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Friday, 10 July 2020

Cinema Paradiso


The death this week of Ennio Morricone prompted us to watch Cinema Paradiso again for the seventh or eighth time. Some dismiss it as sentimental claptrap but it isn’t, even though it makes me both laugh and cry. It is so good you hardly notice it is in Italian with subtitles.

It has been described as a love letter to the cinema. The plot is deceptively straightforward: Salvatore Di Vita, a wealthy, successful, middle aged film director, hears that Alfredo, a father-figure from his childhood, has died. His thoughts drift back to growing up just after the Second World War in Giancaldo, a small Sicilian town where Alfredo is the projectionist at the local cinema. Alfredo allows eight-year-old Salvatore to watch films from the projection booth and teaches him to operate the projector. Their roles then are partly reversed when Alfredo is blinded in an accident. Later, as a teenager, Salvatore falls in love with the classy Elena but they lose touch when he goes off for military service. Afterwards, Alfredo tells him to get away to follow his dreams, never to come back and not to write. Salvatore leaves to become a filmmaker.

It is far more than a simple coming-of-age story. It is as if Salvatore’s memories become our own. It parallels the lives of the boomer generation. For me, post-war Sicily has echoes in the ‘bomb buildings’, the piles of rubble that lined the streets of nineteen-fifties urban England. Giancaldo is like Catholic Belgium in 1965, glimpsed through faces attending church and cinema where, with language taken away, I had to watch and understand gestures and expressions. In fact, in both looks and passions, the teenage Salvatore is uncannily like my Belgian language-exchange pen-friend. You feel the passage of time, not just from child to young adult but at the end where forgotten faces, older and wiser, reappear at Alfredo’s funeral. In real life we now even call them Cinema Paradiso moments.

One of the characters in the audience at the Paradiso cinema knows the films so well he mouths along with the dialogue. That is me with Cinema Paradiso. I am Alfredo, a true sage, a man without pretension, entirely at home in his own skin. “I choose my friends for their looks, my enemies for their intelligence”. Except I can’t do it in Italian. 
Alfredo: You have to go away for a long time... many years... before you can come back and find your people. … Right now you're blinder than I am.

Salvatore: Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?

Alfredo: No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it’s all me. Life isn’t like in the movies. Life... is much harder. … Get out of here! Go back to Rome. You’re young and the world is yours. I don’t want to hear you talk any more. I want to hear others talking about you. Don’t come back. Don’t think about us. Don’t look back. Don’t write. Don’t give in to nostalgia. Forget us all. If you do and you come back, don’t come see me. I won’t let you in my house. Understand? … Whatever you end up doing, love it. The way you loved the projection booth when you were a little squirt.
And underlying it all is Ennio and Andrea Morricone’s haunting, lilting score. Beautiful.


I watched the international version which runs for 124 minutes. There is also a fifty minutes longer “director’s cut” in which the middle-aged Salvatore goes in search of and finds Elena. Reviews say it is not as good but I’d still like to see it. The director is Guiseppe Tornatore. 

There are several other versions of the trailer on YouTube, some with an irritating voiceover giving the false impression that it is indeed sentimental claptrap.

37 comments:

  1. Morricone's scores are amazing. I haven't watched Cinema Paradiso in years, but feel inclined to do so now after reading your post!

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    1. We heard about him on the news, started singing the music, and watching our old DVD inevitably followed. The music has been in my head for 3 days.

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  2. I did not know Ennio Morricone had departed. I saw Paradiso in the GFT, which is the old Cosmo Cinema, built by a film-loving Hungarian for Glaswegians who wanted to see foreign language movies as you did.
    My older brother George Haggerty had the Morricone CDs. He went to the National Film School when it opened in Beaconsfield in 1971. His widow lives in LA, trained as an editor, and worked her whole life with Twentieth Century Fox. She did her thesis at UCLA on Hitch's Vertigo.

    As a student at the Glasgow School of Art, George saw the Italian films he loved at the Cosmo: Visconti, Rossellini, Fellini, Pasolini, and Bertolucci's The Conformist which has a superb soundtrack. He loved Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves, which resonated with our Italian aunt who grew up in pre-war Livorno. He told me how Selznick cut, or butchered, De Sica's Matrimonio all'Italiana, with Jennifer Jones (Selznick's wife) and Montgomery Clift, still on DVD. He loved The Garden of the Finzi Contini.
    George's work as a documentary film-maker is on DVD, all about LA where he lived for 30 years and called Psychopolis, but his heart was always in Italy and France.
    The most beautifully designed books on film I have seen were published by Ilex in Lewis in 2012: I have three of these Film Craft books, on Editing, Producing, and Cinematography; but when I tried ordering the other three in the series, the bookseller said they were out of print. Alas I never showed them to George, because I had not seen him in 15 years. He was the best nonprofessional chef I ever met. Italian mostly.

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    1. Sorry, I meant to write Ilex, LEWES, Sussex.
      The other four books in the series I would like are: Directing (Clint Eastwood on the cover), Screenwriting, Costume Design, Production Design.

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    2. George sounds an interesting character, but what did you think of Paradiso?

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    3. You quote Alfredo's advice: *Don't give in to nostalgia. Forget us all.* Cinema Paradiso is more than the coming of age story as you write. It is more like a Flaubertian L'education sentimentale, though it is no more possible to be sentimental about prewar Sicily (as Visconti knew) than about Flaubert's vicious and cynical Paris or indeed New York today.
      If this is a homage to cinema it is unlike Woody Allen. *Don't give in to nostalgia,* because that would be to give in to falsehood.
      In Fellini's Ottoe Mezzo, Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is a film director in search of a subject, and he is told (by a film critic!) that his childhood memories are too sentimental to be used directly. Cinema Paradiso negotiates these dangers in a way that Woody Allen, as much as we admire him, never does. Alfredo's blindness seems too symbolic, though sight and blindness interest me: watch Notes On Blindness directed by Peter Middleton from a memoir by John Hull, available on DVD. Cinema has become our dream life, which is why we can echo the lines of our favourite movies. Interestingly, John Hull said that after being blind for five years, he stopped dreaming in images; his inner cinema stopped working and he no longer saw the faces of his children.

      Your memories of *gestures and expressions* in Catholic Belgium is significant because cinema lost something with the arrival of sound, which Chaplin understood as did the Italian directors. The love story with Elena is told in looks and gestures, and reminded me of a blog I visited yesterday, The Boldly Heroic Benedetta Barzini: Marxist Model and Muse. Benedetta like Princess Diana had the power to engage the world's attention just with her eyes and a smile or soulful glance. We grow old, if we are lucky; and nature is the greatest ironist of all. Cinema Paradiso understands this: the faces of our favourite film stars remain young forever.

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    4. *Everything is delegated to photography, and nothing is left to one's own memory.*
      The Disappearing Act of Benedetta Barzini by Conor Williams, January 2020. Interview, online.
      The demon of images. *Life isn't like in the movies.*

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    5. Interesting analysis. There are many more other references in Cinema Paradiso than I will ever be aware of, both film and classical, and subsequent references in other films to CP itself. There are subtle symbols (bells, perspectives enlarging, threads unravelling) and references to issues such as class, ethnicity, parent/child relationships and progress. It really is an extremely clever film. I bet Rachel's film class would have a fantastic time with it.

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    6. Yes, the film is woven from many threads which is why I would like to see the director's version. True wisdom as Augustine says in his Confessions cuts us, like the phrase *I choose my enemies for their intelligence*. Novelists say their books are more intelligent than they are because they were working at such intensity. Cinema is both the auteur and group intelligence.
      Film can't show thought but actors can, in their eyes. What would Cinema Paradiso have been like if it had been done by Pasolini, or Terence Davies in pre-war Liverpool? I watched the YouTube trailer of the documentary by Benedetta Barzini's son; she wants to disappear from the camera altogether as if to say, like Alfredo in the film, *Forget me!*

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  3. I remember seeing this movie in the theatres when it came out so many years ago. I remember it had a very powerful ending.

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    1. It has the most life-affirming ending of any film I know.

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  4. I am not a cinema goer Tasker but I do love sub titles as I am very deaf. I particularly love sub titles on Italian stuff and am addicted to Inspector Montalbano on TV - am just watching them through for the second time on iplayer and also The Young Montalbano on Saturday evenings on BBC Four.

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    1. On our DVD the subtitles are very clear and I can read them without my glasses from 6 feet away. It's irritating when, like on the BBC archive rock and pop music programmes, they use sub-titles to provide background information so small and so quickly you miss it.

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  5. Like Pat also not a film goer, but love your description of Cinema Paradiso, not sure it would be my cup of tea though. Have been watching Mrs.America, Cate Blanchett, exceptionally well played.

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    1. It isn't everyone's cup of tea - the term "sentimental claptrap" came from a work colleague who went to see after I mentioned it when it first came out. Although like many films it is unashamedly emotional, I don't see it as sentimental or nostalgic in the sense of wanting the past to return.

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  6. I would like to watch the original version with no subtitles. It would be interesting to find out whether the characters actually speak Sicilian, a language (not simply an Italian dialect) I feel quite at home in.

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    1. I understand that the original Italian version was not as successful as the international one, and was about 20 minutes longer to include part of the re-finding Elena story mentioned in my footnote. Tornatore is from Bagheria near Palermo and the film was made in that area so I would be interested in hearing how Sicilian it is.

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  7. When I saw the name Ennio Morricone I must admit I thought the post was going to be about him in spite of the heading to the post. I am not familiar with that film but will see if I can get hold of a copy. I would like to see it now you have whet my appetite. I almost wrote about Morricone this week.

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    1. As Bea says, Morricone's scores are amazing and I'd like to read what you say about him. Our copy of CP is on a newspaper-freeby DVD we got many years ago. I could watch it again and again but it's not for everyone. I think you'd like the film clips and references in it - there are lists on the internet for those like me who only recognise one or two.

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    2. As I've responded to Hameld above, I bet your film class would have an interesting time dissecting it.

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    3. Yes, we would. I just had a look through my notes to see if it was ever mentioned but we tended to be looking at films of the 50s and 60s and it wasn't. I made fairly extensive notes at each session much to the amusement of some in the class but I am jolly glad I did. It is so easy to forget ground covered. If I write about Morricone it would be the discovery that he wrote 500 films scores when he is mainly remembered for just the spaghetti westerns.

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    4. That's quite astonishing, especially as in the obituaries this week it was said he didn't consider himself exclusively a composer of film scores.

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    5. I think I will write about Morricone on my blog so hold back on further response to your reply.

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  8. Morricone's scores were beautiful. I haven't seen CP although it's been on 'my list' for a long time (obviously). Thanks to your post it has moved up to the top. I look forward to seeing it one day.

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    1. I seem to have interested quite a few in it.

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  9. I'm a big fan of Italian film, they always manage to tug at the heart strings. Have you seen Il Postino? We loved it so much that we went to the Aeolian Islands just to look. (Capers were for sale everywhere!)

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    1. Haven't seen that but think I'd like it. Again Philippe Noiret is in it.

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    2. If you liked Il Postino, you'd like a 1983 Spanish film, The South.
      The director Victor Erice planned a three hour movie, but the producer limited the shoot to 90 minutes. It went to Cannes.
      Set in northern Spain, the film follows the inner life of a sensitive girl (Sonsoles Aranguren) and her father (Omero Antonutti) who is from southern Spain, and whose lost love was a film actress. The girl follows her father to the town's picture palace where he watches his old girlfriend in a movie.
      One of my sisters who studied Spanish and French told me about it years ago, but I only found the DVD last year. Again a good score.

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    3. Having just watched the trailer of El sur on YouTube, I decided I must watch the DVD tomorrow. I forgot how well the father-daughter story is played and how beautiful the landscape. Images and editing create a visual symphony. Victor Erice made The Spirit of the Beehive which I never did see.

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  10. Good to see Wilde's best quotation here. As a student I loved all those dark Italian films, not sure how I'd face them today; I'm less patient.

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    1. In shortened form, which makes it more direct and punchy. Alfredo had seen too many films.

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    2. A projectionist has a film-intensive life. I remember being inside the projector room of a cinema in Clydebank. They were showing The Getaway with Steve McQueen. The cinema's manager held up the film for me to see. McQueen was holding up a bank with Ali McGraw and you could see the sequence frame by frame. I love the purity of cinema, the purity of the light. Watching a DVD gives me dry eyes though I am grateful to see movies in my home.

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    3. The quality of the sound as well. I just commented elsewhere that it is often forgotten that until the nineteen-seventies the cinema was one of the few places you heard high fidelity stereo.

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    4. Yes, high fidelity stereo, the mark of commercial cinema. Norman Mailer's early underground film, Maidstone, had scenes where you could not hear the actors. John Cassavetes shot low-budget movies with his friends Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, but you could hear every word in films like Husbands or The Death of A Chinese Bookie. I was watching YouTube on the filming of a scene in Howard's Way on BBC, and the actress said how they had microphones attached to their clothes as they walked up a hill, booms weren't possible. Now video cameras have quality sound. I am impressed by the clarity of films on YouTube shot by kids.

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  11. Late to the party

    I studied him in university and can appreciate his skil especially when he playfully entered the spaghetti western genre with his bells and whistles and percussion

    But it his " Deborah's theme " from ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
    That lingers long in the mind.
    From what I have read about him it is the anecdotal recollections that he was a lovely guy that also lingers long in the mind

    Thank you for this post x

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    1. I like every Morricone piece I've heard. Although my post is really about CP, it was Morricone in the news that prompted us to watch it again after a gap of around 10 years.

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