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one of my all time favorite films  

The story opens with a potted plant sitting on a sill overlooking a calm blue sea spread out like a movie screen in front of its lone spectator.  We sense the light breeze, practically feel the mellow sunshine.  It could be paradise if it wasn’t marred by a slight nagging pity for the poor plant confined to its pot, watching but powerless to break free and live fully.  

Giuseppe Tornatore's Italian masterpiece Cinema Paradiso captured the 1990 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie manages to capture the universal feeling of emptiness and the eternal search for that elusive element that would make one complete.  Warm, humorous portraits of the townspeople and rebellious little Toto draw us into the life that revolves around the local movie theater.  As Toto grows up and falls in love for the first time, he thinks he has found what he needs to make him whole.  But when she is torn from him like a censured kissing scene in the movies, he becomes a spectator, unsatisfied and unable to participate emotionally in life.  

As Toto’s life centers around his assisting Alfredo at the movie theater, it is fitting that his first love affair should resemble a fairy tale movie romance.  The cryptic folkloric advice from a wise old man, Toto’s perseverance though his love seems unrequited, and her giving herself to him just when he was ready to give up in despair all point to a love with little basis in reality.  That the steamy love scenes take place in the ‘paradise’ movie theater and with an outdoor film backdrop suggests that Toto is playing in his own movie.  He is finally able to experience physical love which had always been religiously censored from theater screenings by the local Catholic priest.  

His affair is less romantically portrayed in the prosaic world, as when the stranded lovers meet up with her father.  His hostile reaction represents the impossibility of their love continuing in a world outside of Toto’s fantasies.  When her family moves, she is cut from Toto’s life and all of his attempts to contact her are in vain.  In desperation he takes Alfredo’s advice and flees his town to build his future and continue his search for internal peace.  

When we see Toto again as an attractive middle-aged man, he is still seeking, roving from one empty relationship to another.  He is a successful film director – creating stories for others, but not really living himself.  He returns home for Alfredo’s funeral to a town that is only a shell of what it once was.  The Cinema Paradiso, no longer full of images of life and love, is to be torn down.  Yet in this abandoned place of his childhood and adolescence, he finds the piece that had been missing in his life in Alfredo’s farewell gift to him.  

Alfredo gave him completion, literally – a spliced film reel featuring the missing romantic scenes from all the movies that the priest had censored throughout the years.  Alfredo was giving back to Toto all of the ‘love’ that had been denied him.  The memories of their time together and the loving bond of friendship between them represented by the gift seem to heal Toto and to be the release he needed.  

I love this film because it touches me on several levels of consciousness by offering a truth about human existence, which for all its simplicity is difficult to express in words.  Toto’s yearning and pain is part of my search for fulfillment, and the final affirmation of life and love and friendship that leads to his liberation is mine too.  Real beauty is arresting these moments of truth on screen, and I hope to accomplish the same in my own writing and, someday, in my own film.


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