If you were Italian growing up in certain parts of the northeastern United States in the 1970s (such as Brooklyn, where I was raised), there were only one or two movies you had to know—The Godfather, of course (parts I and II only, please, not the later part III; the less said about that the better); maybe Rocky. But in 1988 another movie made it onto the required ethnic cinema list: Cinema ParadisoThe Godfather gave us a romanticized view of our kind in America and how we had “made it.” Even if we had a few bad apples in our (romanticized) family trees, the movie presented an ambivalent American experience and conflicted definition of “success” that was not inconsistent with our own. Cinema Paradiso was different. It showed us our (also romanticized) people back in the old country and what we left behind.

Cinema was written and directed by the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore and set largely in his native Sicily, in the fictional town of Giancaldo. The film had its naysayers upon its release. Vincent Canby of the New York Times said it was a bit too sappy and its use of fire symbolism “seems more like dopey movie making” than anything substantive. Yet the movie is now widely considered a classic and won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The movie traces the life of Salvatore, called Toto, from his youth just after the Second World War into the 1980s. Toto’s father is dead, killed in the world war that had devastated Sicily. He starts hanging around the town’s brand-new movie theater, the Cinema Paradiso, and ultimately makes friends with its surly projectionist, Alfredo, and develops a love of filmmaking. He also falls in love with Elena, whose well-to-do family cuts off their relationship and moves away. Life changes for Toto when there is a fire at the Paradiso. Alfredo has turned the projector to point outside, flashing its images against a neighboring building for the whole town to see. This sparks a fire in the theater, which blinds Alfredo. As one reviewer stated on the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary, the spirit of the movies leaves the temple with catastrophic results.

The theater is rebuilt as the Cinema Paradiso Nuovo. Toto must now take Alfredo’s place in the booth as the new projector-priest, but finds that the town may not be enough for him—he wants a filmmaking career away from home. Yet Toto is torn, not sure he wants to leave Giancaldo, or Alfredo. There is also the question of Elena; Toto keeps writing her, but his letters are returned unanswered. Alfredo demands that Toto leave Giancaldo and never come back, and never contact him again. Indeed, Alfredo orders Toto to forget Elena, him, and the town altogether.

The film is an ode to the movies and to the movie house as, well, a form of Paradise. Tornatore shows what happens when a marvel of technology breaks into a world still governed by premodern social mores. The theater changes the town, but the town also engulfs the theater in its preexisting rituals. The Paradiso becomes a second communal center, rivaling the parish church. As Roger Ebert said in his review, “Romances are launched in the darkness of the theater, friendships are sealed, wine is drunk, cigarettes smoked, babies nursed, feet stomped, victories cheered, sissies whistled at, and god only knows how this crowd would react if they were ever permitted to see a kiss.” The community is rich and varied, but not without sin and victimization; in one scene we see men lined up in the back of the theater to visit a prostitute. This being Sicily, Catholicism is very present in the life of the town and its people, though the clergy are played largely for laughs (a contrast that the current proponents of a Catholic integralism should ponder, and one that also echoes actual Sicilian experience). The local parish priest is serious about the salvation of souls but is seen as increasingly anachronistic. He watches every film before its release to signal to Alfredo which scenes—mostly of a lascivious nature—need to be cut before showing. Of course, once television arrives, that censoring power will disappear, but it is unclear whether that development is to the good: cutting people kissing is silly, perhaps, especially when worse is going on in the back of the theater, but the picture presented is of a unified community that shares, even if in the breach, the same ethos.

The last scene is the most famous. After some thirty years, Toto returns to Giancaldo from his successful filmmaking career in Rome to attend Alfredo’s funeral. Only part of Alfredo’s admonitions held; Toto could not forget the man who essentially raised him. As it happens, the Paradiso is to be torn down at the same time. Toto visits Alfredo’s widow before the funeral, who has something the projectionist kept for him: an old film reel. We watch as the old movie house is torn down, but not before Toto sneaks in and imagines scenes from his past and for good measure watches old movies he had taken of Elena all those years ago. Walking outside, he stands with some of the townspeople he served as a boy. They are old now and slightly ill at ease as the scene centers on the demolition. Giancaldo has grown, and the theater had become overshadowed by the cars and new buildings around it, no longer a center of community. New gods, perhaps harsher ones, have arrived.

Watching the film reel later alone, Toto realizes that Alfredo had not in fact discarded all those deleted “lascivious” scenes: he had stitched them together from all the movies the Paradiso shown in Toto’s childhood. The reel is a moving montage of moments classic and obscure, and we can see emotions play over the face of the grown Toto, played by Jacques Pirenne, as he watches.

The usual way to interpret this scene is that the projectionist has saved the “taboo” scenes of kissing and romance and kept them to reveal to Toto—and to us—all that we missed, a cry against religious or social oppression. We are supposed to be happy Toto left this parochial town and its superstitions and embraced his destiny as a famous filmmaker. Alfredo is the hero for forcing his young protégé to shake the Giancaldan dust from his feet. The film reel allows us to find satisfaction in Toto’s choice.

I used to think this, too. But upon further viewings, I think something else is going on as you watch Toto’s face. The mild eroticism on the screen is no surprise to him: Toto is a playboy and has had his share of women (as his mother says, when she calls, the same woman never picks up the phone). And in fact, earlier in the movie we see Toto peeking from behind a curtain at the back of the theater while the priest calls for excision of prohibited scenes. So this last scene I don’t think is meant as some kind of final liberation. No, what Toto is thinking of as he watches these short clips are the rest of the movies from which they were taken: the parts he shared with the projectionist and his town. These filled-in scenes remind him of the fullness of his life growing up, not the absences. And it is perhaps not too much of a reach to see his string of (unnamed) girlfriends in the same way. They were being used to fill the holes in his life, but love makes little sense without a larger context. Paradiso is a paean to the movies, but it is also about what makes a life well lived.

Earlier in the movie, Alfredo tells Toto the story of a soldier who was told by a princess he could have her hand if he waited outside her palace for one hundred days. The soldier agrees and undergoes the test, but on the ninety-ninth day, he leaves.

Alfredo has no moral to that story, but Toto thinks he does. He says that the soldier leaves because he does not want to risk the princess’s breaking her promise; that would destroy him. So the soldier will live without her, but with the image of her perfection forever. This story appears to be about Elena; after all, Toto was willing to wait for Elena but she never returned. But I think the story is also Toto’s life in Giancaldo. If he had stayed in Giancaldo, all that he had there might disappoint him ultimately. He was afraid to risk that, so he leaves. His return showed him that he need not have despaired after all; he could take that larger life with him. A meaning that was very resonant for those Sicilian-American audiences both as a group finding their way in a new home and for those individuals in that group who were leaving their own Giancaldos in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, for the New Rome.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman.