For some reason, I had never gotten around to seeing this 1988 classic, despite it winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix, and five BAFTA Awards. But I’m glad I watched it last night so I can add it to my Movies You Might Not Know list today.
“Cinema Paradiso” is the story of Salvatore, who gets a phone message that a man named Alfredo has died. As we see him reflecting sadly on this news, the film flashes back to when he was a small boy in Giancaldo, Sicily, shortly after World War II. Alfredo, we learn, was the projectionist at the town’s movie theater, which was the only source of entertainment.
Salvatore, known in those years as Toto, was enamored of movies, but even more fascinated by Alfredo’s job, which involved not only loading the reels into the projector, but also cutting out scenes the local priest (who owned the theater) determined were too racy to be exhibited publicly — including simple moments of men and women kissing. Alfredo was supposed to paste the deleted segments back into the reels before they were sent to the next town, but Salvatore collected some of the scraps of film as souvenirs.
Since the film stock in those days was made of silver nitrate, it was highly flammable, so it was perhaps inevitable that a fire would break out in the projection booth, destroying the interior of the theater but also blinding Alfredo. When a wealthy local man put up the money to rebuild the Cinema Paradiso, the only person he could hire to run the projector was the very young Salvatore, who was thrilled to have the opportunity and stayed on the job through his teen years.
Along the way, we see subplots including a love interest, squabbles in the community, and more. But the heart of “Cinema Paradiso” is the relationship between Salvatore and Alfredo, which continues even after the fire.
Director Giuseppe Tornatore based Giancaldo on his small Sicilian hometown, complete with a wide piazza with a fountain in the center, and everyone in his cast looks like they lived there. But the best decision he made was hiring nine-year-old Salvatore Cascio to play young Salvatore. He’s incredibly cute in every scene, whether it’s sitting in the theater watching a story play out on the screen, being captivated watching Alfredo work, or hanging around his peers. His simple joy for all things movie-related makes “Cinema Paradiso” an absolute gem.