Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso won the 1990 Best Foreign Film Oscar after setting box-office records the previous year all over the world. Paradiso had a rough journey on its road to glory, however, with the then-32-year-old writer/director being forced to cut nearly 30 minutes from its original running time and facing critical excoriation and box office indifference upon its original release in Italy. It's a fitting metaphor for a film that has become a classic tale about fate, perseverance, and destiny.
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.
On the 25th anniversary of its North American release, Cinema Paradiso will be honored with a gala screening of a restored print, sponsored by Luce Cinecittà and Dolce & Gabbana, at Hollywood's legendary Egyptian Theater, as part of AFI Fest, the evening of November 10, with Tornatore in attendance.
Giuseppe Tornatore sat down with me during a stopover in Beverly Hills to look back on his classic film and the influence it carries to this day. Here's what transpired:
I have to thank you for this movie. It's one of my all-time favorites. As a kid, I WAS Toto. All I have to hear is Ennio Morricone's theme from the film, and I start crying--and I'm not a crier.
Giuseppe Tornatore: (laughs) Thank you. Words like that are very gratifying.
Let's start at the beginning: how was Cinema Paradiso born?
It's a very long story to tell in an interview, so I'll try to keep it simple. 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.
I remember reading after I'd seen it in 1989 that it was only your second feature. You were barely 30 years-old and it felt like a film made by a veteran director, not a kid.
Yes, I shot it in the beginning of 1988. I was 31 years old. When I got the Academy Award, I was 32. (laughs)
In terms of your own falling in love with film, was there one movie that did it for you, or a series of movies?
I've never been able to give a good answer for this question, because I know I will always leave something out. 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.
It sounds like you just respect the art of filmmaking across the board.
Yes, 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.
Let's talk about the two versions of the film, which are very different.
It's something that always comes up, but I've never quite understood why. 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." (laughs)
Do you view the two versions as separate films or the same film?
That's a tough one to answer. I love both, 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.
The way I interpreted Alfredo's character in the longer version was that he was an artist as much as Toto/Salvatore was, and that his creation was who Salvatore became. He never would have become that successful filmmaker without Alfredo's guidance.
Yes, not only that, but in the long version Alfredo is like a big character in a Greek tragedy: he is a mortal who is able to determine the fate of another mortal. So we lost that when I had to cut the movie, as well as this beautiful and tragic love story between Salvatore and Elena. When I cut the movie, I felt like an animal whose leg was caught in a trap, and chose to chew his leg off and live, instead of being a prisoner.
Now you're making me think of that scene in A Pure Formality. Was that scene actually a hidden reference to what you went through with Cinema Paradiso?
(laughs) Could be.
Tell us about working with the great Ennio Morricone.
That 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.
And his score is an indelible part of the movie.
Absolutely. It wouldn't be the same film without Ennio's music.
Tell us about the casting of legendary French actor Philippe Noiret as Alfredo.
We had three great French actors in major roles: Philippe, Jacques Perrin and Brigitte Fossey, although Brigitte was cut from the shorter version. None of the Italian actors we wanted were available, or they passed on the script. My producer asked me one fine day, "If you were forced to choose a foreign actor for the part, who would it be?" I said someone like Philippe Noiret, because I saw Alfredo and Toto being like a bear and a little mouse. At first he passed, because he had four other movies he was committed to. We asked him, as a favor, just to read the script, which he agreed to. Two days later, he called back, said he was in love with it, and if we could free him from one of these four contracts, he would be able to make the film. And he said "I will play any character in this movie you want, even the child." (laughs) So that's how we got Philippe and he was just a joy.
You've got 22 films credited as director on IMDb, many of which are rightfully regarded as masterpieces along with Cinema Paradiso. I interviewed Francis Coppola several years back and asked him if he felt The Godfather was both his salvation and his cross to bear. He said yes, that it was, simply because he's done so many other films that he's proud of, but his epitaph is going to read "Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather." Do you feel that way about Cinema Paradiso?
Yes, I'm very happy to be so strongly identified with it. I understand that some of my other movies are overshadowed by it, but 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.