Cinema Paradiso was a film that was on my list for a long, long time. As a huge fan of Ennio Morricone (see my blog The Magnificence of Ennio Morricone…), I first became aware of the picture through his discography. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how much l would enjoy this film. Whilst I expected the music to be great, having already heard the instantly recognisable “love theme”, and reading it had won acclaim upon international release, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect other than to feel an appreciation for the film making. After watching the film I’m not ashamed to say I was in tears. To me this is the perfect example of film and music working side by side to present a deep, thought provoking piece of visual art. Let me say why, but if you haven’t seen the film, I will be touching on details so go and watch it before you read any more!
Firstly, I will start with my area of expertise - the music. By now most people revere and recognise Morricone for his work on Spaghetti Westerns and big moving pieces. This score alternatively, feels much more personal. Not only was he working with a fellow Italian, director Giuseppe Tornatore, on a much smaller independent production, he was also working along side his son to produce the soundtrack. It was in fact his son, Andrea, who wrote the epic love theme that acts as a recurring motif throughout, whilst Morricone arranged the orchestration. However, because it is so personal it perfectly reflects the story being told. The story of a man looking back on his youth and journey to becoming who he is today. Something that Morricone could have done himself to produce such a masterpiece. Working with his son seems to have encouraged that, as many see shades of their younger selves in their children.
The score expertly rises and falls in both it’s melody and it’s dynamics reflecting the peaks and troughs we have in life. While we grow, we also falter, but it is all part of learning. The occasional use of a xylophone and a jaunty violin evoke feelings of mischief and childhood that are so present in the early stages of the film. Then the gentle piano and woodwind sections bring a maturity with their jazz like quality in the later scenes as protagonist Toto reaches adulthood. It’s an incredible ranging score all brought together by the sweeping strings that match the sensation of being swept away within a film. Morricone never feels the need to burst out with bombastic percussion or sharp staccato notes to shock the listener into feeling tension, even in the dramatic scene where the eponymous Cinema Paradiso burns down. Instead, he maintains uniformity by using pulsing chords on the piano and elevating the volume, and thus power, of the string section. The score is a journey, much like life, one continuous road, not a series of set pieces that can be boxed up into sections. The film itself shows this, each decision affects another. Even though it skips ahead in time, it is clear every moment in the past has informed the future.
This brings me to the filmmaking itself. This is not only outstanding in it’s score but it’s a feat of storytelling. For a film that spans decades, strangely not a lot happens but by the end of it you’ll feel like you have lived the life of Toto. Drawing from his own experiences and filming in his home town in Sicily, director Giuseppe Tornatore creates an encapsulation of youth, particularly for boys. From Toto disobeying his mother and winding up in trouble, to befriending a father figure whom he looks up to. At least one of these experiences everyone can relate to, and matched with the soul-touching music, it motivates you to retrace your own life. As well, it is a film that in many ways was ahead of it’s time. In recent years nostalgia has become rampant in media, be it through belated sequels, reboots or style trends. This is a film that teaches you, that whilst nostalgia is powerful, not everything is as perfect as you remember. When Toto returns in the “present” to his home town he sees much of it has changed. The Cinema Paradiso lays bare for demolition, the faces he knew as a child have now grown old and weary and the town has lost it’s classic charm with modern cars occupying the historic square. However, it doesn’t dwell on the misery and instead with the ending scene reminds us that the love we find between one another perseveres beyond the destructions of time.
In terms of the visuals, it’s a beautiful film and clearly a celebration of cinema itself. The cinematography by Blasco Giurato highlights this, ranging from wide establishing crane shots to close ups of characters reacting in the theatre. The background is pulled out of focus, visualising how the world outside becomes obsolete once you are enthralled in a film. In another aspect the misé-en-scene has exaggerated colours, such as the purple and orange hues of a sunset to capitalise on how the past can become exaggerated itself. This in turn only adds further to the film’s message.
The humanity in the acting shines in this effecting film, particularly by Salvatore Cascio as the youngest version of Toto, who steals the show. He has a smile and cheekiness that brings you right back to being a child without being annoying or unconvincing. The main heft of acting however comes down to Philippe Noiret as Alfredo. As the projectionist and Toto’s father figure he conveys the heavy lessons of life throughout the film via the stories he tells and his noticeable world weary nature. But at the same time, manages to always come across as loving and caring. Never more so than when he pushes Toto to leave town, even if Toto doesn’t see it himself. Noiret blends so well into the character that you understand this is a man who has seen everything the town has to offer and wants Toto to have more - there is only so much he can experience in these confines. This is exemplified in the final scene where Toto watches Alfredo’s passing gift - a super cut of every kiss cut out of the Cinema Paradiso’s reels by the local churchman when Toto was a boy. Toto finally understands that Alfredo wanted him to see the town was restricting him, and only by pushing him to go, could he reach his true potential - a decision we all have to make at a certain point in life. It’s only through Noiret’s characterisation that this scene feels earned. His repertoire with each version of Toto leading up to this point makes this scene entirely believable. This is all lead by Tornatore’s direction, knowing exactly where he wants his characters to end up and the prevailing message the audience should be left with.
As much as the filmmaking and music stand out on their own, they work as a harmony. One without the other would feel unfinished. Morricone beautifully captures the coming of age in his music so you understand this film even without context. Equally, Tornatore provides a visual stimulus to engage the audience and let them respond internally to the story being told. To me, this is a masterpiece of film, a gem of cinema. Never before, unless in a musical adaptation, have I felt the visuals and soundtrack be more interconnected to achieve a goal. I was left in tears, not out of sadness but of pure cinematic enjoyment. This is how films should leave you - fulfilled. If you haven’t watched it yet I highly recommend you do so and if you have, let me know your thoughts!