Love Letters to the Movies Part 2: Love and Death
With 'Cinema Paradiso' and 'Matinee,' two directors look back fondly and bittersweetly on a bygone era of moviegoing, when theaters brought communities together.
Inspired by the end-of-the-year convergence of movies about the magic of making and going to the movies — specifically The Fabelmans, Empire of Light, and Babylon — we’re having a three-part conversation about “love letters to the movies.” We started last week with a discussion of the silent era with Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. This week, we talk about two affectionate nostalgia pieces set around movie houses of the past: Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, a semi-autobiographical look at a filmmaker drawing from childhood in small-town Sicily, and Joe Dante’s Matinee, a comedy about a William Castle-like sci-fi/horror producer who brings his new movie to a Key West theater during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Scott: Towards the end of Cinema Paradiso, Guiseppe Tornatore’s coming-of-age hit about a movie-crazy kid growing up in small-town Sicily, Salvatore, the film’s now-teenage protagonist (at this point, played by Marco Leonardi), says his goodbyes to Alfredo (Phillippe Noiret), the old projectionist who stoked his love for cinema. Alfredo advises the young man to leave his quaint hometown of Giancaldo and never come back, not even to visit, because he needs to pursue his filmmaking destiny whole-heartedly and cannot allow himself to remain stuck in the past. “Don’t give in to nostalgia,” Alfredo says.
Oh the mighty snort that line elicited from me! For there is no film that gives in to nostalgia like Cinema Paradiso, which would surely be the first title to pop into anyone’s head in association with the phrase “love letter to the movies.” I confess to having a love/hate relationship to the film over the years, related entirely to whether I’m bowled over by its sentimentality (I was a blubbering mess the first time I saw it) or rolling my eyes at its shamelessness. I also confess to only having seen the theatrical cut of the film, which runs a little over two hours, and not the director’s cut, which is closer to three. That’s a huge amount of time, and it makes me suspect that Harvey Weinstein wanted to lean into nostalgic elements of the film and leave other details, particularly teenage Salvatore’s relationship with Elena (Agnese Nano), on the cutting-room floor. (That it “worked” and Cinema Paradiso was a hit helped boost the reputation of “Harvey Scissorhands,” but the counterexamples of films either weakened or marginalized by Weinstein are much more significant.)
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies (and a little TV). While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability.
All of that said, I felt myself falling for the film again and wondering whether my reaction to it is colored by when I encountered it in my life. I would have been around Salvatore’s age in that scene with Alfredo when Cinema Paradiso came out, and at that time, I was also a movie-crazy teenager who was logging heavy hours in a projection booth. Perhaps I was a little more jaded when I caught up with it again on VHS. And now, when actual celluloid is limited to repertory houses, the imagery in Tornatore’s film has a renewed nostalgic kick: Young Salvatore licking the emulsion, the hairline scratches and dirt on old prints, the strips of 35mm film that you can hold up to the light. And then you get the more standard close-ups, common to most of the films we’re discussing here, of viewers looking up in awe at the screen, eyes widened, as they’re backlit by the light streaming from the projector.
One of the key points of emphasis in Cinema Paradiso is the idea of a movie house as a central gathering place and community-builder, particularly in a small town like Giancaldo. Tornatore spends a lot of time noting the types of people who turn up at screenings: the guy who falls asleep with his mouth open, the guy who goes so often he can recite every line (while still crying), the lonelyhearts whose eyes meet from the floor to the balcony, the gaggle of teenage boys who are, let’s say, excited by the church’s loosening grip on standards. The crowds at this theater are boisterous and fun-loving and extremely social. This is not an austere cathedral of cinema, as I imagine a place like the Cinémathèque Française must have been in its heyday. It’s a place for everyone, with a wide-ranging selection of Italian future classics from Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini to Hollywood imports like Fury and A Farewell to Arms. (The full list of references is pretty fascinating.)
So how about you, Keith? Did you wince like the old-timers in the crowd when they watched the Paradiso implode? Did you weep during the “kissing montage” that ends the film? Or was your guard up this time? Also, how do you rank this among Ennio Morricone scores? The man was famously prolific, but he seems to understand which movies were going to be most deserving of his best work.
Keith: Maybe my psyche is Benjamin Buttoning, but I find myself a little more resistant to this movie as a sentimental middle-aged man than the first time I saw it as a cynical Gen X twentysomething. Perhaps some context helps explain that, though: This was the last movie I saw at the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster, England where I studied abroad in 1993 and 1994. Built in an old church, the Dukes combines live theater performances with indie and repertory films and I saw a lot of movies during that year, from Now, Voyager to the director’s cut of Betty Blue to The Piano, even though it took a bus ride (or a long walk) to get there from campus. Big and drafty, it wasn’t the Cinema Paradiso but it’s also the sort of place that wouldn’t have survived without a lot of love and support. So this movie seemed an especially apt way to say goodbye to it. (Unlike the Paradiso, it’s still around, too, and seemingly unchanged, best I can tell.)
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Reveal to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.