(Note to regular readers: this is another film studies post. This assignment was to consider David Bordwell’s Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures in relation to the movies we’d seen in class; I am addressing primarily Cinema Paradiso.)
Cinema Paradiso depicts the life of Salvatore Di Vita (called “Toto”) and his relationship with the cinema in his small Sicilian town as he grows from a child to an adolescent, and finally to an adult. It begins with the adult Toto learning of the death of his childhood mentor, Alfredo, but soon jumps back to his early childhood and proceeds mostly chronologically from there. Toto’s childhood is spent haunting Alfredo in the projection booth of the theatre, run by the church. His adolescence, running the booth alone, now under the supervision of a local businessman. His adulthood, escaping the small town for an impressive American film career– or at least trying to. Everyone in the film is obsessed with movies, especially Toto and Alfredo, and especially Hollywood movies. Which brings me to my main thoughts on the film in relation to Bordwell’s article:
Although Cinema Paradiso revolves lovingly around the idea of the classic Hollywood film, it is questionable whether or not is is like one.
Bordwell identifies a number of features of classic Hollywood cinema that I want to explore now, both because I recognized them at once and because I had to wonder whether Cinema Paradiso complies with them.
First, there is the idea that the film’s plot is goal-oriented, or, as Bordwell put it, “causality is the prime unifying principle” (p. 19). The characters have goals, obstacles arise, the characters address these obstacles, and then the goals are either accomplished or not. In every scene, some previous line of action is resolved, and some new line of action is left hanging– someone answers a phone, and learns of a funeral; we’ve learned who was calling but now we want to know who has died. Every shot is propelled by cause and effect on to the next shot– the camera shows us a phone ringing, so the next thing we want to see is the reaction to the phone, and who will answer it. This is still very much the standard mode for commercial American film, seen just as much in Transformers as in Philadelphia Story.
However, I’m not convinced that it’s seen much in Cinema Paradiso, at least on the level of scenes progressing to new scenes. The plot seems driven much more by the passage of time than by Toto’s goals, or anyone else’s. Certainly, by the end, I don’t feel comfortable declaring what the driving goal was, or whether or not it was accomplished. Toto loved movies, and Alfredo didn’t want Toto to be stuck in their small town forever, but quite a lot of screen time was dedicated to events, such as Toto’s time as an altar boy, or Alfredo’s attempt at the primary school exams, which may have related thematically but were not driven by the sort of direct causality that drives, for example, a murder mystery. Until the camera opened on the classroom and Alfredo entered, we had no idea that he might be there, and in any given scene, it’s nearly impossible to name the goals of the characters in that moment.
Second, there a the specific kind of goal-obstacle-accomplishment plotline that is nearly required for classic Hollywood and yet nearly absent here: yes, the heterosexual romance. Now, Toto does, in the middle segment of the film, pursue a romance with a girl in a rather familiar format. While filming strangers at the train station, he captures and becomes captivated by her image; he stumbles when he tries to speak to her, but to win her over he stands outside her window every night for 100 days until she relents and reciprocates his love. All the familiar true-love-based-on-appearance and stalking-as-devotion that one still finds in films today! Initially I was quite unimpressed. However, I think that the story of the film is aware that he is mostly in love with her image, and with the movie-like story of their romance; it feels more like an extension of his love for movies than a separate plot in its own right.
This is especially true because of how it turns out: they date happily for a while, but then she goes away to university and he to the military (via a draft), and they suddenly lose contact and never meet again. That is to say, the romance is mostly dropped in the middle third of the movie! In the classic Hollywood film, the main plot and the romance plot are very much intertwined, both being resolved either simultaneously or in quick succession at the very end, to the extent that, Bordwell tells us, more than 60 out of 100 randomly selected Hollywood classics ended with the couple united happily in the now-stereotypical “clinch.” The fact that Toto, at some point in the movie, kisses a girl, does not mean that Cinema Paradisio has a classic Hollywood romance! This is, I think, the clearest way in which Paradisio differs from the movies it glorifies.
Finally, the ending: Bordwell proposes “that the classical ending is not all that structurally decisive, being a more or less arbitrary readjustment of that world knocked awry in the previous eighty minutes” as opposed to “the crowning of the structure, the logical conclusion of the string of events, the final effect of the initial cause” (p. 21). I can actually see both ways on this one.
Originally, I thought only of the story of Toto’s childhood progressing through to his adulthood. Although I found the “goals” I mentioned earlier, Toto’s love of film and Alfredo’s insistence that Toto escape their small town, somewhat lacking as plot-propelling motivators on the scene-to-scene analysis, when considering the film as a whole they are both quite well wrapped up when Toto willingly witnesses the destruction of the cinema and subsequently joyfully re-embraces his film career in America. Toto is propelled rather logically by his and Alfredo’s wishes, both of which subtly permeated the entire film, making it feel very much like “the final effect of the initial cause.”
However, I forgot that the film actually began with Toto as an adult, returning to his apartment to receive the news of Alfredo’s death and suddenly wanting to return home for the first time in 30 years. If we regard his resulting nostalgia for his childhood as an obstacle to his continued independence in America, then the ending scene, in which he joyfully re-embraces his life as a filmmaker outside his hometown, is very much a restoration of the status quo. It does flow quite naturally from the ideas and feelings established very early on in the film, but that does not necessarily make it a direct cause and effect– there’s no specific reason given for Toto’s decision to return home; we just accept that it’s what he will do. He even gets a very classic “clincher,” in the montage of Hollywood kisses that Aldfredo has left to him; it joyfully resolves both the story of Toto’s love for film and the story of Alfredo’s love for Toto.
I think that Cinema Paradisio, even though it felt like a rather un-Hollywood viewing experience, was a lot more like classic Hollywood than I realized. Which is really only proper, for a film about the love of classic film.