Everyone I know who has seen Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso loves it. It’s an unrelentingly sentimental homage to the power and beauty of cinema, and it just melts the hearts of those who watch it, mine included. I like to think I’ve got a pretty strong resistance to syrupy movies, but Cinema Paradiso has me in tears at every viewing.
For those who haven’t seen it, Salvatore is a successful middle-aged film director recalling his childhood in a small Sicilian village where he used to help the old projectionist at the local cinema. Totò, as he was then called, is a cheeky scamp, often in trouble, but Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) takes him under his wing, puts him to work in the projection room, and fills him with an appreciation of the magic of movies.
Cinema Paradiso often compares the cinema with the church, presenting them as competing houses. One comical sequence portrays the local parish priest viewing every new release and telling Alfredo which sections to cut if they show too much flesh or lust.
There are two iconic scenes in Tornatore’s film. One is the charming moment when, on a warm summer’s night, Alfredo twists the projector’s glass screen to reflect the movie image out onto the side of a neighboring building in the town square. The glorious open-air screening is joyous. It’s as if the sacred spirit of cinema has escaped the temple. But like all powerful spirits, it cannot be tamed, resulting in a truly catastrophic outcome.
The second noteworthy scene is the final “kiss montage” that comes at the end. It turns out that Alfredo had kept out the lusty outtakes demanded by the priest and spliced them into a short film, which he bequeaths to Salvatore after he dies. It’s perhaps the greatest montage of motion picture kisses ever assembled, and Salvatore watches it through tear-filled eyes. As do we. It is a truly inspired moment.
Alfredo was having the final say. The church could not silence him.
Another filmmaker who sees the church and the cinema as rivals is Australian director, George Miller (Mad Max). He has said that movies have replaced the church as the purveyor of stories and mythologies that explore matters like relationships, faith, politics and social issues.
In one interview, Miller said, “I believe cinema is now the most powerful secular religion, and people gather in cinemas to experience things collectively the way they once did in church. The cinema storytellers have become the new priests. They’re doing a lot of the work of our religious institutions, which have so concretized the metaphors in their stories, taken so much of the poetry, mystery and mysticism out of religious belief, that people look for other places to question spirituality.”
So, cinemas fulfil a similar role to cathedrals. That’s pretty much what Cinema Paradiso is saying.
Miller continued: “Films are like dreams. When we congregate with strangers in the darkness of the cinema, it’s a kind of public dreaming, where we possess, mostly unconsciously, the more insistent concerns of our lives.”
I’ve seen all four Mad Max films and they were more like nightmares than dreams. But I take Miller’s point that film-going is one of the ways we tap into the collectively shared mythologies of our age. Greatly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s work, Miller believes that a society is the stories it tells, and these days those stories are presented on celluloid. Well, digitally, but you know what he means.
The competing nature of church and cinema was also captured in Terence Davies’ autobiographical film, The Long Day Closes (1992), about a young British boy coming of age among his loving family and the austere Catholic Church as he realizes his love of cinema and his homosexuality. Davies juxtaposes scenes of Christian rituals — baptisms, weddings — with those of Bud sitting in the darkened cinema in rapt silence.
In fact, the screen itself is rarely seen in these sequences. There’s a long tracking shot looking down on the audience, as if from God’s perspective. We hear a lot of film scores and songs, as well as bits of dialogue, including Orson Welles’ narration from The Magnificent Ambersons. But mostly what we see is Bud and other moviegoers immersed in the world of cinema. It is the ritual of movie-going that shapes Bud into the man he becomes.
Is this the way it has to go? You have to choose film or faith? The secular or the sacred?
And is it really true that the cinema is doing the work of the church? Maybe old men like Terence Davies and George Miller are harkening back to a day when movie-going was a collective ritual with the same cultural importance as gathering for church.
Churches are closing, but so now are cinemas. Box office revenues had been stagnant for close to 30 years, but the one-two punch of Covid-19 and the proliferation of streaming services has struck a massive blow to the industry. Just as thousands of theaters were shuttered with the advent of television in the 1950s and 60s, we are now likely to see a second tidal wave of closures in coming years.
Where does this leave us? All sitting at home alone watching Netflix and streaming online church services?
Some years ago (admittedly before Covid), I heard about the tiny Australian town of Nundle (pop. 300) trying to rejuvenate movie-going. A local woman had single-handedly re-established the Saturday night flicks. And the locals say it has been a boon to the dying township. In fact, the importance of a movie theater to the health of a town is well known. Cinema owner, Andrew Pike, says, “A cinema, if it’s run with the right intention, can do an enormous amount to bring a strong sense of identity to a community. Any art form could do this, but cinema is the easiest one to work with. You could put on a Gilbert and Sullivan production, I guess, but you can’t do it every weekend.”
Here’s how a local newspaper reported on the Nundle experiment:
“The tiny memorial hall darkens and the audience settles in for a makeshift night at the mobies. First up is a cartoon, followed by an old newsreel about an airship disaster, the death of Thomas Edison, and stylish ladies’ fashions from the 1930s. The main attraction this wet Saturday night is The Man Who Knew Infinity. A second-hand projector is propped up on milk crates. Black paper has been taped over the windows. Old-style cinema seats, comfortable but badly scarred, have come out of extended storage. Occasionally, there’s a whir from the projector and the screen blurs, bringing a brisk ‘sorry’ from the projectionist, a local cattle farmer. Nobody seems to mind the interruption, quietly waiting for the screen to come back to life again. It’s about cinema as a social experiment in how to restore a communty’s health.”
I can’t recall a recent social gathering I’ve been to recently where the topic of what we’re watching on our preferred streaming services didn’t come up. “Have you guys seen The Mandalorian/The Queen’s Gambit/Bridgerton?,” we ask across the table. Then we share our views on each others’ favorite shows.
But it’s not the same as sensing each others’ presence and sharing the same space, as we feel the same emotional responses to whatever we’re watching on the big screen. Maybe George Miller was right. We need to gather together with others and hear stories that help make sense of our world.
In March, 2020, film director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Dunkirk, Tenet) fearful of the impact of the pandemic on movie theaters, wrote an impassioned piece on the social value of movie-going.
“The past few weeks have been a reminder, if we needed one, that there are parts of life that are far more important than going to the movies. But, when you consider what theaters provide, maybe not so many as you might think,” Nolan wrote.
“These are places of joyful mingling where workers serve up stories and treats to the crowds that come to enjoy an evening out with friends and family. As a filmmaker, my work can never be complete without those workers and the audiences they welcome.”
I love streaming great shows and movies. I’m good with zooming, tweeting, posting, and webinaring. But — and you can call me old-fashioned — I’m unashamedly nostalgic about movie theaters and churches and the need for groups of people to be spellbound by stories and rituals that lift us out of our ordinary lives and remind us of both our smallness and our importance.