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.