Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) shows the nostalgia of boyhood in an idyllic Italian town encumbered with romance, friendship, and memories of films in a wistful paradise, is lost, revived, and again lost in the local cinema house. The postmodern fear of death of the cinema is imminent in the film as fire destroys the old theatre. However, the rebuilding of the theatre shows a revival of the cinema. As time moves on, cinema and viewers undergo a drastic change.
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Television makes cinema houses outdated. Similarly, in the film, the old cinema house is demolished to make space for a parking lot, indicating the redundancy of the theatre. This expresses the fear for cinema as an endangered medium. I believe, Cinema Paradiso echoes the fear of demise of cinema as a medium. The cinema within cinema and the stress on the nostalgic rumination of the classic films uphold the postmodern theatre’s persistent fear of imminent extinction.
Thesis statement – Cinema Paradiso, through its reflections of the past, expresses a nostalgia and fear for the perceived demise of the old medium and an attempt to break free from the old forms in search of a new space.
Cinema Paradiso, the small theatre in the town was full, and a small crowd stood outside the closed doors of the theatre (Tornatore). Alfredo was busy in the projection room while Salvatore lingered. Suddenly, Alfredo had an idea. He used a mirror to intercept the beam of the light from the projector and focused on the façade of a white building outside the theatre. This brings the film alive on the walls of the building, outside the theatre, like magic.
The spellbound crowd cheers as the spectacle of the cinema engulf the walls. The symbolism of this scene lies in the cinema’s desire to leave the traditional space and transgress to new locations. The scene metaphorically shows how classical cinema was at a crossroad and had to change its location and embrace new environments to bring the image and sound alive. It shows that the small theatres where unable to meet the rising demand for cinema.
The transgression of the image out of the confines of the theatre initially shows that the images move from one location to the other until it reaches the right wall. When Alfredo projects the image without a screen the image vanishes and then reappears as it falls on a wall as if it was disappearing in the nebulous space. However, when it fell on the wall, it reappeared with the same vigor, signifying that nothing is lost. The image found a new space for existence on the wall of the building opposite Cinema Paradiso.
The second theme expressed in the film is the postmodern fear of death of the cinema. After the cinema is projected outside and everyone had started enjoying the newness of the cinema, a fire breaks out in the projection room and burns the Cinema Paradiso to dust (Tornatore). Thus, the death symbolism abounds as the cinema leaves its predestined space – the theatre. Symbolically, the shift of the image from its natural destination brings forth doom, signified by the building on fire.
The fire burns Alfredo and he becomes permanently blind. Symbolically, Alfredo has to pay the price for shifting the space of the cinema from the old (the theatre) to the new (outside the theatre). Thus, the space and the controller of the cinema face permanent disability. The scene implicitly signifies that a shift from the natural course may appear like magic but it is dangerous, as one may not know how the new should be controlled. The fear of the death of the cinema often engulfs the postmodern who believed moving out of the predetermined space will corrupt the cinematic aesthetics.
The third theme shows the revival of cinema. Salvatore rescues Alfredo from the burnt building. Though Salvatore is blinded (death of the old order), his memories are saved as he lives. The theatre is rebuilt as the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, indicating a revival of cinema (Tornatore). The old, blinded projectionist is incapable of working and so the young Salvatore takes his place. Symbolically, the scene states that as the old is destroyed, the new takes its place, but the medium does not die.
Cinema remains unchanged even though the medium has changed. The old Cinema Paradiso is shown as an old theatre with architecture that resounded the image of yesteryear. The poster hanging on the walls of the theatre was that of old movies with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in it. However, when the new cinema house is made on the rubbles of the old theatre, it gets a makeover with a new projection system, whitewashed walls, and a larger screen.
It almost seems like the old theatre was small for the changing time that demanded a larger space. It showed its desire for a larger space to move outside the cinema house. As the fire destroyed the old theatre, a new, bigger theatre had to be built. Thus, cinema shifted from a smaller to a larger screen. This signifies the symbolic change in the medium in which cinema is viewed. In post-second world war Italy, the only place where one could watch a film was in the theatre. This altered with the change in technology. Today we watch films in television, DVD, computer, tablets, and even mobile phones. Nevertheless, cinema existed, though the medium in which it is viewed changed.
The film ends with the fear of death of cinema. Alfredo had passed away and Salvatore, absent for a long time from the town, had returned for his funeral. He returns to find the town changed. He looks at the town, and memories flood back to the golden days of Cinema Paradiso. However, he finds out that the theatre was to be demolished to build a parking place. This shows the significance of the theatre to the town was lost as was the films of the old days.
However, Alfredo restored the film clippings of the old, cut, sequences for Salvatore, which were cut due to the censorship of the town priest, into one film. The old, cut film sequences were restored into one, seamless sequence that restored the old films in Salvatore’s memory. This gift was filled with memories, nostalgia, and longing for the bygone days. Though the acceptance of the new is embedded in this symbol filled film, the past is restored in the memory of the few people who cherished it.
The nostalgia and fear are innate in the beginning of Cinema Paradiso. The nostalgia of the old movies, old cinema houses, and old technology is evident with the choice of films, the atmosphere of the theatre, and the setting of the projection room. Social change in the little Italian town was evident as the censorship of the local priest stopped with the burning of the old theatre. The new theatre had a new projectionist, as the old one, Alfred had to quit.
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The fear of death of the old order is imminent in the film as the movie begins and ends with Alfred’s death. This incident severed Salvatore’s attachment to the town completely. However, the old film clippings of the censored sequences renewed Alfred’s connection with the past. Therefore, Cinema Paradiso shows nostalgic memories of the old cinemas, the fear of the death of cinema (and the old order of life), and a way to let the old and the new to coexist.
Tornatore, Giuseppe, dir. Cinema Paradiso. Les Films Ariane, 1988. Film.