Cinema Paradiso and the Hollywood narrative

(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.) 

TotoAlfredohorCinema 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.

cinema paradisoOriginally, 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.



11 Responses to Cinema Paradiso and the Hollywood narrative

  1. Lizz Yeh says:

    Hey Laura,

    I really liked how you used Bordwell’s requirements of having the two intertwined plotlines to prove that Cinema Paradiso was not the typical classical film. Certainly the romance plotline with Elena was dropped rather early in the film and left unresolved while Toto continued his quest to become a great film-maker. I also really liked how you called Cinema Paradiso a “film about the love of the classic film” because that is truly what the film was at the end of the day. Yes, there was lots of drama with Elena, but when you think of it as a whole, it was a film about loving cinema. All of the townspeople and most especially Alfredo and Toto had an affair with the theater.

    • eloriane says:

      Thank you so much! Yes, the defining romance for Toto really was the theatre. Honestly, he loves it so much, it almost makes me think it qualified as a Hollywood romance– except that in classic Hollywood the romance is much more literal.

  2. Don Tucker says:

    I like how you eventually come back to the idea that Cinema Paradiso may, in fact, have quite a bit in common with classical Hollywood cinema. While Cinema Paradiso clearly differs from the classic formula presented by Bordwell in many ways, it also subtly adheres to the formula. I think the assertion that this film is “about the love of the classic film” is a very important one. I would go so far as to say that the romance plotline present in this movie is not in fact Salvatore’s brief teenage fling with Elena but rather his life-long affair with film.

    • eloriane says:

      In fact, it was that thought, “what if I considered the cinema the love interest?”, that prompted me to soften my conclusion so much. Originally, I thought that obviously the film was not classic Hollywood, but the more I thought about it, the more I noticed the ways that it cleverly adhered to the formula in unexpected ways. Especially in terms of Toto’s love affair with film.

  3. Shilpi Kumar says:

    I enjoyed your entry a lot! I didn’t realize how much Cinema Paradiso was a classic Hollywood film until I read Bordwell’s article either. I really think you did a great job of laying out the film and analyzing the plot according to the criteria. I also see both sides of the ending and I think the two quotes you pulled out sum up the contrast really well.

    • eloriane says:

      Yes, I’m still really torn on that ending. I definitely have seen classic Hollywood films in which films ended well just because that’s how it’s supposed to happen, with unexpected information revealed last-second or people suddenly changing their minds on important issues, and Paradiso felt a lot less arbitrary than that. However, it was also, well, a little arbitrary! But I don’t think any of the elements can be perfectly classified as yes or no in this regard, which is frustrating but also what makes the whole thing interesting.

  4. Clarissa Lee says:

    this is a great way of invoking the goal-obstacle issue, and the idea of time as the ‘propeller’. I would really love to see how you an juxtapose this against the goal-obstacle form that one sees in Fight Club and Amelie during discussion. I think your analysis could be well-used there, especially in terms of what are the ‘inner logics’; time, objectives, etc, that drive the three films.

    • eloriane says:

      I feel like Fight Club and Amelie are less exclusively driven by the passage of time… I’d have to think about it for a while, come up with examples. I was surprised by what I found when I started analysing Paradiso, I’ll probably end up surprised when I try to look at the others! If I have time I’ll try to put together a post this week. 🙂

  5. shilyh says:

    Hi Laura:

    really astute reading of CP. I love your analysis of the heterosexual love affair as a love affair of image rather than of the flesh. Indeed, what persists of the affiar between Toto and Elena is only the footage he has taken of her — pure image. And quite right, I think, too, that the “real” love that drives the narrative is the love of cinema. But also, the “father”-son love between Toto and Alfredo (consummated significantly with more footage, but this time paradoxically of the heterosexual romance). Seems like the film consistently plays with adhering to the classical hollywood narrative and then subtly subverts it (sort of). I find this to be true also in the way the film constantly fetishizes exaggerated audience reactions to “the movies” — look how they cry! how they laugh! how they freak out! how they know all the words! — i.e. watch yourselves love the cinema. You are the spectacle.

    • eloriane says:

      Yes, I wish I’d talked more about the love between Toto and Alfredo– in many ways we almost have a love triangle, with the two of them and film.

      I hadn’t noticed the audience reactions, but now that you mention it, you’re absolutely right– very interesting. A little like the scene in Amelie where she says she likes to go to the movies and look back at the members of the audience– if you’re seeing the movie in a theatre, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to look back at your own fellow movie-goers!

  6. Ashleigh Bell says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post, particularly your paragraphs relating Bordwell’s claims about causality to Cinema Paradiso. Even after reading Bordwell, I didn’t stop to realize that the plot of Cinema Paradiso is in fact driven more by time than by the goals of our protagonist.

    I completely agree with this observation that time dictates the flow of the plot and what the viewer sees next and why, as opposed to the plot being moved along by specific goals or actions that can be anticipated by the viewer.

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