Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cinema Paradiso -- engaging with cinema

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988.

Who doesn't love movies? Most of us, especially those reading this blog, love movies. It is today's entertainment medium of choice. With its powerful imagery, it is deeply evocative and able to shape our worldviews. Cinema Paradiso is a movie about loving movies.

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1990, Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso is a beautiful story of a boy who grows up with a love of film. Set in a Sicilian village just after World War II, where there was one traditional movie theater showing one film and newsreels, Tornatore intended this to be an homage and obituary for these traditional theaters. With the rise of the multiple screen cineplex and the nascent emergence of all-digital movie-making, such neighborhood theaters are in decline. These once bastions of community now are second-run and second-rate. Their glory has faded, but there is still a nostalgic air about viewing a film on one of their screens.

Cinema Paradiso opens with an old woman trying to place a call to her son, Salvatore, who is somewhere in Rome and has not ventured back to his childhood village in 30 years. When he eventually gets the message she left, it is a simple one: Alfredo is dead. This sad news triggers his long reminiscing, which we see through flashbacks to his childhood and youth.

As a young child Salvatore, nicknamed Toto, was an altarboy alongside Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste). After mass, Father Adelfio would go to the Cinema Paradiso to pre-screen the upcoming film while Toto would sneak into the projectionist booth to be with Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) the projectionist. Whenever the priest would see a kissing scene he would ring the bell and Alfredo would mark the spot for cutting.

Toto grew up with his mother and sister, but his father never came back from the war. Fatherless, Alfredo became a surrogate father to him, instilling in him a love of film and an understanding of technique. When an accident leaves Alfredo blinded, the teenaged Toto steps into become the projectionist at the rebuilt Nuovo (new) Cinema Paradiso.

It is Alfredo who counsels wisdom to Toto through parables and through sage advice. In one scene, he tells Toto:
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. . . . Life isn't like in the movies. Life . . . is much harder.
For someone growing up in a small village this is hard to hear but apropos. The world is much bigger than his village. He has to leave to find himself, and coming back too soon would invalidate his discoveries. Independence is something each child must attain. And real life is so much harder and longer than the movies.

Salvatore Cascio is perfect as the young Toto, a cute yet mischievous child with large adorable eyes. He has great chemistry with Noiret. Marco Leonardi carries the role through the teenage years, when Toto falls in love for the first time with Elena (Agnese Nano), but her university studies and his national service bring their ill-fated romance to an end. Yet, this is a romance that the adult Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) has not moved beyond. In the new version of the film, where almost an hour of unseen footage is added, she reenters the movie to be reacquainted with the adult Toto, but the original version never brings her back into the picture. For Toto, his two loves were film-making and Elena. He could not have both.

For all its beauty, simplicity and sentimentality, Cinema Paradiso highlights two ethical issues. The first is that of pornography. When Father Adolfio sees a man kissing the body of woman, he rings the bell and yells, "I will not watch pornography." She is mostly clothed, only her shoulders are bare, but to him this is pornography. Times change and what was obscene in the 1940s is mild material in the 21st century. Virtually no one today would call a simple movie kiss pornographic.

We can understand his concerns, but what comprises pornography? Certainly, explicit sexual images in a movie would be considered pornography. But who draws the line? Is it a line in the sand, that the seas of time wash over and erase, drawing a new one with new standards? Is it a personal decision that must be made by individuals? Can we impose our morality on others outside our immediate family? These are questions that conscientious consience-carrying Christians must wrestle with for themselves.

Moreover, the second issue emerges from the first. What is the relationship between the church and the cinema? Father Adolfio made himself the village censor, forcing Alfredo to cut and snip any scene that he considered morally inappropriate for his flock of parishioners. But is this the role of the church? Can we not, as Christian adults, make decisions for ourselves?

Some Christians rely on the role of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) ratings system, watching only G or PG movies and avoiding R-rated film. But this is to move our responsibility to another body, whose standards morph or degrade over time. Ultimately it is our responsibility to determine what we will allow in our eyes and our heads.

Some ask the question, can the sacred be found in the secular film? Most who ask this answer with a no and look to "Christian films" for permitted entertainment. But avoiding secular films is to give up the cultural battleground. We also miss the opportunity to engage our neighbors and to engage our God. If God could open the mouth of a donkey (Num. 22:28) or talk through a cloud (Matt. 17:5), he can certainly talk to us through secular-movies.

A better question is how can the sacred be found in the secular. Robert K. Johnston's excellent book, "Reel Spirituality," answers this question, showing the different approaches. These blog postings affirm his thesis, that we can find the spiritual in secular Hollywood movies. Whether we hear a direct word from God or see and hear something that moves us forward in our Christian life, if we watch a film with an air of expectancy not simply as mindless vegetainment, we can come away changed for the better.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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