Khristine Shares her Favorite Italian Movies and Series

A Masterpiece: Cinema Paradiso (1989)

Just after the end of WWll in the village of Giancaldo on the Island of Sicily there lives a little boy, Salvatore, nicknamed Totò, who falls in love with “the movies.” This is the story of his lifelong enchantment with cinema, as a small child (Salvatore Cascio), as a love-struck adolescent (Marco Leonardi), and as a successful, though lost, middle-aged filmmaker (Jacques Perrin) who finds himself once again. It is also the story of a town’s people, and how their lives are inextricably linked to a building called Cinema Paradiso, where they bellow with laughter, shout each other down, make love, and shed copious tears in a way that is quintessentially Italian.

Cinema Paradiso, an Italian/French co-production, is an Italian movie nevertheless, in the Italian language, and with English subtitles in the version you will most likely see. Two of the lead actors are French (Philippe Noiret and Jacques Perrin) and their lines are dubbed in Italian, although the dubbing is so well done, you’re not likely to notice it. This wonderful, perfect movie, written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, won a string of awards from Cannes to Hollywood, garnering the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The musical score by the brilliant and prolific composer Ennio Morricone (with son Andrea) is so beautiful and so memorable, it will give you an “earworm”…one that you won’t really mind.

The movie begins with a serene view from a window on the coast of Sicily. An anxious, elderly woman is trying to reach her grown son by telephone. The wealthy and successful middle-aged filmmaker Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin) arrives late in the evening to his grand apartment in Rome and learns of the message his mother has left. His old friend Alfredo has died; the funeral will be held the following day in Giancaldo, Salvatore’s hometown which he has not returned to in thirty years.  The director masterfully uses flashback as a narrative technique to lead us back to the eight-year-old Totò as he emerges from the rubble of war and becomes a young man. One of the curious things about the movie is that there seems to be no attempt to show any continuity of physical resemblance between the three actors playing Salvatore (Totò), and yet it works. 

Totò is perhaps the most beguiling child you may ever see in a movie. He has such a mobile face, full of laughter, mischief, and at times sadness, though it passes quickly for him, as he is on to the next exciting or funny thing. His father is missing in action on the Russian front, and his mother’s emotions swing from angry to grief-stricken. In time, the family learns that the handsome young husband and father has indeed died, leaving behind his image in a couple of photographs. Toto’s true father figure becomes Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the childless, middle-aged projectionist at the small village movie theater which, apart from the church, is the central gathering place for the people of Giancaldo. Alfredo’s passion for the movies is young Totò’s as well, and the little boy teases and torments the older man until he finally gives in, training the child in the magic of the projection booth. A deep affection between them grows as they face adversity together.

One scene beautifully dissolves into another and reveals the teen-aged Totò (Marco Leonardi), and the now blind Alfredo. They rely on each other, and their relationship becomes even closer and more mature. A new theme of romantic love (unrequited, then requited, and then lost) enters the frame as Totò, holding his first amateur movie camera, observes through his lens the arrival of the luminous, refined, and self-contained Elena (Agnese Nano). Their relationship of only six months thrusts him into the next stage of his life, since he has now become acquainted with great joy and deep pain. When he returns for Alfredo’s funeral, we see that the pain of loss has left its imprint on him even as a middle-aged man. It continues to direct the way in which he lives his life until, in the final scene (one of the most beautiful and memorable in movie history), Salvatore is opened once more to an experience of joy. 

This movie is available on DVD at the Provincetown Public Library or through other affiliated CLAMS libraries.

To check out more of Khristine’s Italian movie recommendations, check out Un Progetto Speciale – Part 3!