Hot on the celluloid heels of Hugo, a cinephile's movie if ever there was one, comes another chance to see one of my all-time favorite movies about the movies: Cinema Paradiso. Lucky for us, the Dante Society of Santa Cruz will be screening Giuseppi Tornatore's seductive 1989 love letter to the movies this Sunday, as part of its Winter Italian Film Series, "Set in Sicily," and if you've never seen it on the big screen (or even if you have) give yourself an early Christmas gift and go.
Anyone crazy enough about movies to remember the first one he or she ever saw on a big screen will find Cinema Paradiso irresistible. Set in a postwar Sicilian village, it's about a small, fatherless boy named "Toto," who attaches himself to Alfredo (the great, irreplaceable French actor, Philippe Noiret), the irascible projectionist at the village movie house, the Cinema Paradiso.
Movies rarely reach the public unscathed in Toto's village; each is pre-screened by the priest, who whimpers in dismay and rings a censorious bell whenever he sees something he wants Alfredo to snip out—like kissing scenes. (What becomes of that snipped-out footage is the film's most exhilarating surprise.) Nevertheless, little Toto, and the community at large are bewitched by the magic of movies. When the crowd threatens to riot because they can't all cram into the theater at once, Alfredo angles the glass door over the projector lens to throw the magical image out the window onto a wall in the square below. Teaching Toto to run the projector and handle film stock, Alfredo philosophizes about life, love, and sociology with dialogue he's memorized from the films of Spencer Tracy and John Wayne.
Alfredo has been a love-slave to the moving image ever since the days of hand-cranked projectors. Yet, as Toto evolves from boy to lusty youth to an old man on a last sentimental journey home, it's Alfredo who's the most constant advocate for Toto leaving the village and making a life for himself out in the real world. In its own wise, elliptical way, Cinema Paradiso celebrates movies not as a substitute for real life, but a conduit for dreams—the dreams we all need to build our own lives.
Cinema Paradiso plays one night only, this Sunday, December 11, at Cabrillo College (VAPA Art History Forum, Room 1001). Admission is free, so get in line now.
So, what was the first movie I ever saw in a movie house? Green Mansions, starring (I think) Audrey Hepburn as Rima the Bird Girl (I must have been six or seven years old). Who knows what the heck it was about? It was big and lush, and I thought it was just about the coolest thing ever, to go into a dark room and enter a completely different world. Still do.
What was your first movie?