Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

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The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Bishop’s work.  For this reason the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes.  This priceless pearl of wisdom can be applied to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop but it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!

The poems that we will analyse are: The Fish, Filling Station, The Prodigal.  (These are also on the Ordinary Level Course.) and also First Death in Nova Scotia,  In the Waiting Room, At the Fishhouses and Questions of Travel.

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Major Themes in Bishop’s Poetry


  • Many of her poems have their roots in childhood memories, indeed are based on her own childhood (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • The perspective is mostly that of adult reminiscence (‘In the Waiting Room’), but occasionally the child’s viewpoint is used (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • The lessons of childhood are chiefly about pain and loss (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • There is a strong tension between the need to return to childhood and the need to escape from that childhood (‘In the Waiting Room’, ‘At the Fishhouses); she even returns in dreams in a poem called ‘The Moose’.
  • Perhaps this is based on the notion of childhood as the completion of the self, and the poems are a search for the self? (Don’t mind me I’m just showing off!)
  • We know she attended counselling to find the origins of her alcoholism and depression. Yet her reconstructions of childhood do not seem to function as Freudian therapy.  She doesn’t seem to alter her direction or attitudes as a result of drawing her past into the conscious, though she does seem to find a deal of comfort and a greater acceptance in the later poem, ‘The Moose’.  She is not trying to apportion blame, neither is she trying to be forgiving or sympathetic.  In general she seems neutral and detached (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • She also deals with the end of childhood and the awakening to adulthood (‘In the Waiting Room’).

Her life was her subject matter

Bishop was ‘a poet of deep subjectivity’, as Harold Bloom said.  She wrote out of her own experience, dealing with such topics as

  • Her incompleteness (‘In the Waiting Room’)
  • Alcoholism (‘The Prodigal’)
  • Achieving adulthood and the confusion of that (‘In the Waiting Room’)
  • Travel, her wanderlust (‘Questions of Travel’), her favourite places (‘At the Fishhouses’)
  • Even her hobbies, such as fishing (‘The Fish’).

The poet and travel

  • As her own wanderings show, she was a restless spirit, constantly on the move: Nova Scotia, Florida, Brazil, Europe, New York, San Francisco, Harvard.
  • Many of the places she visited (Nova Scotia, the Straits of Magellan, the Amazon Estuary, Key West, Florida) stand at the boundary between land and sea.   There is a tension between land and sea in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’), with the sea viewed as a strange, indifferent, encircling power (‘At the Fishhouses’).  Perhaps this is a metaphor for the conflict between the artist and life?  Quite a few of her poems are set at this juncture between land and sea (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘The Fish’).
  • She seemed to be fascinated by geographical extremities: straits, peninsulas, wharves; mountains, jungle, outback (‘Questions of Travel’). Perhaps she was attracted to the near-isolation of these places.  They are almost isolated in her poems.  One critic viewed these as the sensual organs of a living earth, ‘fingers of water or land that are the sensory receptors of a large mass.’  The poet is seen as making sensuous contact with the living earth.
  • Bishop has an eye for the exotic and the unusual (‘Questions of Travel’) but also for the ordinary (‘Filling Station’).
  • She dwells on the difficulty of ever really knowing another culture (‘Questions of Travel’), but this did not prevent her trying!
  • Travel and journeying can be seen as a metaphor for discovery of truth in some poems (‘Questions of Travel’).

Bishop and the natural world

  • Nature is central to her poetry, either as an active element central to the experience of the poem or by making an intrusion into the domestic scene (in a minority of poems such as ‘Filling Station’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, and ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • The experience of really looking at and encountering the natural is central to her poetic process (‘The Fish’, ‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Our ability to understand the natural is sometimes limited, yet there are great moments of awe and insight in our encounters with the otherworldly spirit of nature (‘The Fish’).
  • Bishop is always aware of the sheer beauty of nature (‘Questions of Travel’) and this is obviously tied in with her fascination with travel and her already mentioned interest in the exotic.
  • She tends to domesticate the strangeness of nature through language and description (see ‘The Prodigal’).
  • You should also consider again some of the points already made, such as how geographical extremes fascinated her, her beloved places, and the significance of journeys for her.

The domestic and the strange

  • The importance of the domestic is also a central ground in her poetry. Domesticity is one of the unifying principles of life.  It gives meaning to our existence (‘Filling Station’).
  • The comfort of people, of domestic affections, is important (‘Filling Station’).
  • Yet the heart of the domestic scene can sometimes be enigmatic. This strangeness, even at the centre of the domestic, is a powerful element in human life (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).  One can be ambushed by the strange at any time, even in the security of the domestic scene (‘In the Waiting Room’)

Bishop’s philosophy as revealed in the poems

  • Bishop’s is a secular (non-religious) world view: there is no sense of ultimate purpose, and in this she relates to modernist American poets like Frost and Stevens.
  • Hers is very much a here-and-now, existential philosophy: the experience is everything. There is some sense of tradition or linear movement in her life view, but tradition is just an accumulation of experience.  The transience of knowledge (‘At the Fishhouses’) and the limits to our knowing (‘Questions of Travel’) contribute to this outlook.
  • Her ecological outlook is at the basis of her philosophy, as we have seen: humans communing with nature, discovering, encountering, not domineering (‘The Fish’).
  • She demonstrates the importance of the domestic (‘Filling Station’).
  • Her view of the human being is as fractured and incomplete (‘Chemin de Fer’). This duality has been described by Anne Newman (in Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom) as follows: ‘She sees the ideal and the real, permanence and decay, affirmation and denial in both man and nature’; a sort of ’fractured but balanced’ view of humanity’.  Examine ‘Filling Station’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ for signs of this.
  • A person may not always be entirely free to choose her location (‘Questions of Travel’), yet she can make a choice about how her life is spent. Life is not totally determined (‘The Prodigal’).
  • The bleaker side of life is often stressed, the pain, loss and trauma (‘The Prodigal’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’), yet she is not without humour (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Filling Station’).
  • She believes we need to experience our dreams (‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Is her overall view of humankind that of the eternal traveller, journeying? And is the journey all?
  • She expresses the unknowable strangeness of death (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • Yet there is a sort of heroism evident in her poems. Many of the poems feature a crisis or conflict of some sort, with which the narrator deals courageously, often learning in the process (‘The Fish’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).

Bishop and Women’s Writing

  • Are you conscious of the femininity of the speaker in Bishop’s poems? Some critics have argued that the importance of the domestic principle in her philosophy (‘Filling Station’) and the attitudes of care and sympathy in the poems (for the fish, the prodigal, the animals and birds) and even the occupational metaphors, for example of housekeeping (‘Filling Station’) and dressmaking and map colouring in other poems, all indicate a strong feminine point of view in her poetry.
  • Other critics have argued that her rhetoric is completely asexual, that the poet’s persona is neutral, the Bishop ‘I’ is the eye of the traveller or the child recapturing an innocence that avoids sex roles altogether, an asexual self that frees her from any sex-determined role.  Examine ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ in this regard.
  • We have already encountered something of her treatment of her own sexuality and her attitude as a child to female sexuality (‘In the Waiting Room’ and other poems).

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Style and Technique

Variety of verse forms

  • Though she was not often attracted to formal patterns, there are a variety of verse forms found in Bishop’s poetry: sonnet, sestina, villanelle, etc. (‘The Prodigal’, ‘Sestina’).
  • She used a variety of metres but often-favoured trimeter lines (resulting in those long thin poems!).
  • She was happiest using free verse (‘Questions of Travel’. ‘At the Fishhouses’).

Her descriptions

  • The surface of a Bishop poem is often deceptively simple.
  • A favourite technique is ‘making the familiar strange’ (‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Her detailed descriptions function as repossession or domestication of the object by the artist. This is how she gradually apprehends her subject, through the accumulation of detail (‘The Fish’).
  • Bishop often insisted on the truth of her descriptions, but the reality is more complex than that. Her descriptions are both recreation and creation, creating veracity but also using poetic licence (‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • Her similes and metaphors are often surprising, like conceits. They can be both exciting and exact.

Control and feeling

  • Many of her poems deal with emotive subjects (‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • There is an element of spontaneity and naturalness in the tone. Consider the opening of ‘In the Waiting Room’ and ‘Filling Station’.  ‘The sense of the mind actively encountering reality, giving off the impression of involved immediate discovery, is one of Bishop’s links to the Romantics,’ as the critic Penelope Laurans put it.
  • The matter-of-fact tone avoids sentimentality. The use of understatement controls feeling (‘In the Waiting Room’).

The absence of moralising

  • Her dislike of didacticism is well documented. She disliked ‘modern religiosity and moral superiority’, and so she avoids overt moralising in her poems.  The scenes offer up their wisdom gradually, ass the descriptions help us to understand the object or place (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’).

Bishop as a dramatic poet


  • Scenes of conflict or anger
  • Moments of dramatic encounter
  • Dramatic monologue structure in many of the poems.

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Think about the following points, and make notes for yourself.

  • Which of her poems made the deepest impression on you?
  • Which passages would you wish to read and reread?
  • What are her principal issues or concerns?
  • Did you find that reading Bishop gave you any insights into human beings or the world? What did you discover?
  • Think about the landscapes and places that attracted her. What do they suggest about the poet and poetry?
  • What do you notice about the people featured in her poetry?
  • Do you find her poetry different in any way from other poetry you have read?
  • Why should we read Bishop?
  • What questions would you like to ask her about her poetry?


The Romantic Movement held sway at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  It was at its height between 1800 – 1830 and the main architects of this movement were Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge.

There follows a list of some of the main distinguishing features of Romanticism.  Consider Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in the light of some or all of these statements.

  • Romanticism stressed the importance of the solitary individual voice, often in rebellion against tradition and social conventions.
  • In place of orthodox religious values the individual looks for value and guidance in intense private experience.
  • Nature often provides this intense experience, hence the notion of nature as the great teacher and moral guide as in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (or even ‘The Daffodils’!).
  • Romanticism can show a divided view of the individual. The individual is often pulled in opposite directions – for example solitariness versus sociability, lonely pursuit of an ideal versus community fellowship.
  • It is anti-rational. Feelings, instinctive responses, unconscious wisdom and passionate living are valued more than rational; thought.
  • Dreams and drug-enhanced experiences are especially valued. Children, primitive people, outcasts, even the odd eccentric figure are regarded as having special insight and wisdom.
  • ‘Bishop explored typical Romantic themes, such as problems of isolation, loss, and the desire for union beyond the self.’ Explore the poetry in the light of this statement.
  • It has been said that Bishop’s practice of poetry follows Wordsworth’s advice that poetry should embody controlled passion. For Wordsworth, (and for Bishop also), poetry was ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ and many of his great poems embody the notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ Would you agree with this assessment of her poetry?
  • Finally, as a little test of your new-found expertise, examine ‘At the Fishhouses’ as an example of a great Romantic poem.

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The poems by Elizabeth Bishop on our course reveal many of the most striking characteristics of her work: her eye for detail, her interest in travel and different places, her apparently conversational tone, her command of internal rhyme, her use of repetition, her interest in strict poetic forms (the sonnet and the sestina), childhood memories, identity, loss.

The world, which Bishop describes in her poetry, is vivid and particular.  She is so intent on accurate description that often the detail is qualified and clarified within the poem.  In Michael Schmidt’s words, ‘the voice affirms, hesitates, corrects itself; the image comes clear to us as it came clear to her, a process of adjusting perception until the thing is seen.  Or the feeling is released.’  For example, in ‘The Fish’ she tells us:

                       While his gills were breathing in

the terrible oxygen

– the frightening gills,

fresh and crisp with blood,

that can cut so badly –

Another example would be where she describes the eyes of the fish.  She says that they ‘shifted a little’ and then she clarifies this further with the more precise observation that, ‘it was more like the tipping / of an object towards the light’.

Bishop is a sympathetic observer and it has been said of her that she asks us ‘to focus not on her but with her’.  She looks at the fish, imagines its insides – ‘the coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers, / the big bones and the little bones … ; she sings hymns to the seal in ‘At the Fishhouses’; she finds love is present in the unlikely setting of a dirty filling station.  When Bishop uses ‘I’ in her poetry it is never alienating or distancing.  Somehow she makes the reader feel at ease.  The poems as we read them are working something out.

Her poetry is not always strictly autobiographical but Bishop, an outsider for much of her life, writes indirectly in ‘The Prodigal’ of the outsider and later, in the explicitly autobiographical ‘In the Waiting Room’, she names herself (‘you are an Elizabeth’) and charts the sense of her child’s mind realising her uniqueness and identity.  ‘Sestina’ is also autobiographical, in that it tells of a home without a mother and father.  She only wrote of her childhood experiences late in life: ‘Sestina’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ all date from when she was in her fifties.  In these poems she captures the confusion and complexities of childhood, its terror, panic and alienation.  In ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, she pieces together, as a child’s mind would, the details in order to understand them: ‘Arthur’s coffin was / a little frosted cake, / and the red-eyed loon eyed it / from his white, frozen lake.’

It has been said that Bishop preferred geography to history and it is significant that she remembers reading National Geographic in ‘In the Waiting Room’.  The title of her first book, North and South, contains the idea of opposites but opposites that co-exist.  Yet her descriptions of place are never just descriptions of place.  Morality, history and politics are also evident in Bishop’s landscapes.  In ‘Questions of Travel’, Brazil and its otherness prompt Bishop to ask if it’s right to watch strangers in another country.  She dwells on the country’s traditions (‘In another country the clogs would all be tested’), religious influences (‘a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque’), history (‘the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages’).

In her poetry there is self-discovery, a sense of difference, moments of heightened awareness (epiphanies), a strong sense of here and now, an absence of any religious belief but a belief in the mystery of knowledge ‘flowing and flown’.  In ‘At the Fishhouses’ what begins as accurate and gradual description of landscape gives way to a downward movement towards the dark cold centre of meaning, here imagined as deep beneath the ocean surface and something that we can never know or understand fully.

In Bishop the act of writing and the art of writing bring shape and order to experience.  In ‘Questions of Travel’ she describes the traveller taking a notebook and writing.  The use of ‘we’ in the poem and the way in which every traveller is contained in ‘the traveller’ allows everyone to enter into the experience.  This record of thought and feeling is what Bishop herself does in her poems.  She was interested in form: the sonnet and the sestina are very formal, but in other poems where the structure and rhythm may not be obvious at first there is often a very fine command and control.


In one of her finest poems, ‘Crusoe in England’, she imagines Robinson Crusoe lonely for his island and his friend Friday; and remembering his time there, she writes:

                   The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun

                   rose from the sea,

                   and there was one of it and one of me.

Here we have the voice of Robinson Crusoe, and the voice of Elizabeth Bishop, and the voice of all other lonely, observing, travellers.  It is significant that Bishop was attracted to the figure of Robinson Crusoe, an isolated figure, someone ill at ease having returned to society.  Her sexuality and her struggle with alcohol were part of her own sense of isolation.  In a letter written in 1948 to Robert Lowell she said, ‘When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’  Her later work suggests a happier Elizabeth Bishop, but her life was never uncomplicatedly happy.

Bishop’s The Complete Poems 1927 – 1972 contains just over 140 poems and some thirty of these are translations from French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  She wrote very slowly, very carefully, sometimes pinning bits of paper on her walls, leaving blank spaces (‘with gaps / and empties for the unimagined phrases’ is how Robert Lowell described it in a poem for her), waiting for the right word.  Some of her poems were several years in the making.  She worked on ‘The Moose’ for over twenty-five years, yet it seems effortless as all good poetry does.  She writes a poetry that echoes the rhythms of natural speech and her rhymes are not always easy to detect.  End rhymes and cross rhymes or slant rhymes create a special and effective music.  And what Yeats says of all true poetry is true of Bishop:

                             ‘A line will take us hours maybe;

                             Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

                             Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’



Sample Answer:

‘Bishop’s poems are constructed around movement and reflection.  She is a meticulous writer who effectively combines precise observations with striking imagery’.

In the words of famous American poet, Robert Lowell, ‘I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she has’ – there is ample evidence in her poems on the course of the truth of this statement.

Each of her poems, from ‘The Fish’ to ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, throbs with movement and reflection.  Bishop is a poet who seems preoccupied with the passion of movement, yet never strains in her ability to capture its beauty, strangeness or intricacies in imagery which can be dramatic, and at times almost outrageous, in its originality.  In ‘The Fish’, she describes how the fish hung ‘a grunting weight’ while his eyes ‘shifted a little’.  Through the poem, Bishop reflects on its suffering movements before she finally ‘let the fish go’.  Further activity is observed in ‘At the Fishhouses’ including the motion of wheelbarrows, the sea that considers ‘spilling over’, the standing seals and ‘forever flowing water’, all elements within a sea of change.

‘Filling Station’ has dirty monkey suits, wickerwork baskets and dogs, bringing to vivid life the ordinary, mundane scenes of a petrol station.  The observations here are precise, honest and real, ‘a dirty dog’, ‘a big dim doily’ … (‘Embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites, I think, / and heavy with grey crochet’.); the comic books which provide ‘the only note of colour’.  Much description, little movement it seems, until the observer moves outside where ‘high-strung automobiles’ fill up with gas as they impatiently prepare to depart the scene.

Movement is never described for its own sake or in isolation.  It expands on a theme, a tone, a mood that the poem is trying to reflect on.  The repentant wastrel in ‘The Prodigal’ mentions ‘pigs’ eyes’ following him, while the farmer comes at dark to inspect his labourer.  These images are used to emphasise to us the misery and remorse of the prodigal, a lonely emigrant worker in a foreign land at the soul-destroying job of pig-herding.

In her later poems, Bishop’s reflection on what she observes becomes a theme in itself.  In ‘Questions of Travel’, for example, there are ‘too many waterfalls … and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops / makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion’.  Bishop feels a pang of guilt as the scene unfolds and asks, ‘Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?’  It is noteworthy too, that in describing the skies of Brazil she imports her imagery from Nova Scotia in saying, ‘the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled’.  However, some things she observes will always be ‘inexplicable and impenetrable’ and can only be pondered on ‘blurr’dly and inconclusively’.

In all her poems, Bishop describes and defines movement, reflecting on landscape, animals and on people who work in and traverse that landscape.  No detail seems too trivial for her to note in her observations.  She paints striking pictures with imagery which is surprising, unusual and captivating – all the more so because many images depict ordinary, everyday scenes.  Bishop was a meticulous worker, whose attention to detail shows she had a reflective mind and was a keen observer.  Her craft, like her knowledge, is ‘flowing and flown’.

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Musings on The Green Road by Anne Enright


I’ve just finished The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.  The blurb accompanying the book states that it is a darkly glinting novel set on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – isn’t everything these days! – a story of fraction and family, of leaving home and coming home, a novel exploring selfishness and compassion, a book about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.

The novel is a bit of a slow burner at first, that is until we are introduced to the great Irish matriarch, in this case, Rosaleen Madigan.  Her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance, Hanna, all leave the West of Ireland for lives they could never have imagined in Dublin, New York, Toronto and various third-world towns.  Then Rosaleen announces that she has decided to sell the ancestral home and divide the proceeds.  They all come home for a final Christmas together.

In truth I found the novel to be eerie and close to the bone.  How did Anne Enright obtain such deep insight and information about my own mother!  Her depiction of Rosaleen Madigan is worthy of a Booker on its own – ‘The world she grew up in was so different it was hard to believe she was ever in it.’  Like Michael Harnett’s grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in his poem,  ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘she clenched her brittle hands / around a world / she could not understand.’ I feel the novelist would have benefitted from an editor of the calibre of Harper Lee’s – if so we would now be reading about, ‘Rosaleen Considine at six and Rosaleen Madigan at seventy six’ rather than Rosaleen and all her offspring.

There were also a number of inexcusable typographical errors in my paperback edition, the sign of rushed publication, but surely unforgivable in a Booker nominated novel.

However, despite all my nit-picking, this novel is a must-read for any among you living with – or away from – a strong willed ageing Irish mother!  Anne Enright has done a remarkable job of depicting this woman, a survivor of the Celtic  Tiger era, who decides to cash in her chips and divvy out the proceeds to those who have survived her reign.  Like Lear in his dotage we all are aware of the pitfalls of such a course of action!

My one major criticism of the novel is the ending.  It is as if Anne Enright loses interest in the project and it fades out like a damp squib.  The ending is disappointing and disjointed – skipping about tying up the loose ends.  The characterisation is uneven – with Rosaleen and Constance being strongly drawn while the others are insipid and aimless enough.  This novel won’t win this year’s Booker Prize, indeed it will be lucky to be shortlisted when you compare it to Tom McCarthy’s masterpiece, Satin Island, my current read.


Cinema Paradiso Reviewed




Cinema Paradiso


DIRECTOR: Guiseppe Tornatore


This beautiful film, with its haunting Ennio Morricone  soundtrack, is indeed a classic.  Cinema Paradiso was a critical and box-office success and is regarded by many with a great fondness. It is particularly renowned for the ‘kissing scenes’ montage at the film’s end. Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1989, the film is often credited with reviving Italy’s film industry, which later produced Mediterraneo and Life Is Beautiful. Film critic Roger Ebert gave it three stars and a half out of four and four stars out of four for the extended version, declaring, “Still, I’m happy to have seen it–not as an alternate version, but as the ultimate exercise in viewing deleted scenes.”

 Cinema Paradiso was shot mainly in director Guiseppe Tornatore’s hometown of Bagheria, Sicily.  The famous town square is Piazza Umberto I in the village of Palazzo Adriano, about 30 miles to the south of Palermo. The ‘Paradiso’ cinema was built here, at Via Nino Bixio, overlooking the octagonal Baroque fountain, which dates from 1608.  Told largely in flashback  the film tells the story of a successful film director Salvatore beginning with his early childhood love of cinema.  It also tells the story of his return many years later to his native Sicilian village for the funeral of his old friend Alfredo, the projectionist at the local “Cinema Paradiso”. Ultimately, Alfredo serves as a wise father figure to his young friend.  Alfredo only wishes to see him succeed, even if it means breaking his heart in the process.

Seen as an example of “nostalgic postmodernism”, the film intertwines sentimentality with comedy, and nostalgia with pragmaticism. It explores issues of youth, coming of age, and reflections (in adulthood) about the past. The imagery in the scenes can be said to reflect Salvatore’s idealised memories of his childhoodCinema Paradiso is also a celebration of films; as a projectionist, young Salvatore (a.k.a. Totò) develops a passion for films that shapes his life path in adulthood.

 THE HISTORICAL/LITERARY BACKGROUND:  The film begins in a Sicilian village in the late 1940’s after World War Two.  It was a time when cinema was just developing, and before the arrival of television.  Cinema made a huge impact on the people of Sicily, who were in many ways socially isolated from the cultural developments of mainland Italy.  The film spans a 30-year period, showing the changes in society and in the history of film itself, but more importantly, it documents the changes in the history of its viewers.  The simplicity of the lives of the Sicilian people alters significantly as the effects of a rapidly changing world impact increasingly on their way of life.

THE STORY:  Salvatore da Vita is the central protagonist or hero of the film.  The film begins with Salvatore as a successful middle-aged man in Rome, receiving a message from his mother in Sicily that someone called Alfredo is dead.  The shock of this news prompts a flashback to Salvatore’s youth and most of the film consists of Salvatore’s memories of his childhood in a small Sicilian village.

As a child, Salvatore (nicknamed Toto) had a fascination for the cinema in his village of Giancaldo, the Cinema Paradiso.  The projectionist was a local man, Alfredo, and Toto befriended him and observed him at his work.  Toto was a quick learner and soon knew how to run the cinema and he was especially interested in the work that went on in the projection room at the back of the cinema.  Alfredo became a father-figure for Toto as his own father had not returned from the Russian Front during the war and Toto had never really known him.  Alfredo taught Toto many things about the cinema, but he often discouraged him from considering it as a career as he could see that Toto was capable of better things.

However, one night, a fire broke out and Alfredo was trapped in the burning building and subsequently lost his sight.  A local man who had won the lottery rebuilt the cinema and Toto became the new projectionist.  Here the film jumps ahead about ten years and Toto is in his late teens and still working in the cinema.  He begins to experiment himself making amateur films and while filming people at random, he filmed a beautiful young girl, Elena, with whom he fell in love.  After persistently waiting under her window for weeks, like the soldier who waited for the princess, in a story told to him by Alfredo, he succeeded in winning her love in the comic ‘confession box scene’.

Alfredo still felt that Toto was wasting his time in Giancaldo and urged him to move away and do something with his life.  Toto and Elena made tentative plans to elope together but these plans come to nothing when through a misunderstanding they fail to meet.  Now Toto realised that there was no reason why he should stay.  He left Giancaldo with Alfredo’s advice not to look back and to forget about him.  We learn that while Toto did succeed materially, and later became a very successful film director in Rome, emotionally he has not found anyone to love.

 The film ends with Toto (now Salvatore) returning home to attend Alfredo’s funeral after 30 years’ absence and noting the changes in his village.  He visits the remains of the cinema and puts his old memories to rest.  Alfredo’s legacy to him contains a reel of film which turned out to be a collection of the censored clips of actors kissing.  He looks at this with a wry smile as he remembers all that this stood for.  They were the times when the local priest, Fr. Adelphio, would censor any hint of intimacy on film, no matter how slight, as far cry from the present, where we see the priest’s influence on Sicilian society is greatly diminished.  Alfredo may also have left the reel of film to remind Salvatore of the importance of love and to tell him to look for happiness in his personal life.

Cinema Paradiso (3)


The Power of the Imagination (Cinema)

The people of Giancaldo and its surrounds are intoxicated by the power of the cinema.  For them, the cinema not only transposes them from their mundane, limited circumstances into a world of excitement and drama, but it introduces them to modern living and all its promises.  They enter into the film as it unfolds and shriek with laughter or gasp with horror at the crisis points.

A clever touch in the film is the way in which we see the boy, who has seen the film many times, watching the audience’s reactions and behaviour.  They become his entertainment, as their responses are what make the projectionist’s job worthwhile.  Alfredo once told him that when the audience were happy, it made him happy too.

The local people were almost in a frenzy to get into the cinema to see the latest film.  The local priest, Fr. Adelphio, felt morally obliged to censor each film before it was shown to the public because he feared the influence of the film’s contents upon them.  Actors’ kissing on screen was completely unacceptable.

However, with the passing of time, the films have become less censored and the excitement of seeing bared flesh and especially scenes with sexual overtones are what attract the audiences now.  The priest has less control now over the content of the films because the cinema has now gone into private ownership.

Sadly, with the competing outdoor film companies (Drive in Movies) and the introduction of television, the cinema loses its customers and falls into disrepair.  When Salvatore returns thirty years later, what was once the centre-point of the village is now in a sorry state.  What was once the most powerful pulse of the locals’ entertainment, has now weakened and is fading away.

The Theme of Isolation

As a child, Toto was isolated from his mother.  He was an intelligent child, who needed to question and explore new things.  His mother was a woman who held the old values dear to her and looked at the changing times with suspicion, so Toto gradually became distant from her.  He lacked a father-figure due to the fact that his father had not returned from the Russian Front so he formed a bond with Alfredo.  This fact furthered his alienation from his mother.  Toto also had a younger sister who rarely features in the film and he seemed to have little in common with her.

Toto spent every spare moment with Alfredo in the projection room of the cinema, so in that respect, they isolated themselves from society.  Alfredo lived for the cinema and seemed distanced even from his wife.  This may be partly due to the fact that his job involved so many anti-social hours.  When he left Giancaldo, Toto seemed to have lived a rather lonely life, despite having no shortage of female companions.  He had never really formed a relationship with anyone since he left his home town.

The Theme of Love

In more than one way, this film could be seen as love story.  It deals with the relationship between Toto and Alfredo, which resembles a father-son relationship.  The fact that Toto’s mother disapproved of it may have drawn them closer together.  Alfredo loved Toto enough to send him away for his own good.  He felt that it was necessary to sever their bond so that Toto would be able to make more progress in the field of cinema than just merely showing films.  This proves to be the case as Toto became a respected film director.

Toto had only ever fallen in love once in his life, with a new girl to the locality who was the bank manager’s daughter.  It was, for him, the type of romantic love story he had seen in films many times – love at first sight.  Despite Alfredo’s reservations on the subject, Toto insisted on pursuing her.  When Elena is taken away by her father to live in an area where she can go to college, Toto’s heart is broken.  He never really recovers from this and cannot maintain a steady relationship with any other woman he meets later.  Every time his mother telephones, a different woman answers the phone.  As only a mother can tell, she says to Salvatore when he returns, that not one person who answers the phone is in love with you.  When Salvatore reruns the old film clip he had of Elena, his mother peeping in at the door understands.  As the film ends with Salvatore viewing the passionate kisses from the old films, he seems to be more at peace with himself and ready to let go of the past.

Cinema Paradiso (2)


There is a strong emphasis on the changes in the Sicilian way of life from the end of the Second World War up to thirty or more years later.  At first the people are simple and ignorant of modern life and almost worship the power of the cinema with awe.  They take what they see literally and repeatedly view the same films over and over again.  As the cinema develops, so do they and they demand more variety.  The old and rather tame Romances are rejected and a more vibrant genre takes its place.  Now they are watching westerns, thrillers and passionate love stories.

These changes in Sicily, mainland Italy and, indeed, throughout Europe may not be welcomed by all but they are seen to be inevitable.  At the end, as Toto gazes at the old square which he knew as a boy, now filled with cars and noise and bright colours, we can sense his sadness.  The most shocking part occurs when the cinema is knocked down to make way for a car park.  That says it all.  It symbolises the transition from the old way of life to the new.  As the camera looks out from the hearse carrying Alfredo’s coffin to the graveyard it seems that there are two funerals taking place: Alfredo’s and the old way of life.  The cinema, which stood for the old cultural values, is gone.


Cinema Paradiso fits into the genre of social realism.  It deals with realistic relationships and gives a realistic view of Sicilian society.  It depicts the modernisation of Sicily in the post-war period, emphasising the rapid changes.  It can also be classified as a romance (especially the director’s cut version), but this is only a minor part of the plot.  The only real conflict is within the central character, when he struggles to make his decision to break from Alfredo and leave Sicily.  This film is also biographical, which makes it a narrative story in the form of a film.


PLOT:  It is quite a conventional plot at face value: a young boy is fascinated by the cinema in his youth and he leaves his small village to seek his fortune and he becomes a respected film director and then returns to his native village to attend the funeral of his mentor.  There is one main flashback which tells most of the story until the end, with a couple of additional minor flashbacks.  The history of the cinema is presented in sequence, and the progress of the society’s cultural development cleverly parallels this.

SETTING:  Most of the film is set in the cinema or in the square outside.  Toto is occasionally seen in the streets nearby.  Only a few scenes are set in the schoolroom, near Toto’s house, or at the river close by.  Salvatore’s house in Rome features at the beginning and at the end and the only other time the film goes any real distance from the village is when Toto goes away on military service.  There are some brief glimpses of the surrounding countryside and there is also one very significant scene where Toto takes the blind Alfredo to the sea after his return from military service.

VISUALS:  Sicilian architecture features significantly in the film, both outdoors and indoors.  Early on in the film some of the sequences are shot in the church and then they move to the cinema, which closely resembles the church.  The cinema is carefully designed to fit in closely with the buildings of the time and, by implication, its ethos.  Towards the end of the film, the structure of the new cinema deviates from this with its many garish qualities, neon signs, etc., mirroring the modernisation of society.

The stone carving of the lion is striking as it symbolises power and strength (maybe a reference here to the Metro Goldwyn Meyer lion?)  At dramatic points in the film, there is a quick cut to the lion, perhaps to remind us that film is a powerful medium of information and influence for the people.

Two very memorable visuals are the quick flashes of Elena and Salvatore in a bed of greenery, sharing food and love, followed by the lovers running through a cornfield, laughing and calling to each other.  The brevity of the shots may have been intended to emphasise the brevity of the relationship.

CAMERA SHOTS/ANGLES:  Cinema Paradiso has a varied selection of camera shots and angles.  On screen, we are shown the history of film and we can see the development and progression of film techniques in clips from a selection of films.  Within the cinema itself, the audience are viewed by the use of under shots, over shots and side shots often taken at unusual angles.

One feature that stands out is the one where Alfredo is advising Toto to leave Giancaldo and as his hands pass over Toto’s face, Toto becomes a young adult.  We quickly realise that Toto has been the projectionist in the cinema now for many years (since Alfredo’s unfortunate accident) and that nothing has changed.  There is something very unsettling in this, which illustrates how Toto is wasting his life in the confines of the Cinema Paradiso.

At the end of the film, the technique of superimposing one picture over another is used and with brilliant effect, giving the impression of a reflection in a car window as Salvatore looks out on the countryside.

We see a very clever variation on a camera angle at the funeral when the shot is taken from inside the hearse looking out at the mourners.  It resembles a television screen as the rear window of the hearse frames the picture.  (Not only is this Alfredo’s funeral but also a funeral for cinema and the old ways which are being replaced by the new fangled ideas such as television!?)  Towards the end of the film there is a greater variety of camera techniques displayed, showing the viewers that things have really changed and advanced since Salvatore left thirty years ago.  Now everything is presented differently.

(Read the excellent review on Cinema Paradiso by Barbara Poyner – it is very good in this area.)

LIGHTING:  The lighting in Cinema Paradiso is very cleverly manipulated to echo the content of the film.  Lighting constantly changes in this film.  We see it changing within the films themselves shown on screen, and also inside and outside the actual cinema.  Much of the film is set in the small room in the cinema where Alfredo and Toto are either cutting and splicing films or showing them.  The projection room is small and usually dark or shadowy.  One moment we can see Alfredo and Toto in the shadowy reel room and suddenly it changes to the square outside; we almost have to blink to adjust to the change in lighting.  When the cinema becomes modernised and Toto takes over, suddenly the room is bigger and awash with light.  The film begins with Salvatore in his bed, beginning to dream of home in the dark.  At the end we see him in his own private viewing room, in the dark, viewing his legacy from Alfredo – the reel of stolen kisses.

SOUND:  The sound effects in Cinema Paradiso are extremely appropriate.  The outstanding feature in this area is the music of Ennio Morricone which is as much a part of the film as anything else and which does so much to create the emotional responses sought by its director, Tornatore.  The soft music at emotional moments (often deliberately muffled to suggest poor and primitive sound systems) emphasises the strength of the relationship between Alfredo and Toto and between Toto and Elena.  One instance where the music is light-hearted is where Toto is racing from one village to another and back again, against the clock, to get the second part of the film.  The music is racing too, as speed is the important issue here and so the suspense is very well conveyed.

Often, there are silences when something significant happens.  When Salvatore’s mother tries to contact him, silence is used to highlight the tension.  A sound of thunder contrasts with this after Salvatore hears the news that Alfredo is dead.  Also at the funeral, silence is used effectively.

It is interesting to note that the flashback sequences in the film are announced by the sound of chimes or bells and this is a very clever use of sound.

So now, take a break – sit back and luxuriate in the haunting music of the soundtrack!

LANGUAGE:  The whole film is spoken in the Sicilian dialect, and subtitled for English speakers; therefore much of the richness of the language is lost on the non-Italian speaker.  However, the facial expressions of Toto as a child and the tender expressions of Alfredo are all the more meaningful.  A good example of this is the way in which Elena is first presented.  The absence of language makes her appearance more effective.

SYMBOLS:  There are many symbols in the film, some obvious and others partly hidden.  The church and religious images feature quite frequently.  In fact, at the beginning, the church and the cinemas are almost indistinguishable.  At the end, the cinema is transformed into something almost unrecognisable in comparison.  The statue of Mary is present on occasions to remind us of the strength of the Church in all areas of society, but she fades away and is notably absent at the end.  It is interesting to note that when Salvatore manages to speak to Elena in church, she uncannily resembles the statue of Mary.

The symbol of anchors is also very prevalent, especially when Salvatore returns from military service.  He goes with Alfredo to the sea and they speak.  Salvatore nervously tells jokes in an effort to show a brave face.  Alfredo tells him again that he should leave.  Sicily is an island and they are by the seashore surrounded by rusty anchors that seek to keep Salvatore anchored to the island.

The half-hidden symbols include the mother’s ball of wool, which we notice on his return.  She gets up to answer the door and let Salvatore back into their lives and as she does so the knitting begins to unravel signifying the unravelling of the years.