There’s magic, romance and fun in Italy’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, which has already received the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. This is only the second feature for writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, known for documentaries and TV films, but he has plugged into something vital about the hold movies have on us. Set in a small village in postwar Sicily – before TVs and VCRs – the film re-creates a time when people gathered in shoe-box theaters, like this village’s Cinema Paradiso, to watch flickering images that could conjure up the whole world.
Tornatore tells his story through the eyes of a fatherless eight-year-old boy named Salvatore, played by Salvatore Cascio, who persuades Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the Paradiso’s gruff projectionist, to take him on as an assistant. Noiret’s beautifully modulated performance blends perfectly with Cascio’s exuberance; they are both superb. For Salvatore, the outmoded projector, the frames of celluloid and the posters are all holy relics. Alfredo even permits his protégé to see uncut films before the village priest orders the excision of any glimpse of amore.
Later, Alfredo urges the adolescent Salvatore (Marco Leonardi) to find a new life outside the confining village. The boy does so, and he never looks back. When the adult Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), now a film director in Rome, returns for Alfredo’s funeral, the Paradiso is about to be razed to make way for a parking lot. Movies and the ways of seeing them have changed, and so has Salvatore, who seems detached until he receives Alfredo’s legacy – a gift too surprising to reveal – which finally allows Salvatore to weep for his loss. Tornatore’s sublime film makes it tough not to join Salvatore. Movie lovers will lose their hearts to Cinema Paradiso, not out of nostalgia, but for Tornatore’s vigorous demonstration of the enduring power of dreams.