The increasing abundance of films about films, such as The Artist, Hugo and Super 8, gives us a chance to reflect on similarly self-reflexive efforts which have come before. The best effort by far remains Peeping Tom, Michael Powell's misunderstood masterpiece which compares the art of film directing to the macabre murders of a serial killer, and paints its audience as voyeurs.
At the other end of the emotional scale, we have Cinema Paradiso, a beautiful and elegiac drama by Giuseppe Tornatore about the life of a young boy who becomes the projectionist of his local cinema. While it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of Peeping Tom, it is still a great film, a product of genuine passion and honesty which rivals 8 1/2 in its emotional peaks.
Like 8 1/2 before it, Cinema Paradiso emphasises the magical and fantastical quality of cinema. While both films have a deliberately nostalgic tone, Tornatore is more understated than Fellini: he resists throwing the kitchen sink at us in the first twenty minutes, and allows both the story and the characters to gently build over two hours (or nearly three, in the director's cut). While Fellini emphasises the technical power and self-reflexive nature of cinema, the great strength of Tornatore's film is its marriage of great characters with the celebration of a powerful medium.
When reviewing the Three Colours trilogy with his colleague Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert commented on the different approaches in European and American cinema with regard to character construction and development. American films, he argued, set up their characters very broadly with clearly defined traits and aims: we know what they are about from the outset, and since most of them conform to genre expectations, there are very few genuine surprises. European films, on the other hand, leave a lot more to the imagination of the audience: because we don't have everything laid before us, we have to think more and in doing so the process of bonding with the characters becomes more unconscious.
While Ebert's comments are a big generalisation, they do ring true with Cinema Paradiso. Like many great filmmakers, Tornatore understands that the physical traits of a character are every bit as important as their name and occupation. He creates a whole series of characters that are so distinctive and endearing that there is almost no need to give them names. There's the couple who meet and fall in love because they are the only two people not to wince at a horror movie; as the film goes on, we see them grow closer, have children and become the kind of couple we can recognise, as opposed to an impossible 'Hollywood couple'.
There are other examples of this craftsmanship, which shed light on the film's playful nature and mischievous sense of humour. We have the cinema snob who spits on the cheap seats from the balcony, only to wind up getting an ice cream sandwich thrown back in his face. There is the angry old man who threatens to make the boys into mincemeat every time they make him the butt of their practical jokes. And there is the madman who claims to own the piazza, and scampers around the town like a monkey as soon as the sun goes down.
The film's nostalgic appreciation for cinema is rooted in three key observations. The first is the importance of the cinema to a community, both as a medium for entertainment and as a physical structure at which the townsfolk can mingle and congregate. When Toto returns to his home town to attend the funeral of Alfredo, he finds the old Cinema Paradiso boarded up and falling into disrepair. The hustle and bustle of townsfolk, pouring into the piazza after the latest showing, has been replaced by a feeling of poignant desolation that almost mirrors the ending of The Passenger.
The second, following on from this, is the relationship between cinema and religion, and the way in which cinema reflects, in the words of Peter Bradshaw, both the profane and the profound. The first shot we see of Toto is of him as an altar boy, dozing through mass and forgetting when to ring the bell as the sacraments are blessed. Bored and alienated by the church, he finds in the cinema not just sanctity, but a feeling of purpose and meaning. The projection booth becomes his equivalent of confession, with Alfredo as his world-weary confessor, listening patiently to everything he says and picking him up on any wrongdoings.
There have been numerous examples of filmmakers whose interest in cinema has spiritual origins. Even Terence Davies, an avowed atheist and critic of Catholicism, has accepted in interviews that his love for cinema was in some way reflective and resultant of his experiences with religion. Cinema Paradiso has a lot of Christian imagery running through it - for instance, the lion's mouth through which the films are projected could be a reference to the Daniel in the lions' den. But the film is never afraid to blow raspberries at religion when it feels it is out of line. The priest's absurd and duplicitous objection to kissing scenes provides us with both a gentle chuckle and a very moving finale.
The third observation is rooted in the more profane act of scoring with the opposite sex. When interviewed on the BBC in 1964, Alfred Hitchcock was asked whether he made films predominantly for men or for women. Hitchcock responded women, believing that they held final say over what to see or not see: the men, he argued, went along with their choices in the hope that it might get them laid. Considering the depiction of women in many of Hitchcock's films, this observation might be considered ironic, but it does allude to the romantic pull of the big screen, both as a location and as a means of finding love.
Cinema Paradiso is rife with scenes of cinema developing (or destroying) romantic love. The most obvious of these is the romantic subplot where Toto is trying to woo a girl while keeping his job as a projectionist. Both the girl he fancies and his projection work are depicted as forbidden fruit - the former because her father will not allow it, the latter because it is not deemed altogether respectable. But there are other more profane or putrid kind of love on offer. In one deadpan tracking shot, we see a number of schoolboys watching an attractive lady on screen, and all silently masturbating in the front row.
Although the drama of Cinema Paradiso is at heart naturalistic, the film takes the time to incorporate and celebrate fantasy. One of the best scenes comes when Toto and the now-blind Alfredo are sat on a step, and the latter regales the former with a tale of a knight. The knight sought the heart of a beautiful lady, who promised to marry him if he waited under her balcony non-stop for 100 days and nights. The knight waited patiently for 99 days and nights, before finally giving up and leaving with his heart broken. Toto is taken in by the story and attempts something of that nature with his crush, but life imitates art and fantasy meets reality as he is left alone in the pouring rain, his heart bruised and a little wiser.
The performances in Cinema Paradiso are first-class, particularly from the three actors who bring Salvatore (Toto) to life. Salvatore Cascio has an impishness and inquisitiveness which is utterly believable, Marco Leonardi handles the awkwardness of adolescence very well, and Jacques Perrin is very well-cast as the worldly-worn director with mixed feelings about his past and present state. There are all beautifully complimented by Philippe Noiret as Alfredo, who resists the urge to just play a holy fool (literally blind and yet seeing) and instead gives us a memorable performance with plenty of rough edges.
Cinema Paradiso is not a perfect film. Even in its edited form, it is a little bit too long, and the final act in particular suffers from slack pacing. But this is a relatively small problem in the context of a film which has substance, brilliant characters and a heart-warming tone that will both challenge and content you. It remains Tornatore's finest and most rounded work, and one of the high points in the canon of cinema about cinema. It comes with the highest recommendation, as a film to lift your spirits and break your heart.