by Sam Juliano
The Ridgefield Park Rialto closed its doors on June 13, 2008. This local institution was the last single screen theater in Bergen County, New Jersey, and the only one in that domain that had shown art house movies. Opening in 1927 as a vaudeville showcase, it was soon enough transformed to a movie house in the late 30’s, and was purchased in the 70’s by a single owner. That same person held ownership with his daughter all the way to the final days, showing mainstream fare until the mid 90’s, then catering to the Indian community for Bollywood features until 2001 when the schedule was comprised exclusively of foreign language and independent films. The experiment yielded mixed results, though there were times when the 600 seat auditorium sold out, if the film was an appealing one. The inevitable cessation of operations signified the end of an era, and left bewildered customers waxing lyrical about their own personal stories related to their attendance at the venerable institution. The common lamentations were along the line that larger multiplexes had made it financially incompatible for the smaller operators to earn their keep, and equipment had become antiquated. In any case the closing of the theater was an emotional time for workers and customers, and it had some regulars scurrying for souvenirs that included posters, marquee letters and actual seats that were unscrewed from the floor by employees. Any token, big or small would provide some tangible physical evidence well into the future of a place that helped formulate dreams and escape, a movie house mecca that in the end that left a more lasting impression than even the splendid product it served up to the public.
The movie that was screened on that final day was the 1988 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, the Italian-made Cinema Paradiso, a sentimental feature about a venerated Sicilian movie house that entertained small town denizens before and during the war, and then again when it was resurrected after a fire. Like its modern day Garden State counterpart, and like so many other treasured movie palaces that were forced into closure because of dwindling profits, the fictional Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, a metaphor for theaters everywhere, was finally razed after it was sold to developers. The Rialto was not blasted by dynamite as the theater in the movie was, but was left for a Korean group to build a planned mall. Ironically the inside of the theater was gutted, but has been laying dormant for six years, making this picture even more lamentable.
Meanwhile, in the town of Leonia -just about a ten minute drive from the Rialto- stands the Civil War Drill Hall Theater, a white, wooden church-like building that serves as the home of the Leonia Players’ Guild, a semi-professional acting troupe who regularly perform revivals of Broadway shows and the works of renowned playwrights. About a year before the Rialto closed down, the Player’s Guild ended a short three experiment of screening classic films on Sunday afternoons with a screening of Cinema Paradiso. At the suggestion of a common friend I was asked if I would deliver the introduction of the film, and an overview of Italian cinema. It was at that time that saw fit to frame the film as one of the all-time greatest romances, though the lead character was involved in a loveless relationship, and no other tangible romance between man and woman ever presented itself. Yet Cinema Paradiso was a grand romantic film to rate with the most renowned in that category, and it was my job to make a persuasive case. I would like to think I was successful to some degree….
Cinema Paradiso is a rapturous elegy to film going, a sentimental and wholly nostalgic lamentation of lost innocence and the seemingly meaningless things from our youth that in the end are more meaningful than anything in one’s current lives. The film is a love letter to the cinema, and it’s final scene is undoubtedly a cathartic coda of shared experience and memory with an aging man and the true romance that for a lifetime was more resonant than any for a fellow human being.
As the film opens to the ravishing elegiac strains of Ennio Morricone’s main theme, a very old woman dials up her son Salvatore (Toto), a successful silver-haired producer to convey the sad news about the death of a man named Alfredo. We next see a plane arriving to Palermo on the island of Sicily, and the man cabbing over to his mother’s home. Later that evening his mind hurtles back to his childhood, and nearly the remainder of the film is a flashback to those long ago days. “Toto” as it turns out was a precocious, insubordinate child (young Salvatore Cascio as the wide-eyed precocious child is a revelation), who developed a passion for hanging around a movie theater and spending time with the arduous, illiterate projectionist, after a short stint as a altar boy who habitually nodded off when he was required to ring a bell. The wide-eyed boy with the chocolate colored eyes and big ears was recipient to both words of homespun wisdom and stern discipline from his proctor, though fatherly love always wins out in the end, necessitating the single mom’s intervention at one point, when the boy spends the 50 lire earmarked for milk on movie tickets. (The boy’s father went missing on the Russian front near the end of World War II). Alfredo’s mythological divergences and crash course on how to work a projector strengthen the bond, though with some dire consequences, when Alfredo twists the projector’s glass on a lovely summer night, causing the film and projector to catch fire.
Unbeknownst to Alfredo (played superlatively by the legendary French actor Phillipe Noiret, who says more with gestures and expressions that some can in full vocal mode) – and anyone else for that matter -Toto had been collecting bits of film that featured screen kisses and he hid them in a box he kept under his bed. These were the discards Alfredo was forced to cut at the behest of Father Aldelfio, who is also the local film censor. Father Adelfio is also a movie lover, but when a man and a woman are about to kiss, he goes rigid and rings a little bell that is normally used in church during a mass.
Eventually Toto assumes an apprenticeship, forged by the kindness of his venerable mentor, and he becomes gloriously immersed into the world of the movies, the singular entertainment and outlet for the peasant citizens of the village of Giancaldo who turned the dual-level theater into a second home: nursing babies, eating meals, drinking Chianti, picking their noses and running the full gamut from hysteria, through tears of joy to uncontrollable weeping. Men masturbated at the images of sex goddesses, and one relieved himself regularly spitting at ground floor denizens from his balcony perch. Weddings were conducted at the Cinema Paradiso, and even a death occurred during operating hours. Prostitutes serviced horny customers who lined up for their turn. What is shown on the screen turns out to be an evocation of cinematic heritage. Clips from the films of Renoir, Visconti, Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Ford and Von Stroheim supplement some Italian-made romances, and help to establish the time period when the theater prospered, and the international scope of the programming.
After the aforementioned disaster leaves Alfredo blind, Toto assumes the position of head projectionist at the beautifully restored Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, with Alfredo, now wearing dark glasses, guiding him on by the force of his experience and instinct. By this time he is engaged in the trials and tribulations of his own real-life romance.
“Don’t look back. Don’t write. Don’t give in to nostalgia,” Alfredo finally tells his young friend when an opportunity arises for him to take on a film-related position on the mainland. Haunted by the vivid memories of his illustrious childhood Toto leaves Giancarlo with great reluctance, but finally heeds the advice of his aging, venerated mentor. Leaving the Cinema Paradiso behind is also representative of saying goodbye to the gleeful abandon and personal contacts he enjoyed in his home town. When he returns, he is smug, completely drained of the youthful idealism that was present in many of the films he grew to love.
When Toto does return to attend the funeral of Alfredo, he is unable to escape the demons of his past, which in case represented a long period of guilt for leaving his life and his greatest passion behind. He gains access to the boarded up building on the day before it is to be razed, finding a hollow shell, overtaken by dust, cobwebs and the disrepair caused by neglect. As the memories come rushing in – the nostalgic strains of Ennio Morricone’s aching lyricism define what it means to rediscover something you love more than life itself – something that both identified who you were and were inspired to become. The tragedy associated with the loss of innocence and a jarring end to the communal way of life that united people at at time of wartime poverty, all come crashing into his consciousness – he now after many years realizes the extent of what he has lost. Morricone’s score is one of the glories of the cinema, and another example of how he can define a mood and a state of mind far better than any dialogue could ever. The fact that the music is also ravishingly beautiful takes the film a step further.
As Toto stands with the small aging congregation who were once part of his movie circle, he points them out one by one in gleeful remembrance. The former owner tearfully admitted that he just couldn’t make ends meet anymore, what with home video cutting down his audience to a handful. As several dozen people watch from behind a barrier, the dynamite blasts the structure to rubble, signifying the end of an era, and a symbolic closure to a beloved lifestyle.
The big surprise of course is the film’s celebrated final scene in a screening room back in Rome, where Toto views the present Alfredo instructed his mother to give him. A montage of all the screen kisses that Toto assumed were lost in a fire were somehow salvaged and maintained by the old man. Toto is overcome by emotions as he gets to see all the romantic epiphanies that were largely denied him as a young boy and adolescent.
Giuseppe Tornatore was never again to make a film with the emotional power of Cinema Paradiso, though his trade was wallowing in nostalgia. The film, exceedingly popular with critics and audiences, placed on many year-end ten-best lists. A director’s cut was later released, though the shorter theatrical running time is just as good as the longer one. Cinema Paradiso is all about a love for the movies, which as presented in Tornatore’s film has more staying power than any real-life romance.
Note: This review of ‘Cinema Paradiso’ is a slight revision from the ‘Greatest Romantic Films’ countdown.