I’m not a big crier, but an exception can usually be made for Cinema Paradiso. I wasn’t too much older than young Toto when I first saw the film, and I held it together until the very end when a middle-aged Toto sits in reverent silence to watch the film left behind by his departed friend Alfredo. The film is a patchwork of clips deemed too pornographic by the village priest, kisses and sexual advances and tender embraces from dozens of different movies, cut and discarded for the sake of public decency. It is a mosaic of passion, free of dialogue, cobbled together by a blind man as a reminder of the place where Toto’s own passions were born. It brings him backwards in time. And if you’re Toto or a big baby like me, it’s a real tearjerker.
Returning to Paradiso today, I was at first struck by the wit and daring of the dialogue in the script. The repetitions throughout the village are a good example of this, reinforcing the idea that Toto’s escape from his hometown is really an escape into a larger, more varied, more passionate world. There’s a beggar who constantly asserts the the town square is “his”, doing so even forty years later as an old man. Another patron of the cinema can’t help but fall asleep in his seat, hollering at the kids who shock him awake “I’ll make mincemeat out of you!” He repeats it so often that the entire theater eventually joins him in chorus.
Alfredo, similarly, is an unending font of wisdom, much of which is drawn from famous film quotes and applied to young Toto’s experiences in the little town. Nearly everything out of his mouth seems destined for an inspirational poster somewhere. “Whatever you end up doing,” he commands Toto, “love it.” He relates a long parable of a soldier waiting for his love, only to abandon her at the eleventh hour in order to…what? Why does he abandon her? “Don’t ask what it means,” Alfredo snaps, but it’s not because he doesn’t know what it means. Toto needs to discover that for himself. Still, even the harshest lesson that could come in a movie like Cinema Paradiso comes from Alfredo: “Life isn’t like in the movies. Life…is much harder.”
But all the nuggets of wisdom packed into the film don’t end up telling the story, and they aren’t really what makes Paradiso great. Wise words aren’t the things that drive Toto (or me) to tears at the end of it all. That final reel is just pictures, just kiss after kiss, and in a way Paradiso is the same.
In a scene-by-scene sense, moments of fear, wonder, melancholy and joy are often conveyed in silence (not counting the backing of Ennio Morricone’s score, one of his best). Young Toto looks back in the theater and sees the beam from the film projector emanating from the mouth of a stone lion, and the lion contorts and roars in a series of canted angles. Toto covers his eyes. Later, once he’s finally earned a job as a projectionist, he screens a film that includes — gasp! — a loving smooch. “By God,” exclaims a man in the audience, “they’re kissing!” The place erupts. Toto, alone in the projectionist booth, is quiet, regarding the chair where his friend Alfredo should be sitting. These moments simply say more in their silence. It’s telling that Toto learns the trade not by hearing Alfredo talk him through the work, but rather just by watching him work.
Pull back a step or two and Paradiso has more to offer in this respect. My first viewing of the film paid no mind to the man and woman who frequent the cinema throughout their long lives, likely because the pair don’t utter a single line of dialogue between them. When Toto’s a little kid, he covers his eyes when Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll transforms into the horrid Hyde, as does the rest of the theater — except for these two people, whose eyes meet in the darkened room while everyone else is cowering in fear. Maybe in that wordless look they say to each other “hey — I’m into this gross stuff, too.” The next time we see them they’re sitting together and holding hands, enjoying another movie in smiling silence.
While teenaged Toto works the projector we see the couple, now married, passing their baby between them during the film. At the end of Paradiso they’re there again, old as Toto, still together, still silent. The aforementioned repetitions throughout Toto’s village are never as subtly presented as in the life story of this loving couple, nor are they ever as meaningful.
And there are three instances of silence in the final minutes of the film that are as effective as any of Alfredo’s quotables. Two occur in Toto’s final return to the decrepit Paradiso, scheduled to be demolished the following day. Upon entrance he passes a poster for an erotic film, and the camera pans past this to follow him into the belly of the cinema. The story being told in this passing glance, of course, is a sad one wherein this once-great bastion of the village, the place that brought everyone together to show them everything but a kiss, now screens erotic films in a last-ditch effort to boost attendance. The second instance is moments later, when silver-fox Toto encounters the stone lion that had ensconced the projector’s beam for so many years. It’s become detached from the wall now, and it’s no longer the scary warped demon-lion that confused Toto in his youth. It’s just another piece of the building, another stone.
The third and possibly most inventive instance ties back to Alfredo’s soliloquy by the sea, some of the final wisdom he imparts on his mentee before sending him off into the greater world:
Living here day by day, you think it’s the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything’s changed. The thread’s broken. What you came to find isn’t there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time… many years… before you can come back and find your people. The land where you were born. But now, no. It’s not possible. Right now you’re blinder than I am.
“The thread’s broken…” A timeless quote, to be sure. When Toto returns, though, by yellow cab as Ulysses returned by ship, the first place he returns to is his childhood home. His aging mother, knitting away in her chair, stands and heads downstairs to greet her son. But we stay with the knitting needles, one of which falls to the floor, and then we see the motherly hard work slowly unravel. The end of the thread is caught in her shawl, and as she heads downstairs the knitted piece slowly unknits itself, like it’s going backwards in time. The camera pans out the window, tracks the cab as it drives away, and lands on Toto hugging his mother. The white thread leading into the home is still attached to her side, unbroken. But don’t ask what it means.