We join our hero Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) as a successful film director and bachelor in 80s Milan before news of a momentous death thrusts him back to his native Sicily for the first time in 30 years. Recalling the formative friendship he forged with Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist at the village cinema who inspired his love of cinema, Salvatore comes to see that film and friends are greater constants than childhood or first love.
It’s certainly a saccharine movie – it’s also a joyous one. The young Toto is hilariously adorable and mischievous, and fine casting means we buy into his transformation to a lovelorn and handsome teenager with a heart torn between making his own films and capturing the heart of the wealthy Elena. The late Noiret won a BAFTA for his turn as the kindly Alfredo and many fans of the film might have forgotten that amid the rose-tinted look at cinema and village life is a sweet subplot about a loner trying to gain his school diploma.
This rerelease reminds you that, while definitely a family film, Cinema Paradiso has a hint of naughtiness. There’s a superb comedic beat about adolescent boys ‘indulging’ themselves while watching a sexy starlet in the cinema, and another sequence that suggests the raucous fervour of the villagers while watching a film allowed the cinema’s toilets to function as a makeshift brothel.
Cinema Paradiso also echoes Thomas Wolfe’s contention that ‘you can never go home again’. Salvatore wistfully recalls the cinema filled with smoke, a montage of awestruck audiences, the screening of a sold-out film onto the market square wall of an irate villager. But these golden memories are balanced with his recall of a heartbreaking, rain-soaked wait for Elena, the fire that wounded Alfredo and his friend’s sad, solemn counsel that ‘life is not what you see in films – life is much harder’.
Fortunately, this graceful and poignant film concludes with an iconic moment that makes your soul soar. With its print restored with tremendous care, Cinema Paradiso might be returning to the big screen at the age of 25, but its nostalgia and charm are evergreen.