early 2000’s, and the NY Times 1000 greatest movies ever made.

When all of the other pleasures of my youth (politics, poker, and countless other hobbies) lost their flavor, movies only grew in stature. I don’t think I could ever participate in the production of the film (though I’ve started on several unfinished screenplays), but watching and writing about the movies I love gives me more pleasure than anything else out there. The first time I was bowled over the gorgeous cinematography of Ran or had my mind blown by a David Lynch film or stood amazed when I saw Daniel Day Lewis act for the first time, those are all memories as tangible and important as anything in “real life”. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1988, and for anyone with a deep and heartfelt love of cinema and whose heart has been touched by those fleeting images on screen, this is your story brought to life in as haunting and beautiful a way possible. The film drags at times and I occasionally felt lost in cultural references I didn’t fully comprehend, but for all movie lovers everywhere, this is for you.

Cinema Paradiso is the heavily autobiographical and personal tale of director Giuseppe Tornatore’s childhood in Sicily. A successful director, Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), has lived in Rome for the last 30 years without once returning to his childhood home of Giancardo, Sicily. One night, he comes home to find a message from his mostly estranged mother saying that his childhood mentor, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), has passed away. The movie then flashes back to Toto’s childhood (played as a child by Salvatore Cascio) in post World War II Sicily with his impoverished mother and a father who in all likelihood died fighting the Russians. Toto befriends Alfredo, the middle-aged projectionist for the local theater, where Toto instantly falls in love with the world of movies (and it seems the town spends most of its time in the theater). As Toto grows up, he eventually takes over the projectionist duties into his teenage years (Marco Leonardi) where he falls in love, spends his time in the army, and eventually grows beyond Giancardo. Alfredo encourages Toto to leave his hometown and pursue his dreams, and Toto doesn’t come back until 30 years later to pay respect to the memory of his departed friend and witness the way his town has changed.

If that sounds like I described essentially the entire story of the film there, I did, but it’s not the plot here that matters. It’s the gorgeous, minute details (which are on rare occasions, excessive). Before I looked up to see whether this film was based on the director’s real life, I could already tell simply because of how honest and genuine this story felt. There are plenty of films out there about making movies (Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Inland Empire spring immediately to mind), but I’ve never seen such a beautiful tribute to movies themselves. The film is abound with footage from classic films, and every detail of the lighting and the framing of the shots reminds you simply of how much Giuseppe Tornatore loves classic cinema. It shows the way films brought communities together before they were a million ways to entertain yourself cut off from the rest of the world (a fact that is already being bemoaned in this film made in the 80’s). It shows how a passion for art and entertainment can transform not only your own life but of everyone else around you. It does all this and manages to avoid maudlin sentimentality and cheap emotional tricks for the entire running time which is a feat in and of itself.

With the possible exception of the youngest incarnation of Toto who goes back and forth between an astonishingly natural performance for a child actor and then a more common state of more obvious child acting, the performances here are simply spectacular. Despite being an uneducated and unsuccessful man, Alfredo is turned into an eloquent and emotionally complex individual through Philippe Noiret’s rich characterization. He quickly became one of the best adopted father figures in cinema history that I have seen and I was even more impressed here than I was with Omar Sharif in a similar role for Monsieur Ibrahim. Marco Leonardi nailed the angst, ennui, and frustration that was eating away at the Toto who was becoming increasingly trapped in his small little world when he was clearly meant for so much more. Jacques Perrin however was the real scene-stealer. He had the fewest lines of all of the incarnations of Toto, but his effortlessly emotive face and marvelously subtle renderings of Toto’s grief and nostalgia upon returning to his hometown made the final thirty minutes of the movie the truly legendary scenes they’ve become.

That isn’t to say that this movie is perfect. Unfortunately, the film can occasionally be scattershot in its approach, and it’s spend a significant portion of its time developing the character of the town Giancardo and its various eccentric figures, such as the priest who bans any scenes of kissing in the theatre (which is originally in his church) or the homeless man who believes the town square to be his or the rich man who spits on the socialists in the theatre when they boo bourgeois characters; however, there doesn’t seem to be much pay-off for any of these characters expect for perhaps one whose details I won’t go into for fear of spoiling one of the few parts of the plot I haven’t explained. The film is only a little over two hours but you often feel like it’s much longer (and I hear the director’s cut adds another hour which would just ruin the film for me), and while it’s ending is perfect and turned me into a sobbing mess of emotion, the rest of the film could have used some steadier editing so that the story could have stayed focus on Toto and his relationship with the loveable curmudgeon Alfredo.

Cinema Paradiso is simply a film made by a movie fan for movie fans. It captures the lost innocence of childhood better than any film I’ve seen in ages, but it gives hope to so many of us out there who may be afraid to pursue our passions. Beautiful acting, beautiful filmmaking equate to an unforgettable cinematic experience. It is a foreign film and therefore subtitled in Italian as a warning to those who find this review compelling enough that you would wish to watch this. Though at this point, I give up on people that can’t watch foreign movies. If you’re at least in high school and can’t sit through subtitles, you are making a conscious (and poor) decision to eliminate the possibility of seeing so many classic foreign films that often make our trite American productions seem embarrassingly amateur-ish in comparison. For anyone with even the slightest interest in deeply emotional storytelling and the great selection of movies from overseas, I have no reservations in recommending Cinema Paradiso to you.

Final Score: A

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