Filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore talks about Cinema Paradiso – a classic tale about fate, perseverance, and destiny

Giuseppe Tornatore is an Italian film director and screenwriter who, after the Golden era from the ‘50s to the ‘70’s led by Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, restored the impact of Italian cinema in the ’80s. In a career spanning over 30 years he is best known for directing and writing drama films such as Everybody’s FineThe Legend of 1900MalènaBaarìa and The Best Offer. His most noted film is Cinema Paradiso, for which Tornatore won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He is also known for his long-standing association with composer Ennio Morricone, who composed music for thirteen Tornatore feature films since 1988. Read more

Tornatore’s interest in creative expression began at the tender age of 16 as a staging theatre director in Eastern Sicily for plays by Luigi Pirandello and Eduardo De Filippo. Tornatore was inspired by his mentor, the photographer Mimmo Pintacuda, who later inspired the character of Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) in Tornatore’s masterpiece “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). From 1981 up to now, Tornatore directed 12 feature films and 10 documentaries, not to mention a prolific output as a producer, writer, and film editor.

The ‘Past’ is an important concept that Tornatore explores in most of his films. Memories are vital for living in the present and planning for the future. However, some people might remain haunted by past events as seen in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In affected individuals, rather than trying to forget and moving on, which are virtually impossible, a remedial approach is to gradually learn how to cope with past trauma using psychological techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Themes of history and memories are analysed in Tornatore’s filmography either from a nostalgic viewpoint, as something that one desires to live again, or as a legacy that never really passed away. His characters are actively searching for fragments of their Past or passively impacted by it in the present.

From a nostalgia viewpoint, we find Tornatore’s most celebrated film, “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), for which he received the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1990, an almost autobiographical account.

Set in Sicily beginning in the years just after WW II to the late 1950s, and framed by modern-day flashbacks of a renowned film director (French actor/director Jacques Perrin) returning to his Sicilian town for the first time in 30 years, Tornatore’s hero (and alter-ego) is pint-sized Toto, who finds himself obsessed with the movies, and how they’re shown, when gruff but tender-hearted projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) takes him under his wing. Few films in history have articulated so simply and so poetically what it’s like to have a love affair with the movies.

How was Cinema Paradiso born?

I got the initial idea in autumn of 1977. I was involved with the movie theaters in my village as a projectionist. That autumn, they closed one of the oldest theaters that dated back to the early 1930s. The owner decided to sell the building and they had to clear out all the furniture, and basically clean out and strip the building. He asked me to take anything I wanted. So I spent three or four days there, helping to clean it out…it was so dirty, so musty, the smell, the whole atmosphere was just so sad. It just came to me to take this atmosphere and put it into a story. For the next ten years, I made notes as ideas came to me. I interviewed many of the old projectionists in town for their stories, then I wrote the script. I always thought it was something I’d make after I made a name for myself, maybe as my fifth or sixth movie. After I finished my first film, my producer said to me “Don’t you have a passion project? Something you’re dying to make?” And I told him the entire story of Cinema Paradiso, right there. He was so touched that I decided to make it as my second movie.

Falling in love with film

I was lucky enough to grow up in Italy during the sixties and seventies and see such a huge variety of films, some masterpieces, some good, some terrible, that they were all an education for me. From the age of about seven to 26, I would see at least one movie per day in a theater. That was a time when you could see a new film by a master like Fellini, a giallo by someone like Dario Argento, or a B-movie exploitation piece of shit, but I learned something from them all. That’s what I tell young people who say they want to make movies: ‘See everything!’ If you just see the sort of movies that you think you will like, your sensibility will be very narrow.

Is cinema his way of finding the belief in something?

Cinema has been everything to me. Not just my way of learning about the world, but also the tool through which I understood what little I understood from life and it is also the means which helped me believe in something. Everything is mediated through cinema.

 Respecting the art of filmmaking

It’s something I learned as a projectionist: I don’t care if you’re showing a masterpiece or a piece of crap, you treat that film you’re showing with the utmost respect and make sure you’re delivering the sharpest image and best sound possible to the audience. You respect the filmmaker’s work, whether you like it or not.

The lens is his playground

I’ve never had a hobby, I have never had preferred toys when I was little, I was never into sports, and I was never interested in what usually affects young people. My only real toy was photography, a medium that somehow made ​​cinema more accessible to me, when cinema was still too far away. So in both cases, photography and cinema, the toy was the lens, and the outline of a shot. It was what I saw through the viewfinder of the camera at first, of the super 8 and the 16mm camera afterwards, until the 35mm at the end. In all of these situations, the square I can see through the viewfinder is always the same. It has always been the same.

In “Cinema Paradiso”, there is a growing parallel of both reality and imagination. In that film, what scene most represents him?

There are times in which the way Toto relates with reality around him is tainted by his visionary ability to see things. Not only when the child, for example, is contemplating the small window in the projection room, which is decorated by a marble lion’s head and the lion roars, comes to life. It is also when a teenager Totò suffers because his girlfriend left, he knows that she will come back when summer is over, and he raves, he says “when will summer end?” in a movie it would have been already over. Fading, cut and the scene is over. He doesn’t even finish the sentence before  a storm starts, as if summer ended in that very moment and she comes back. Said like this, it is a very foolish idea from a narrative point of view, but it is Toto’s visionary ability of seeing things that makes it special. As to say, if you look at the world with a true visionary ability, the world too will look back at you in the same visionary way.

Making two different versions of Cinema Paradiso

It’s common for most movies to have multiple versions. For example, a director might premiere their film at Cannes in one version, then recut it before general release based on how it was initially received. When the movie was released in Italy, the timing wasn’t good, and it bombed, at the box office and with the critics. When your movie isn’t a success, nobody cares what you have to say. The producers said, “Maybe it’s because it’s too long. Why not cut it down? It will be better if it’s around two hours long.” So I decided to cut 26 minutes from the movie, putting it at two hours and four minutes. So I said, ‘Now it’s two hours, show me this big success.’ And here’s what happened: exactly the same thing. Horrible reviews. Zero box office. It made less than $100,000. So this for me was a terrible experience. Then it won the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes in 1989 and everything changed. Once it became successful, many of the people in the press who excoriated it came up with this alternate history that the long version was terrible and the film was saved by my cutting it down to two hours. Not true. It’s like the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When legend replaces truth, print the legend.”

I love both versions obviously, but I prefer the evolution of the plot in the longer version. I love at the end of the story that the character of Alfredo has this surprising dark side, that he is not so bright as he is in the shorter version. I also like the dichotomy in Salvatore’s life that he has huge professional success but no success in his personal life.

Working with the great Ennio Morricone

It wouldn’t be the same film without Ennio’s music. Working with him was one of the great miracles of my professional life. Ennio is not only a great musician, but has one of the easiest personalities. He works with you not like a temperamental artist, but like a carpenter. It’s like I could say to him “Ennio, I need a table with six legs.” He’d say “Sure,” and I would have the most beautiful, perfect six-legged table on the planet. If I said to him, albeit with respect mind you, “Ennio, I really don’t like these pieces of music you wrote here, but I know you worked very long and hard on them,” he’d toss them aside and say “Fine. Let’s start over.” You know when you work with Ennio that you can trust him completely and he is utterly giving of himself and his talent. He’s utterly accessible, a true collaborator.

Finding Inspiration

 I never had one inspiration, I know it’s like this. It doesn’t only happen in the morning, even at night, when I go to sleep, I have to know what I will do the next morning when I wake up, it’s an uncontrollable instinct. Sometimes I happen to wake up in the middle of the night because I just had an idea and I start writing, maybe I find a specific word to add or change in a script, I think of a different way to shoot a scene, I find a solution to a technical problem of the movie, or I could even find a way to change the editing between one sequence and the next, allowing me to get a clearer idea on how to make more efficient a specific scene in the movie. My life is full of moments like these ones. Therefore my answer is that I don’t have one specific inspiration, my life is based on this, on this uncontrollable instinct that influences my every day life.

Cinema Paradiso being his salvation and his cross to bear

I love that people remember this film and remember me for it and for the film as being special. I can go into any country in the world for the promotion of my new movie, and I am always asked about Cinema Paradiso, because it’s always with great love and affection. When I wrote the story, when I made the movie, I wasn’t thinking of fame and fortune. The movie is not the product of a calculation. It was the result of a feeling and discover after so many years that so many people have been touched by it, telling me as you did that they were Toto. I like to say that the world is populated by a big crowd of little Totos, and that’s great. I love it.