Prospective viewers should be given fair warning that Nuovo Cinema Paradiso runs at a little over three hours. Not, as one might expect, because the three hours stretches to interminable eternity; rather, because the three hours seems far too short a time to lose oneself in its story.
Paradiso's richness come from the multiple threads that interweave and support each other. It's the story of the paternal friendship between Alfredo, the film projectionist, and his mischievous apprentice Toto. It's also the story of Toto as he comes of age and deals with love and separation. And it's also the story of a small Italian community, replete with a cast of lovable idiosyncratic characters, whose off-hours lives revolve around the local cinema. And finally, it's the story of cinema itself as we see the evolution of movies unfold in the background.
Paradiso is split into two parts. The first is that of the young Toto growing up in the small village. The second is that of his grown-up alter ego Salvatore, who returns to the village as a successful director some thirty years later to attend Alfredo's funeral. The first unfolds as an idyllic recollection, full of mischief and life; the second acts as a counterpoint to innocence, darker and more brooding. The differences are subtly apparent in the choice of filters -- childhood is represented in warm yellow colors, and adulthood in natural but darker hues.
What brings Paradiso to life is its cast of characters. We focus, rightly so, on the temparemental yet kindly Alfredo who, despite their earlier run-ins, takes Toto under his wing. We root for a young Toto, stubborn and precocious, as he endears himself to Alfredo -- and to us. And later, we feel for his longing and frustration when, as an adolescent, he pines for a girl whose station seems beyond him.
But there's more. Toto's mother is a heroic and tragic widow, bravely carrying on with the task of raising a family by herself. And Toto's love interest Elena, at first distant and aloof, and then, as she warms up, a magnifying glass that enhances the anguish and longing that Toto/Salvatore feels.
Then there's the whole ensemble of villagers -- all of whom provide touching comedy relief: the censor/priest with his bell; the lucky Neapolitan; the usher; the village idiot; the heavy sleeper; the spitter; the lecherous boys... You genuinely feel for these characters. You live , in the span of the three hours of the film, in their village. It is through them that you feel the love for cinema that permeates the movie.
Finally, there's the Paradiso itself, arguably a character in its own right. Paradiso is a world unto itself, the refuge of the entire town and silent witness to their lives.
Paradiso undergoes three phases in its transformation, coinciding with the phases in Toto/Salvatore's life. First, as a converted auditorium run by the local parish -- coinciding with Toto's youth. Then, as a more modern theater reconstructed from the fire -- more sophisticated, as it were -- corresponding with Toto's adolescence. And finally, an abandoned relic, that which greets Salvatore on his return.
Transformation -- inevitable transformation -- is the recurring theme throughout Paradiso. As the movie unfolds, one feels that one loses some things, and the loss of those is irrecoverable. This is the sadness that permeates the movie, even in its happier moments. This, too, seems to reflect Alfredo's injunction to Toto on their parting: "Go away, do not come back. There is nothing here for you anymore."
Appropriately, then, the music of Paradiso is nostalgic, heavy on strings, and evocative of softer emotions. But that only comes into play when the story follows the lives of the main characters. At the times where we are in the theater, it is the raucous mix of of movie music, dialogue, and audience response that we hear. This makes the movies come alive for us, if only briefly, because we feel part of the communal ritual of the village. The obvert theme of the movie, after all, is cinema.
For a movie that does not balk in its depiction of sex, Paradiso is amazingly sensitive in distinguishing it from love. There are three scenes of sex -- Boccia, when he fails to deliver the reels; Toto, in the theater, as some simple rite of passage; the anonymous couple later in the more liberal life of the Paradiso. (Four, if you count the masturbating boys watching the Bardot film).
But in the love scenes between Elene and Toto, Paradiso becomes quite coy. It portrays passion, but something is held back, as if it wants to stay private. This approach heightens the emotions between the two, so that when Toto finally leaves the town -- and Elena -- we know that something great is lost.
Which brings us to the crux of the movie -- the fateful decision to leave the town and his prospects for Elena. It was in fact a decision made for him by Alfredo. The question is why?
Perhaps it is because Alfredo understands Toto more than Toto understands himself. Toto may love Elena, but he also loves film. He cannot have both. Like any great artist, he must be consumed by his passion -- that is what produces art.
That is the meaning of Alfredo's final gift to Toto/Salvatore -- the spliced collection of movie clips. These are all the scenes excised from the movies of his youth -- representing what the artist gives up -- and pieced together and compressed into that reel -- his art.
It is that art which survives and endures, which he can pass on to people, and in so doing, inspire them. That, too, explains his name, Salvador del Vita: the artist as the savior of life.