Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso is not a children’s film, despite the fact that nearly half of it is seen through the eyes of a mischievous little tyke. Nor is it a romance film, despite nearly a third of it being dedicated to an interlude between its protagonist and his love interest. A film like it, I feel, defies easy categorisation. I am inclined to put it under the “films about films” category, and I guess I may not be wrong there. If you have seen it, I don’t think your opinion of it will be any different to mine. But one thing for sure: it is one of the few films in any country that actually induces you to see it again after you’re done. It’s been 25 years since it was released, and its charm still reverberates today.

The story is, admittedly, sugary. It begins with a shy but famous filmmaker who journeys back to his childhood in Sicily, when he fitted into the “mischievous but intelligent child” role so common to films about children today (Taare Zameen Par is just one example). And, like that film, the kid here has a hidden interest too – this time it’s not drawing, but cinema. And this 10-year old dabbles in it. Big-time. Not only does he become an active member of the local cinema hall – called the “Cinema Paradiso” – but he also befriends the rough but friendly projectionist who doubles up as a father-figure to him (his mother is a war widow) and ends up being his successor (a little on that later).

In its exploration of the magic of cinema, the director, Giuseppe Tornatore, has made concessions to the box-office (it was a massive hit when it first came out). Almost every shot and sequence in the film fits with audience expectation: the child befriends the projectionist, projectionist takes him in, child becomes projectionist (!) when the old man loses his sight to a fire, and child rises up-to become a world famous director. What more could you have expected? Many critics felt likewise: one positive review described it as “half-way between romanticism and kitsch.”

But Tornatore does not let his “kitsch” go scot-free. The sequences with the child growing up, at a University, fiddling around with his camera and his love interest, are decidedly melodramatic. In perhaps the most glaring example of this, the young lover in one sequence imagines himself embracing his lover during a rainstorm when, yes, a rainstorm breaks out at that exact moment and he does get to embrace her.

But his dreams do not continue: due to a reason that is never fully explained (like many of the plot-holes you will see in this film) the girl breaks up with him, and the man (for another never-even-once explained reason) forces him to leave his hometown, to get away from it all and “realise” himself (though how he never tells him), and – I could not fathom why – to never come back again.

It is as though the director is telling us that dreams can only continue for as long as you revel in them. Brought back to earth (which maybe the only time this happens to him in the entire film), the man’s rise to stardom is never highlighted: his success, only hinted at, seems to have wearied him. So much so that when the old projectionist dies and he returns to his hometown (breaking the vow he made to him that he would never do so), all he can do is to return to his childhood reverie.

I would have been tremendously happy with this feel-good ending, if it wasn’t for the fact that it ends with possibly the biggest plot-hole in the entire film. It doesn’t strike one at first – Ennio Morricone’s music is enough to make one forget every missed detail in the plot – but when we’re moved by the filmmaker’s tears at watching the censored parts of the films he grew up as a child with, we should keep in mind that celluloid cannot possibly have lasted 10 years without catching fire. Heck, we even saw part of those same reels burning at the beginning of the film at the child’s own house!

But then this may have been the director’s greatest strength in the film: to concoct a convincing but sugarcoated story few of us would resist. Its charms readily work on us – with a child actor like that, I suppose, it would have been something of a miracle if they hadn’t – and we conveniently bring up ourselves to think, “A movie’s there to enjoy, so let’s just forget the fact that no mother could have allowed her kid to become the town’s projectionist when the last one got blinded in a fire and enjoy it!”

Not that I am disappointed with it: it is a mark of his strength that never again would Tornatore rise to the standard he set up with Cinema Paradiso. It is a “film about a film” in a nostalgic sort of way, and not for all the plot-holes and distracting side-plots (what else could you call a romantic interlude that not only goes nowhere, but when goes nowhere without actually showing us why) would I miss watching it or recommending you to watch it.