If a film succeeds, its audience will simply set aside all logic. For a couple of hours, we won’t see actors or contrived special effects. We won’t hear music. Though we’re only watching people pretending to be other people, we’ll feel something greater than we can understand.
For some, this is irrelevant, which is fine — they come to be entertained for a couple of hours and they are. But for others, films provide a form of escapist catharsis. And the Italian film classic “Cinema Paradiso” succeeds by not only helping to explain this phenomenon, but also by providing its own helping of emotional payoff. This makes its eloquent storytelling reach far beyond its financial success.
Today, 22 years later, “Cinema Paradiso” is consistently ranked as one of the best films of world cinema, and it’s often credited as one of the reasons behind the Italian film industry’s revival. Grossing an impressive amount at the box office, the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the 1989 Academy Awards. Surprisingly, all this is owed to Miramax co-founder (and infamous film butcher) Harvey Weinstein.
After the original cut was criticized as bloated and scatter-brained, the stewardship of its international release was handed over to Weinstein, where 51 minutes were cut. Under Weinstein’s scalpel, Tornatore’s poignant story of film director Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin, “Le Petit Lieutenant”) and his early life as a mischievous movie-lover nicknamed “Toto” (Salvatore Cascio, “The Pope Must Die”) are even more keenly felt.
Toto is a young boy living in an isolated Sicilian town where he dreams of people and places that are impossibly beyond his reach. But through the power of film, he can experience worlds through the eye of a camera. Movies offer Toto — and other inhabitants of his town — an escape.
When this escape has to be censored by the local priest for material he finds sexually offensive, it’s easy to understand the town’s feelings of frustration. However, these bits and pieces of the film are snipped off and put away in a box by the cinema operator Alfredo (Philippe Noiret, “Topaz”), who becomes Toto’s mentor.
After Alfredo’s funeral, Toto, now a broken man burdened by his own memories, is given a small montage left to him by his mentor. It’s a collection of all the kiss scenes the priest had censored, and what follows is truly a perfect scene.
As the screen flickers on, an eloquent score by Ennio Morricone builds in the dark. The camera pans to Toto’s face. As the screen illuminates with dozens of famous Hollywood kisses, a range of emotions plays over his face. This scene alone sums up the nostalgia, pain, regret, joy and heartbreak that he’s carried for more than 30 years. Like Toto, we are overwhelmed by its power. But when the montage ends three minutes later, the weight of Toto’s memories is lifted, and we stand up fresh and renewed.
It’s puzzling to consider how powerful this scene is. Rationally, we’d remind ourselves that none of this actually happened anyway — after all, it’s just a scattered montage of famous Hollywood kisses. Still, our tears are unmistakably mixed with the same joy Toto feels. Its meaning isn’t given weight through its own merit, but through the experiences that we bring with us.
Movies give us a chance to compact and project our past on screen. In only a single scene, “Cinema Paradiso” demonstrates and explains the redemptive power of storytelling. It’s a tremendous achievement that will remain relevant so long as laughs, tears and thrills are shared in a movie theater.