Thanks to the merciless attack of Hollywood glitz and glamor, merchandising deals with fast food restaurants, and the fact that more money is put into special effects than building up the story and characters, it’s easy to look past the magic inherent to movies. The ability to watch our favorite characters and stories come to life, to watch struggles and sacrifices to unfold before our eyes, to see the best and worst of humanity act out before our eyes is a mighty thing and explains why cinema can be the most powerful of all media. Unfortunately, our culture is so inundated with the ritzy, shiny side of movies, with movie stars, paparazzi, and overlong awards ceremonies, that it’s probably a rare occurence that movies awaken the spark of wonder in us.
Cinema Paradiso is a movie about the wonder and mystery of movies, as played out in the life of one man. It celebrates movies, not as an artform set on some high marble pedestal, but as a magical experience of love and heroes. It celebrates movies as something that is a lifelong passion and joy, as something that can bring wonder and love to a young man’s life, and as something that can bring back cherished memories of childhood. But most importantly, it uses movies as something that can bring people together, as friends and as a community.
Salvatore, a successful movie director, receives a phone call from his mother that a man named Alfredo died. This announcement causes Salvatore to reflect on his childhood, when he first meets Alfredo, the curmudgeonly projectionist of his town’s only theatre. More than a theatre, it is a centerpiece of the whole village, where people go to forget the recent World War II, to join their friends and neighbors in laughter and tears, to get caught up in the wonder of movies.
At first, Alfredo wants nothing to do with the pesky Salvatore, but Salvatore continues to pop up, until a friendship grows between them. Alfredo evetually agrees to teach Salvatore how to be a projectionist, in exchange for help getting his diploma. After an accident leaves Alfredo blind, Salvatore becomes the town’s projectionist in the brand new Nuevo Cinema Paradiso. The movie flashes forward several years, Salvatore now a young man who meets his first love. But through it all is his friendship with Alfredo, who continues to encourage and advise his young friend until the day Salvatore leaves town.
Although the subject of cinema itself never becomes a primary focus of Cinema Paradiso, it permeates the entire movie. In other words, you never find the characters engaged in some great cinematic debate. In Cinema Paradiso, movies are more than entertainment. They are a rallying point for a community, an escape, a love, and a foundation for a friendship. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice to say, it is incredibly satisfying. It is the most fitting tribute to the love that existed between Salvatore and Alfredo, a love that was always expressed through movies.