Giuseppe Tornatore’s acclaimed Cinema Paradiso is a classic film for dreamers. It allows you to travel back in time and take on a different nationality for the film’s duration. I felt as much an inhabitant of the little Sicilian town as the rest of the quirky characters we get introduced to in the course of the film – and therein lies the finesse of Tornatore’s skill.
Cinema Paradiso follows the life of Salvatore di Vita, a successful filmmaker who, after 30 years of absence, visits his hometown in Sicily. The journey home triggers memories of his childhood and adolescence we as the audience get to revisit along with Salvatore.
We see ‘Toto’ (his nickname) mature into the person he is, as we follow his journey from his consistent visits to the projection booth as a little boy, to the frustrations of youthful love as an adolescent to the regret and nostalgia he experiences as he returns an older man.
What Tornatore excelled in doing, was the effective storytelling through simplicity.
Without any prominent special effects or gratuitous graphics, Tornatore is able to touch every viewer’s heart. He addresses emotions we can all identify with: love, fear, grief, regret, nostalgia for childhood & youth – simply through giving us a glimpse into the Sicilian village and the lessons its citizens learn.
The endearing relationship between the town’s old projectionist Alfredo and little Toto is sweet as much as it is frustrating. Alfredo sees the potential in Toto, and is the one who encourages him to leave and never come back in order to pursue his love of film.
Yet, this advice turns out to be the breeding ground for consequential misunderstandings between Toto and Elena – ultimately causing Toto’s otherwise successful life to be miserable and unfulfilled. It shows us how obsessive love can result in sadness and regret.
It is fear of the government and God motivating Father Adelfio to rid the films shown in the local cinema of any scenes considered sensual. Though he is good-natured and has good intentions at heart, he comes across as pretentious in his attempt to do what is right and protect his village from what He considers to be sin.
Toto’s mother scolds him frequently and seems quick-tempered. As a result, Toto escapes to the projection booth whenever he can. It is only later when he realizes the amount of grief and pain his mother must have been going through as a young widow who, despite her beauty, chose not to remarry and to raise the children alone in post-war italy.
It takes Toto 30 years to only then start realizing the extent of his mother’s sacrifice and strength it took in raising him and dealing with his absence and lack of contact.
We see the detrimental effect of the misinterpreted breakup with Elena on Toto. This experience during his teenage years inhibit Toto from fully overcoming his heartbreak. As a result, he is unable to fully commit to any woman afterwards, and ends up having one relationship after another.
All these characters, whether their roles are big or small bring something we can relate to as the audience. From the grieving mother, the maturing boy, the self-righteous priest to the teenage lovers – they all carry something we can identify with, grow in and improve.
As an encouragement and inspiration to writers, filmmakers and actors, don’t underestimate the beauty of simplicity.