1. Theme music up; we see a clay pot on a ledge. Beyond it is the blue sea, the Mediterranean. Camera back slowly as credits up reveals a doorway, a bowl of lemons on a table.
2. We hear an older woman's voice on the telephone. "Yes, Salvatore de Vita." The older woman moves into the frame. She identifies herself as his mother. She gains no information. Shot changes to show a middle‑aged woman across from the old woman. After the call, the younger woman (who is Salvatore's sister) tries to console the old woman: she notes that Salvatore has not been home in 30 years. He won't remember. But the old woman insists: "He will remember." She makes another call.
3. Moving shot from above a Mercedes, being driven at night by a distinguished‑looking, middle‑aged man. Some of the ancient buildings of Rome are lit in the background.
4. The man, Salvatore, enters his luxury apartment. He starts to prepare for bed. In the bedroom a young woman is sleeping. She wakes up and he apologizes for being late. He goes to bed. The woman says his mother called. "She thought I was someone else. But I played along. I didn't want to disappoint her. Camera focuses on Salvatore on opposite side of bed as the woman summarizes the phone conversation. The woman says, "She said someone by the name of Alfredo died. The funeral is tomorrow." We hear thunder in the background. A storm is brewing. The camera lingers on Salvatore as he reacts to the news. He turns over, and he stares into space as if revisiting the past. Camera in. Lightning flashes on his face, and the chimes outside, driven by the wind, ring out.
Toto, the Priest, and Alfredo.
5. Transition shot to the past: moving shot across a dark screen (the interior of a church), until from high angle we see the young Salvatore, an altar boy, assisting with the Mass. The boy has fallen asleep and forgets to ring the bell to signal the transubstantiation of the host. This comic scene continues as the priest, after Mass, complains that the boy is failing at his job. The priest calls Salvatore by the nickname Toto.
6. The priest enters the local cinema and calls out, "Alfredo!" The tall, stocky and somewhat grizzled Alfredo is the projectionist, and he begins the film (sent from Rome uncut and uncensored, of course), so that the priest can provide what he considers appropriate cues for censoring indecent sections--such as love scenes (including all kisses). The preview begins. Meanwhile, Toto has sneaked into the projectionist's booth and watches from behind a curtain. The priest looks aghast at the building romance between a man and a woman in the film. He rings his bell when he sees the vile act, and Alfredo inserts a slip of paper for later surgery. After all, the locals shouldn't be allowed to see such trash. Another scene, and the priest condemns an embrace and kiss with the ring of his bell.
7. The priest's bell ringing leads to a transition shot of the church bells ringing. We see a high angle shot of the square in town. Then we focus on activities of daily life going on within the square. Change scene to inside the projection booth of the cinema. Alfredo chastises Toto for sneaking in during the previews. He warns Toto that if the film were to catch fire (film in those days was made from nitrates, which were flammable. (This was the era before safety film), then Toto could be hurt. But the boy doesn't seem to catch the message. On the wall in the background is a poster of Bogart and Bergman from the 1942 film Casablanca. Alfredo cuts out an offending scene from a strip of film, and Toto grabs it and holds it up to the light. He is fascinated by those pictures. We see two close-ups of frames from that strip. Alfredo says the boy can't have that strip of film. But then Toto points a whole tangle of strips cut out of former films. (You see, Alfredo has to splice the strips of film back into the prints before shipping them back to Rome, where they will be viewed again uncensored.) Alfredo explains that sometimes he can't remember where the strips go. "Besides, they kiss too much." Then Alfredo makes a deal with Toto: he'll give him the unused strips as a present, but on two conditions: one, the boy stays away and two, the strips stay in the projection room. So the boy leaves, but then stalks back into the room.
8. Back home, Toto plays with his strips of film and improvises dialogue he remembers from viewing the previews. His mother listens across from him at the table. Later, Toto takes out a few family pictures, some of which show his father and mother together, and he asks why his father is not back from the war yet. (So this must be 1946 or 1947). "I don't remember him. Where's Russia?" Toto asks.
10. T hen a quick cut to Toto watching every move Alfredo makes as the latter packs up one of the films in its can. Toto is mesmerized by this process. We see him standing on a ledge inside the theater, looking right through the projection window. Alfredo yells at him for being there, but the boy claims he has paid for a ticket. The theater owner pulls Toto down.
11. The film begins. It is a 1948 film by Luchino Visconti, The Earth Trembles, which featured a documentary format with amateur actors. The audience is fascinated by the film. Then we see shots of the boys sharing a cigarette in the front row. Suddenly two lovers prepare to embrace. But whoops--that's cut out of the film. The audience groans and whistles. It's a double feature. Next film is a comedy which features Charlie Chaplin in the boxing ring.
12. Night on the square in town after the double feature. Toto walks across the square, but then is afraid when he sees his Mother watching him around the corner. She chides him for not completing the errand she sent him on. "The movies! Always the movies!" She slaps him. Alfredo, leaving work, witnesses this scene. He stops this altercation and then makes up a story that Toto got in free tonight. He produces 50 lire, the same amount the boy spent to get into the cinema, as money found " under the seats." He returns the money to the mother. All leave happy. Suddenly a wide-eyed man enters the frame and declares, "The square's all mine!" He runs about closing his square. The people indulge his fantasy.
In Search of a Father.
13. Alfredo and Toto meet again, this time after a funeral service, when Toto and the priest are walking back to the church and Alfredo is riding his bike. The boy gets an idea for a free ride: he feigns a sprained ankle, and Alfredo catches on to his ruse. In the next scene the boy is riding the bicycle with Alfredo. Toto asks him if he knew Toto's father. Alfredo knew him, and he describes the man affectionately. Then Toto says, "Now that I'm older and going to fifth grade, can't we be friends?" Alfredo gives a teasing reply, but it's easy to see that he is touched.
14. Toto's mother stamps out the charred remains of Toto's filmstrips as she holds her daughter in her hand. Alfredo and Toto arrive on the bicycle and observe the scene. When she sees Toto, the mother chases him down an alley and slaps him for leaving the tin of film next to the fire grate in the bedroom and almost causing a calamity. Alfredo has paused to sift through the charred filmstrips, and he holds up a partially burned photograph of Toto's parents. "You and your stupid movies!" the mother screams. Alfredo is saddened by this turn of events. Then she vents her anger at Alfredo for giving the boy the film. She forces the older man to vow that he will never let Toto in the booth again. Alfredo promises. Then the boy declares that he knows his father is never coming back, that he is dead. But his mother won't believe this.
11. More scenes in the cinema. Toto takes Alfredo's lunch from his wife and sneaks up into the projection room. He apologizes to Alfredo for what happened. Alfredo is moved by his sincerity and tells the boy to sit down and join him. He tells Toto he has been in this business since the age of 10. He refers to silent movies, and tells Toto that the projector was turned by hand by a crank. The boy wants to learn the trade. But Alfredo says, "It's no kind of job for you. You're like a slave, and always alone." He goes on to complain more about this job. The boy says why not leave it? Alfredo doesn't have an answer for this. He calls himself a "nitwit" who "never had any luck." Note the sustained shots in close-up here, the quality of Phillipe Noiret's acting. As they converse, note the great insert close-ups of photographs of famous actors from cinema. While Alfredo's back is turned, the boy successfully changes the reels without a glitch. Alfredo is amazed: how did the boy learn this. Just by watching? He kicks Toto out, and he yells at the boy for misbehaving, but it's easy to tell that Alfredo won't stay mad at Toto.
Working Together leads to the answer to Toto's Question: Where is My Father?
15. Transitional scenes, some comic, which focus on life on the square, the old man who “owns” the square, and kids playing a trick on the manager of the theater.
16. These comic scenes lead to a scene in which schoolchildren are taking an examination. Suddenly several men enter the room to take the same test. One of them is Alfredo, and Toto sees him. This scene works off of parallel editing between Alfredo, who can't figure out some of the questions, and Toto, who pretends at first that he won't help Alfredo, but then gives him the answer.
17. This scene leads through a musical transition to the projection booth, where both Alfredo and Toto are working together. The montage continues with Alfredo teaching Toto how to thread the machine, where to watch out for the film getting caught (and perhaps catching fire), and the process of sending films back to Rome. "Now you can run it alone," Alfredo says happily.
18. A short scene showing a family leaving town, accusations of their being communist, and Alfredo and Toto together in the projection room. Then more scenes from the cinema, including a series of newsreels of the aftermath of World War II. Toto notices images of troops killed on the Russian Front. He slips in a note at the scene from the newsreel where there is mention of a public notification to families of those missing in action. The next scene shows Toto and his mother leaving a ministry building after confirmation that the boy's father was killed in action. Even as his mother cries, Toto's attention is drawn to a poster advertising Gone With the Wind, the 1939 American film. The poster shows Clark Gable about to kiss Vivien Leigh.
Alfredo's Greatest Triumph.
19. A long scene that begins inside the cinema with a comic film starring an actor with an expressive face, a European version of Buster Keaton with a decided dirty‑old man bent. It's standing room only, and many mini‑dramas are unfolding within the cinema, including romance and sex and maternal love. Later, when an angry crowd gathers outside, Alfredo and Toto watch the scene unfolding below. The cinema's manager is helpless. But the people won't fit inside the cinema. So Alfredo takes matters into his own hands. He reaches inside the projector and slowly moves the mirror‑like glass between the light and the strips of film until the image, reflected off the glass, begins to move slowly across the walls of the projection booth and then out of the window, as if by magic. Note how the movement is accompanied by a steady upswelling of theme music. "Go look out the window," Alfredo tells Toto. We can see already that Alfredo has managed to reflect the scene onto the wall of a building across the square. Now there will be plenty of room for the crowd to view the film. Toto is impressed. The crowd reacts joyfully when they see the image on the wall. Alfredo even improvises a separate speaker to provide the sound. This is the moment of Alfredo's greatest triumph. Toto goes down to the square to enjoy the film. In one comic interaction, the man who “owns” the square gets angry when someone in the crowd says the square belongs to everyone. A last reaction shot of a sad-looking Alfredo as he looks upon the scene.
20. But joy turns to horror as the film catches fire. The crowd scatters. In the projection room Alfredo tries to put out the fire, but to no avail. Toto runs upstairs to rescue Alfredo. Intercut at the climactic moment, just after the rescue, are two quick close-ups of the adult Toto, Salvatore, lying awake in bed, remembering everything we have been viewing.
21. Exterior of the burned out cinema. A crowd has gathered. The priest mourns the loss of the town's center of "entertainment." Who can afford to rebuild the cinema. Suddenly the camera focuses on a man who won the football lottery some time ago. He looks interested in this new project.
The Nuevo Cinema Paradiso.
22. Exterior of neon sign: Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (the new Cinema). A crowd has gathered for opening ceremonies. In the projection room are Toto and his mother. He will be the new projectionist. Then on to opening night. We see a mambo scene featuring a sultry actress. Then on to a love scene. The crowd, including Toto's mother, the priest, and the new owner, watch in amazement as two lovers kiss‑‑for the first time in the Cinema Paradiso. "By God, they're kissing," a man yells. Everyone applauds.
23. Back to the projection booth. Toto looks sad, since Alfredo is not there. Suddenly Alfredo's wife leads him into the room for a reunion. The old man and the boy embrace. Alfredo is blind, and his face still is scarred from the fire. The boy talks about dropping out of school to work full‑time in the cinema. "This isn't your kind of work," Alfredo says. "One day you'll go on to other things." Alfredo puts his hand up to the boy's face, and covers it as he continues talking. When Alfredo's hand comes down, the little Toto has changed into a teenaged Salvatore before our eyes.
24. A scene from a film starring Bridget Bardot. Salvatore must be about 16 years old now. The scene shows a nude Bridget Bardot lying out in the sun. Cut to young boys in the front row of the cinema, jumping up and down, sexually stimulated. Then on to a montage of shots showing Salvatore working at the cinema, clips of gangster films, an old man who appears to die from a heart attack in the cinema (but is actually murdered by a hit man during a noisy film), Salvatore showing off the new safety film (impervious to flame), and other scenes from films and updates on other characters in the cinema we have seen before.
"The Blue-Eyed Ones are the Worst."
25. We return to the narrative, and this time follow the teenager Salvatore who is taking moving pictures with an 8mm camera. He takes pictures of a cow being slaughtered (this idea used by Potemkin in his 1923 film Strike and by Coppola in his 1976 film Apocalypse, Now), and then takes pictures of a lovely young woman who arrives to attend school. Salvatore shows some of his friends the young woman of his dreams. When she drops something, Salvatore and a friend race to be the first to retrieve it. He introduces himself to her as Salvatore. Her name is Elena.
26. Then to the projection booth, where Salvatore projects some of his footage and provides commentary for Alfredo. But when he comes to the footage showing the young woman, he can't speak. Alfredo realizes something has changed in the boy's behavior. "It's a woman!" Alfredo declares. Then Salvatore provides a complete description of this woman of his dreams. Alfredo concludes, "Love!" Then: "I know how it is. The blue-eyed ones are the worst." Then he goes on: "There's nothing you can do. The bigger the man, the deeper his imprint. And if he loves, he suffers, knowing it's a dead-end street." Salvatore thanks him for this sage advice. But Alfredo admits it wasn't he who said it. John Wayne spoke those lines in the film Shepherd of the Hills. This is the second time Alfredo has played this trick on Salvatore.
27. Salvatore arrives for work at the cinema, but when he spots Elena alone on the street, he drops everything and runs after her. He wants to, and tries to, tell her what he feels for her, but all he can say is "It's a nice day." After she leaves, he looks despondent. "What a jerk," he groans.
28.Salvatore asks Alfredo for advice. The two walk the streets, and Alfredo carries on about why God created women. They sit on the stoop of a doorway, and Alfredo spins a tale: "A king gave a feast for the loveliest princesses of the realm. A soldier standing guard saw the king's daughter go by. She was the most beautiful of all, and he fell in love with her. But what is a simple soldier next to the daughter of a king? When he met her, he told her he could not live without her. The princess, taken with his depth of feeling, told him, 'If you wait for 100 days and 100 nights under my balcony, I shall be yours.' With that the soldier went and waited one day, ten days, twenty days. Each evening the princess looked out, and he never moved. In wind and rain and snow he was always there. At the end of 90 nights tears streamed from his eyes. He didn't have the strength to sleep. And all that while, the princess watched him. Finally, it was the 99th night. The soldier stood up, took his chair, and left." Salvatore is stunned. "What happened then?" "That is the end!" Salvatore exclaims. "And don't ask what it means. I don't know." He stands. "If you figure it out, you tell me."
Salvatore's Dark Night of the Soul.
29. A crisis for the cinema. They have received a print booked into two theaters. Then into the cinema, where we see a melodrama showing a suffering mother, her sick child, and then a reunion between parents and parents and children. There isn't a dry eye in the house. Salvatore tries to pacify the crowd with a newsreel while his assistant bikes across country to exchange one reel for another. Chaos breaks out in the theater while people argue for their money back.
30. A religious ceremony inside a church. Salvatore and Alfredo sit together in one of the pews. Suddenly Salvatore gets an idea, and he whispers to Alfredo some instructions. Then we see Alfredo keeping the priest busy while Salvatore sneaks into the confessional. Great close-ups of the young couple in parallel edits. "You're beautiful, Elena!" he says. Then he admits that when they meet, he can't say a word straight because he is so nervous. "I'm in love with you." Her response: "You're very sweet, and I like you very much. But I don't love you." His response: "I don't care. I'll wait for you to fall in love with me." Then he sets up a plan: "Every night after work I'll wait for you under your window. When you change your mind, open your window."
31. Salvatore begins his long wait. We see him standing in a doorway watching the closed shutters of the window. This montage continues with several shots of him standing in the same doorway, in all kinds of weather, while the shutters stay unopened. In one shot we see her sneaking a glance through the shutters. He begins in April and is still there on New Year's Eve of 1954. Despondent, he returns to the projection room to return to work. Suddenly, Elena is standing there behind him. They embrace and kiss as the music goes up.
32. Another montage: this one shows the development of the love affair. The two spend time together and enjoy each other's company. But the sudden appearance of her father one day, while their car is broken down at the side of the road, seems to put an end to the love affair.
33. Salvatore sets up an outdoor movie for a large crowd on the seaside. He reads a letter from Elena: "A whole summer with my family, far from you. My days here go on forever. I see your name everywhere, in a book, in a puzzle, you're always before my eyes. I have bad news. In October we move to Palermo, where I will go to the University. So we won't see each other every day. But don't worry. When I can get away, I'll come to you at the Paradiso." During the letter, we have seen Salvatore in different scenes as time passes.
34. Then to a scene at the cinema. Salvatore works in the booth as the crowd views Kirk Douglas in his 1955 film Ulysses. Then the same film being shown in the outdoor theater by the seaside. Salvatore seems restless and despondent. He lies down. Suddenly it begins to rain. Salvatore lies on his back and is drenched. Out of nowhere Elena appears in the frame and begins to kiss Salvatore. They share an ecstatic reunion.
35. Cut to close-up of the adult Salvatore still in his bed in Rome in the present. More intercuts of the two kissing in the rain. Then a voice-over of the two conversing. Salvatore tells her he goes into the military soon. She tells him she will arrive on the bus before he leaves.
36. Then back to the past: the day the bus is to arrive. Ciccio says good-bye. He tellshim that when he comes back, he will have the job waiting for him. Salvatore waits, but Elena doesn't come.
Life is Not Like the Movies: It's More Difficult.
37. A quick montage of Salvatore in the army. He loses touch with Elena.
38. Then as suddenly he is back from the army and standing in front of the cinema on a hot summer day. Then Salvatore visits Alfredo, who is looking more frail and lying in bed. The old man touches the young man's face and says, "Sooner or later the time comes. Whether you talk or don't talk, it's the same thing. So you might as well shut up."
39. Then Salvatore takes him to the seaside, and they walk and talk. Salvatore tells him some Army stories. "You haven't seen her," Alfredo says. Suddenly Salvatore becomes serious. "That's probably how it was meant to be. Each of us has a star to follow. Get out of here. This land is cursed. Living here day after day, you think it's the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave. A year, two years. When you come back, everything's changed. The thread's broken. What you came to find isn't there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time, many years, before you can come back and find your people, the land, where you were born." Salvatore is impressed with his wisdom. But he has been stung by Alfredo's citing lines from famous actors before. So he asks, "Who said that? Gary Cooper? Jimmy Stewart? Henry Fonda?" "No, Toto. Nobody said that. This time it's all me." Salvatore listens closely. Alfredo goes on: "Life isn't like it is in the movies. Life is much harder." Then he commands Salvatore: "Get out of here. Go back to Rome. You're young. The world is yours. And I'm old. I don't want to hear you talk anymore. I want to hear others talk about you."
Farewell to Giancaldo and Alfredo.
40. Salvatore alone, sitting on some steps on the square. This shot dissolves to an image of the middle aged Salvatore sitting up in his bedroom.
41. Then cut to another memory scene: the day Salvatore leaves town for the big city. A great example of editing: several images of Salvatore's hands embracing his mother and his sister. Then he leans down to Alfredo to say goodbye. Alfredo grabs him and whispers: "Don't come back. Don't think about us. Don't look back. Don't write. Don't give in to nostalgia. Forget about us." Then: "If you do come back, don't come back to see me. I won't let you in my house. Understand?" The old man strokes the young man's cheek. Salvatore says, "Thank you, for everything you've done for me." They embrace. "Whatever you end up doing, love it. The way you loved the projection booth, when you wee a little squirt." Then Alfredo shoves him away. A tracking shot from the train shows Salvatore's point of view. Then we see his reaction shot as the train pulls away from town.
A Mother's Shrine to Childhood.
42. Cut to a jet plane landing, and then reflections in the window of the cab as the middle aged Salvatore watching the scenes before him. The cab arrives at his old town, Giancaldo. Cut to a close-up of his mother's hands as she knits. She stops. We see her in close-up. "It's Toto. I knew it." Then great shot construction. She gets up from the chair, exits right, and we see her accidentally pull some of the wool thread with her. Then close-up of the garment unraveling. Then camera moves to the window, and from high angle we look down on the cab departing. Camera left to catch the son and mother embracing just inside the gate of the house.
43. Mom has a surprise for "Toto." She takes him to his old room. It's like a museum. Everything is preserved from his childhood and youth. As he looks around, Mom smiles, pleased with her surprise, and we see point of view shots from Salvatore of photographs of famous actors, his old projector and camera, family pictures, old photographs of Salvatore, and a photograph of Alfredo and the ten year old Toto.
Alfredo's Funeral and the Ruined Cinema.
44 . Cut to the interior of the funeral coach. We can see the wooden coffin inside, and out of the rear of the hearse we can see the crowd walking behind. The hearse rolls slowly through city streets. The camera highlights several individuals. First we see Alfredo's wife, who whispers to Salvatore, walking next to her, that Alfredo "always talked about you. He really loved you. Reaction shot of Salvatore. Then she tells him Alfredo left something for him. She tells him to stop by and see her about it.
45. The funeral cortege stops at the Cinema Paradiso, now a ruined building, condemned by the city. Salvatore is stunned. He looks around. He recognizes the old couple who fell in love while attending the movies and have stayed together ever since. He recognizes the former manager of the original Cinema Paradiso. Then he recognizes the former manager of the "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso," the fellow who rebuilt it after the fire that blinded Alfredo. He goes over to this man and welcomes him. The cortege moves on. We focus on their conversation. The manager tells him he closed the cinema six years ago. Why? The old man addresses Salvatore as "Mr. Di Vita": "The economy, TV, videos. The old movie business is just a memory." What will become of the site? A parking lot. Salvatore says, "What's this Mr. Di Vita?" "Now that you're a big shot, it's a little different. But if you insist. . .Toto."
Revisiting the Ghosts from the Past.
46. Close-up of a can of film. Alfredo's wife tells Salvatore, "This is what he left you." Salvatore asks if Alfredo ever asked to see him. Absolutely not. Then the wife tells Salvatore that just before Alfredo died, he told her that she mustn't let Salvatore know.
47. Salvatore revisits the ruined Cinema Paradiso. Inside, he looks around, and everywhere there is decay. For just a moment he can hear the crowds again, as if the old building has come back to life. But it's only a memory. He looks up at the holes in the wall of the projection room, but then he turns away. He spots on the floor the plaster lion's head which covered the hole to the projection room, and which used to come to life to him when he was a boy. Salvatore can't help but cry as he remembers this moment. He climbs upstairs to the projection room and looks about. Then he stands at the window and looks out on the busy traffic in the square.
48. Salvatore watches his old 8mm movies of Elena in his bedroom at his mother's house. His mother sneaks a peek through the door, then leaves.
49. The next morning at breakfast. The two have a heart to heart talk. He admits, "I find I'm right back where I was, as if I'd never been away. I deserted you." His mother sits and smiles. "You don't have to explain to me. I always thought it was good, what you did. You were right to leave. You did what you wanted to do." Great parallel editing of close-ups between the two. She goes on: "When I call you, a different woman always answers. But I never hear love in their voices. I would have liked to have seen you settled, loving someone. But your life is there. Here there are only ghosts. Let go, Toto."
50. Demolition day. Dynamite explodes the old building, and now it will only be a memory. Reaction shots of principals in the crowd. Some of the men cry. Suddenly, out of the mists comes the man who always thought he owned the square. Now in old age, he stalks past everyone and mutters, "It's my square. It's mine. The square is mine." Salvatore recognizes him and looks on.
A Final Gift from Alfredo.
51. Back in his studio in Rome, Salvatore hands his assistant the can of film Alfredo left for him. He has a seat in a comfortable screening room, and the film begins. A tracking shot of Salvatore as he reacts to the images on the screen. What is he seeing? Cut to his point of view, as we see images taken from the old films, scenes of embraces and kisses, which were cut out because of the priest's censorship, and now are spliced together in a special gift from Alfredo. After the first several images, the scene continues in a parallel track with shots of lovers kissing, then reaction shots of Salvatore, as the music propels the montage forward. Salvatore begins to smile as he settles into his chair and enjoys the gift. FINE (the end) appears on the screen, and as the credits continue, we see images of the principal actors from earlier scenes in the film.
Film resource written by Robert Yahnke
Copyright, Robert E. Yahnke, © 2009
Professor, Univ. of Minnesota
Request permission from the author to reprint this resource--for educational use only