Child Development

Recovering Childhood

The message of the ending of Cinema Paradiso

Posted Sep 29, 2019

I recently was traveling in Spain and for some reason, a week of exposure to the architecture and sights and smells of southern Europe took me back to that final scene of Cinema Paradiso, where the 40ish middle aged famous Italian filmmaker Salvatore returns to the little village where he grew up to attend the funeral of his father-figure, Alfredo, the crusty illiterate manager of the local cinema.  As a young boy growing up in the 1950s Salvatore, whose father had been killed in World War II, had spent much of his childhood in the theater with Alfredo. He grew to love the older man, but when Salvatore became a young man, Alfredo made him promise to pursue his dream to be a filmmaker in Rome and never to come back to his village, where he would have no prospect of fame or fortune.  The young Salvatore left behind his adolescent love, who he never saw again (in the original ending), and whose like he never met again. 

He became famous in Rome, with all the trappings. As his mother, who remained in the village, told him later, every time she called him, she heard a different voice, but in none of them did she sense true love for him. 

Salvatore attended the funeral, carried the coffin of his mentor to the church, stood in the town square with the villagers as the cinema, which had been closed 7 years earlier ("these kids don't watch movies anymore"), exploded into ruins, to make room for a parking lot. 

Only the town fool made any sense in all the destruction: "The town is mine, the town is mine," he murmured, as he carried his plastic bags between the parked cars. 

As he walks around the old town aimlessly, looking for his lost love, thinking about his dead father-substitute, staring at his childhood cinema in ruins, Salvatore tells his mother that he felt like a child again, as if none of his achievements had meant anything.  He thought he had grown up and away from his childhood feelings, that he had found his meaning in life in his work, that he had girlfriends and money and fame.  But then, back in the village, he felt at a loss once again, as if none of that meant anything, and as if what had really meant a lot to him was there all along, and now was gone forever. 

Alfredo's widow gives Salvatore an old movie reel, which the old man had wished to be given to Salvatore after his death.  The filmmaker flies back to Rome and has an assistant put the reel into the film camera in his private studio.  When he turns it on, he sees all the kissing scenes that had been spliced out of the many movies in his childhood, censored by Alfredo on the order of the local priest in the 1940s/50s (to the constant dismay of his mostly young mostly male Italian customers). 

With haunting background music, scene after scene shows a man kissing a woman, displaying their passionate care for each other. 

The middle-aged Salvatore watches, laughing and crying, as he is transported back to his childhood, receiving a final message about life from his teacher. 

I thought a lot about this scene.  i know others have done so too. 

The film came out when in 1988, when I was in my early 20s, and I paid little attention to it. Now, in my early 50s, after fatherhood and mid-life experiences, it strikes at my core.  

When you're a child, so much of life can be so good, partly because you are a child. When you're an adult, it seems as if all the world conspires against retaining or reviving that childish spirit.  And yet cutting one off for the other is a recipe for despair.

Still, we all become middle-aged, and childhood always ends, and our fathers always leave, and our loves often are lost.  Even so, perhaps there might be a way to slow the process at least, and when it happens, to keep alive the best parts of the past.  Each of us has a Cinema Paradiso in our memories, which we can cherish. And each of our children is living in a Cinema Paradiso today, which we can help nurture. 

You can see the final scene, here