In Cinema Paradiso, Toto goes to watch a film with 50 lire his mother gives him to buy milk. He is not supposed to go to the cinema house and yet he can’t stay away from Cinema Paradiso. In this scene, we see Toto watching the film in awe along with others from the community. The theater is packed and alive. Gisueppe Tornatore, the director, pays great attention to detail-facial expressions, gestures and reactions of the crowd are well captured. The theater stall and balcony reflect the class divide.
The kids take the front row, working class Italians fill the stall, the rich man, who spits sits in the balcony, and the projectionist, Alfredo is stuck in the dingy projection room.
Like Toto, I watched films when I was in school. I bunked school and went with my friends to watch an Indian Bollywood film in Mumbai, India. We all chipped in our pocket money and went for the movies. Like Italian Cinema, Indian films were an occasion for families and communities to come together.
This was before the multiplexes. The cinema house that I visited was small like Cinema Paradiso. It had one screen, stalls and balcony. People whistled during kissing scenes, some kids danced during a song-dance sequence and grown men sometimes cried during an emotional scene.
In that scene in Cinema Paradiso, Toto is watching La terra Trema (The Earth Trembles) directed Luchino Visconti. The audience reception of the film is lukewarm and most people don’t get the language and context of this Neorealism film.
But during the kissing scene which is edited out, we see the crowds engrossed, disappointed and then laughing at the strict censorship. “Twenty years, and I haven’t seen a kiss,” a man from the audience shouts. During the screening of the Chaplin film, we see the crowd engaged. Kids and adults, rich and poor, men and women laugh together. Cinema thus becomes a great equalizer. But more importantly, this embedded film within a film creates a sense of double nostalgia. The audience in the film is nostalgic as they consume the images in the theater, and we as an audience are nostalgic about our own experiences of watching films, etc like Toto.
In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson writes, “Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation….” (19). In Cinema Paradiso, the screened films (Toto and others watch in the theater) create a pastiche–Hollywood classics, Italian and Art films, popular comedies and so on. However, Jameson explains that the postmodern nostalgia is “never a matter of some old-fashioned “representation” of historical content, but instead approaches the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion” (19). Thus keeping Jameson’s argument in mind, Cinema Paradiso doesn’t represent the historical content by verisimilitude, but evokes the feeling of nostalgia by aesthetic appropriation. However, this seems to be a reductive approach to fully understand and appreciate the nuances and texture of Tornatora’s film. Joy Marcus, on the other hand argues that in Cinema Paradiso, Tornatore defies the reductiveness of postmodern citation by embedding earlier film footage in his 1989 work so that “waning of historicity” or “aesthetic colonization” cannot take place. “Every time Tornatora splices images of old movies into Cinema Paradiso…he calls attention to what the film is not-that is, he announces the irreconcilable distance between the current work and it’s cinematic forebears” (201). There is a disconnect or distance between the Cinema Paradiso’s audience watching the embedded film La terra Trema and a simultaneous feeling of connection. Likewise, we also feel a sense of nostalgia and disconnection watching Cinema Paradiso, and watching the audience watch a film.
In my viewing of the film, I also noticed that Cinema Paradiso and this scene in particular created a sense of nostalgia for my community, culture and country. The connectedness that Toto and others feel in a small town going to a theater is also the connectedness we as viewers feel towards our past memories of childhood and community. My own experience of watching films in India then symbolizes a nostalgia for the lost homeland and sense of community I once belonged to. The cultural rootedness or lack of it, becomes a way in which the Cinema Paradiso evoked nostalgia for me-or as Jameson puts it eloquently, the film/scene/image consumption becomes “a desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past.”