As the lights dim in the theater, the eyes of the six-year-old boy light up. His eyes are so wide they take in the entire screen and flicker with its images. They fill with a reflected love the boy has not yet truly experienced, like a trailer for the movie to come that is his adolescence.
In Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso, movies fill in the love missing in young Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio)’s life. Movie-going provides Salvatore- who is the son of a war widow- with guidance in the form of a father figure, the amicable cinema projector Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), and with life lessons from the passions on screen. However, there is still a lot missing. The local priest censors every lewd moment on screen, though this of course only makes the children of the audience laugh and giggle all the more. That scene had personal resonance with yours truly, because when I was a kid, my parents used to shield my eyes whenever so much as a kiss came up. Even if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known what love meant at that young age, just as I didn’t when I first watched Cinema Paradiso as a high schooler. I had been moved to tears by Ennio Morricone’s sweeping soundtrack even when I was aware I was ignorant of romance. Even today, I know that as I play out more scenes in my life, I can anticipate seeing and relating to something new in Cinema Paradiso upon every rewatch.
Before falling in love, one can only love through films vicariously. After being in love, films cease to be an unreachable, faraway goal, but a testament to one’s reality. Salvatore is no longer an adorably snaggletoothed child, but a suave hopeless romantic who pines after the neighborhood beauty, the elegant Elena. Salvatore (Marco Leonardi) and Elena (Agnese Nano) make the classic movie star couple. They play out a Romeo and Juliet romance set to an achingly gorgeous soundtrack that will tug on your heartstrings.
Decades later, Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) returns to his old village where he finds the titular movie house Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, or New Cinema Paradiso in Italian, a day before it closes, something Tsai Ming-liang premises his entire film Goodbye, Dragon Inn on with the closing of an actual Taipei theater. For Salvatore, Cinema Paradiso is love and innocence itself, a paradise lost. Fortunately, there is one more showing.
Youth meant the communal joy of watching a movie together with other children. Adolescence condensed the movies into a world of two; just picture two lovers sneaking their arms around each other in the cinema, more engrossed in lovemaking than the similar activities on screen. Now that Salvatore is older and wiser, he reflects on the movie of his life alone. Love is no longer an abstract, universal ideal for an entire audience of uninformed young rascals to watch, but a reminder of personal experience: tender, flawed, and turbulent, but always, always passionate. His eyes take in these images of humor, warmth, and longing again, only now his eyes fill with something inside him, a deep and overwhelming gratitude. Salvatore’s childhood was a teaser, his youth an epic, and now that his hair has become as gray as his former guardian Alfredo’s, his maturity the end credits.
Every experience helps one view the world through the fresh eyes of a child no matter how old he or she is, and perhaps none more so than the intense emotion of love. The memories of cinema and one’s life do not fade even if the reels of film grow warped and frayed. After falling in love and losing it, Salvatore can revisit the movies of his youth to realize what it truly means to love each person and place and phenomenon he has encountered in his life. Even though New Cinema Paradiso has become old, it remains a place of discovery: its footage reminds him of what it was like to love everyone and that one person for the very first time. Together, life and art meet to fill in the gaps of inexperience and erosion of years. That’s what love is—life’s greatest moments, where the flaws of reality and ideals of imagination become one and the same unforgettable movie.