Video Vault: Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso
Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore
1988 / Italy, France
Rated PG / 123 minutes
Vault Rating: 9

A few weeks ago, I told you how I’d just watched this grand old film, “Cinema Paradiso,” in its director’s cut. I told you it was one of the best 24 films of all time.
Here is why.

Many films deal in passion but few ever get to the heart of the matter. Passion comes in many forms and is often rather cheap. Today’s film, in whichever format you get it (original, international or director’s cut release), is an homage of staggering beauty to the power of the movies.

It is obviously drawn from director Giuseppe Tornatore’s own experience of growing up in a small Italian town where the cinema, sitting prominently on a square that reeks of old Italy, was literally in the center of both the town’s life and a little boy’s world.

Young Salvatore (a magical performance by child actor Salvatore Cascio), haunts the theater, and especially the wizened projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), at every opportunity, often to the exasperation of his lonely mother who longs for her husband’s return from war.

Salvatore’s mother reigns blows upon him for buying tickets with the little she’s given him to go to market and makes Alfredo promise never to allow the boy in the theater again. The best promises, apparently, are the ones never kept.

Alfredo takes the boy, who he nicknames Toto, under his wing and the child grows up in the flickering light of this paradise, watching and learning from the old man and gaining a vast film education. And his perspective is subtly altered as he gains not only a view to film, but – importantly – to its effect on the audience.

This is a true love story about the passing of a torch and the igniting of life-long passions.

It opens with an elderly woman trying desperately to phone her son, an important film director, to inform him of Alfredo’s death. Tornatore then retreats into memory, revealing a charming village full of stories.

There is a town Vicar who acts as a censor. He previews every film that comes to town and humorously signals his displeasure any time the steam starts to rise or a blouse or bed sheet threatens to rumple. Alfredo then marks and edits out the lustful celluloid and we are left to wonder if the townspeople will ever get to see the good parts.

There is a homeless man, credited as “village idiot,” who inhabits the town square as his own after the nightly late show and vigorously shepherds the townsfolk out of his square before curling up in the lap of a central monument.

And then there is little Toto, who steals snippets of celluloid and keeps them like treasure, and holds them up to the light and recites dialogue flawlessly in his quiet hours. It is a film that makes me weep from beginning to end.

You know, there was a time when the movie theater in a local town held a place of reverence. It was a time before television, cable and home theaters diminished the cinema’s singular magic. In my youth, there were but three television channels and nobody had dreamed of surround sound and flat panels. You could get a Saturday matinee double-feature of “Green Slime” and “Godzilla Vs. King Kong” at the Ritz for fifty cents.

Going back further, in the village we consider today, the cinema was the place where the news of the world came ashore, where great works of art carried people away, where lovers touched furtively in the dark. This paradise clearly represented the beating heart of a lovely place now out of time.

The beauty of this film is that it plays in and evokes the world of memory. Some scenes in the film are unforgettable, such as when Alfredo, at the urging of a throng outside, decides to screen one more late, late show. He is but a simple projectionist but with the ability to make crowds swoon.

The power of film has scarcely diminished over the years for those of us who ruminate in the Vault. The power of the cinema today is ever so evident when viewing Tornatore’s treasure, “Cinema Paradiso.”

NOTES: We, in the Vault, are reconfiguring our Top 24 of All Time due to today’s feature. Subject to review among our members… and I’m going to have to defend kicking “Star Wars” down to honorable mention status, I’m sure… here is THE list.

1. Schindler’s List
2. Magnolia
3. Citizen Kane
4. Maborosi
5. A Clockwork Orange
6. Cinema Paradiso
7. Blade Runner
8. Singin’ in the Rain
9. The Wizard of Oz
10. A Streetcar Named Desire
11. City Lights
12. Psycho
13. The Maltese Falcon
14. The Third Man
15. The Seventh Seal
16. Breaking the Waves
17. Amarcord
18. The 400 Blows
19. On the Waterfront
20. My Neighbor Totoro
21. Babette’s Feast
22. Jean de Florette
23. A Christmas Story
24. Groundhog’s Day

You can send all complaints to and I’ll be happy to broker the fighting. I know Rob from Altoona is gonna kill me over the “Star Wars” thing. I’m getting ready.

TO THE VAULT MAIL: Chuck from Clearfield sent along a recommendation for a film we missed called “The Fall.” I promised a treatment and, in perhaps the fastest turn around in Vault history, here it is.

“The Fall” is the vibrant 2006 effort by Tarsem Singh that involves a little girl with a broken arm and a Hollywood stuntman with (at least) a broken hip who are convalescing from a pair of bad falls in a 1920s era L.A. hospital. The stuntman, in dire pain, entices the girl to scout the apothecary for morphine by offering to continue his wild tale of six adventurers bent on vengeance against the evil Governor Odious.

Seldom have I seen a film of such vivid and playful imagery. Many of the frames are almost Dali-esque. Meanwhile, bubbling underneath the fancy is a story that plays out like a cross-hatching of “The Princess Bride” and “Scheherazade.” There is real drama and fear here while someone is saving someone’s neck. But we can’t be sure who is saving who as the story dives deeper into the stuntman’s increasingly fractured mind.

A really good choice, Chuck. We are in your debt.

Until next time, enjoy!

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