For young Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio), the defining moment comes when he peeks into the town theater and beholds the illusion of larger than life folks in faraway lands projected onto a blank screen. His expression is of such reverence – eyes wide open, dropped jaw, and mouth formed into an O – that he might as well be witnessing Christ’s resurrection. In a way, this is a birth for the six-year-old. Crayons and coloring books cease to be a catharsis; they’re child stuff. Before him – in the hush of the audience and in their laughter, in the drama and the comedy that unfold upon the flash of light against images on a reel – is his future. The projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), sees in the boy a hunger to learn the tricks of the trade so that he takes on Toto as his assistant. Giancaldo is a backwater place, the kind where dreams of fame and fortune, if anybody dares to have them at all, remain just that. A movie is a major event, and in the amazement a screening elicits, Toto discovers his power over an audience. He learns fast that a keen eye for editing celluloid frames and maneuvering the projector at the right pace are a form of wizardry. Cinema becomes the love of his life. The theater is his paradise. And so we have “Cinema Paradiso” (1988).
For me, my own love of cinema began somewhere at about Toto’s age. I’m a child of the ‘70s, and like any boy of that decade, disaster flicks were my genre. To this day, the triangle of Remy (Ava Gardner), Graff (Charlton Heston), and Denise (Genevieve Bujold) in “Earthquake” (1974) is as vivid as a mural on my bedroom wall. Remy is in a white dress suit, and Denise is in a pink leisure suit – middle-aged elegance versus youthful sportiness. The climactic end when Graff is on a ladder, on his way to ground level safety from a maze of underground tunnels, is pure celluloid drama. Denise, his mistress, extends her hand to him. All he has to do is to grab it. But Remy is screaming below, swept away in a flood of bursting water pipes. Throughout the film, Graff and Remy present the portrait of a marriage in disintegration. She’s a drunkard. He’s exasperated and wants out. Despite everything, he chooses her over Denise… to the death. Then there’s “Airport 1975” (1974). A Boeing 747 collides with a private plane, creating a gigantic hole in the cockpit through which stewardess, Nancy (Karen Black), unleashes a scream that only Fay Wray could match as a rescuer snaps loose from a safety cord and falls to his demise. “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) features hell in the form of a cruise turned upside down and engulfed in conflagration, while “The Towering Inferno” (1974) boasts movie stars galore that include Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Paul Newman, and Faye Dunaway trapped in a burning skyscraper.
Although none of these films are meant to conjure dreams, dream I did. I wasted pads of paper with drawings of explosions shattering windows to a building and a woman in a triangular skirt (Jennifer Jones) plunging to her death from an outdoor glass lift. I recounted to cousins and house help alike scenes of Remy in deathly situations. Ava Gardner was perhaps the first old Hollywood actress who caught my fancy as a result. My narrations, with voice a pitch higher from excitement, always went along the lines of: “Ava Gardner hid underneath a car… Ava Gardner waved her arms in the air like this…” I never used her character’s name. So lost was I in the throes of adventure that no distinction existed between fact and fiction. And I pronounced her name Ah-va. Even though she was a good 20 years older than Bujold, with the signs of alcohol already having taken a toll on her beauty, I was drawn to her. It could have been star power or it could have been the camera’s uncanny method of conveying turmoil inherent in an actor. The woman was a drunk in real life. Amid crumbling cardboard buildings, and in her pleas to be loved and rescued, she truly does cut the image of a sorry figure that knew better days.
Perhaps this is what Toto in “Cinema Paradiso” sees from childhood to adolescence every night from the projection booth, this understanding that it is the fragility of life that gives birth to the preservation of dreams. Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston are dead. Genevieve Bujold is today 74. Regardless, they have bestowed on us a repertoire of films in which they are young and beautiful – two hours of a world where we can experience to the fullest glory love and hate, life and death, in every pore of our skin – and in this they will forevermore provide escape from our everyday worries. Alfredo gives an 18-year-old Toto (Marco Leonardi) advice that will mark him as a man – to get out of Giancaldo, to never look back. The past can be an obstacle. Big dreamers belong in a big place, and often we need to sacrifice the things and people that we hold most sacred in order to surge forward. The train ride where Toto – leading man handsome, dark hair and brows in the style of Tyrone Power – gazes at Alfedo as the mentor recedes into the distance is a universal goodbye.
I knew when I left Manila at 18 that I would not be going back. My sister had planted the seed of migration four years earlier, when she had been the first to leave the family for college in New York. Life was comfortable in the Philippines – weekends at the Manila Polo Club,betamax, and air-conditioned rooms – yet my sister’s accounts of a city Woody Allen has been mystifying for the past 40 years beckoned me to move West. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/woody-allen-the-unlikely-romantic) Hollywood at that point had become an integral part of my daily existence. From the films of John Hughes to the Indiana Jones trilogy, from Gene Kelly’s tap dancing in the rain to his balletic homage to Paris… it was possible, I discovered through my sister, that these distant domains need not be distant anymore. The first day of freshman year in high school, my main thought as I walked down the corridors was this: In four years, I’ll be in the States. Come senior year, I was so resolute to attend college in Manhattan that I listed among my school choices Yeshiva University, at which my guidance counselor said in consternation, “You’re not Jewish.” I shrugged my shoulders. “So what? It’s New York.”
A line to a song about this famous city goes “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” The line applies to the United States as a whole, most notably in conjunction with a literary career. Although storytelling is a global tradition, it’s a mega business in the U.S. This holds true for film, as well. In the case of Toto, the mega business is in Rome. True to Alfredo’s instinct, the boy reaches the summit of his calling, having dedicated all of himself to ambition. An adult Toto (Jacques Perrin) is Giancaldo’s golden boy, the embodiment of pertinacity and success. However, the honor comes with a price.
Herein is Alfredo’s final lesson, that even though a big dream can lead to splendid things, it usually involves one.