Warning: Spoiler.  DO NOT READ THIS article BEFORE you have seen CINEMA PARADISO. It is written predicated on the assumption that patrons have already seen the film. Descriptions of scenes in the film should not be known until the film unfolds for the viewer.


In CINEMA PARADISO, one of the key symbolic elements is fire; it causes some dramatic sequences with life-changing results to Alfredo the projectionist. It just so happens that although fire works very nicely as a creative tool for director Giuseppe Tornatore, its potential danger in the projection booth is grounded in good scientific fact.

Nitrate base film was the first material used for theatrical motion picture stock since the industry began in the silent era. Many years of research went into finding just the right compound that could be used for the film base. Nitrate film seemed to have all the physical properties that made it ideal: flexibility, the ability of the picture emulsion (the gelatin material that contains the actual image) to adhere to it, light weight, and its ability to transmit light. It had all the right properties save one....it wasn't inert -- rather, it was highly volatile in the presence of heat; it had a tendency to explode into uncontrollable flameThe fact that the very nature of the projection equipment required that this nitrate film would have to pass in front of an extremely hot light source needed to produce a bright theatre picture, made the problem doubly vexing.

The potential for fire in theatre projection was always a very real possibility. Regulation after regulation were written to govern how the nitrate film should be handled in the projection booth so that it would present the least danger of igniting. As a result, projection booths became fireproof fortresses; their walls, ceiling, and floors by law had to be constructed of double thick brick or stone block and the doors of double steel with automatic closures that would swing them closed if a fire were to start in the booth. Likewise, all the projection windows or "ports" were to have shutters that slam shut in the presence of a rise in temperature. In the days before air-conditioning, many shows stopped abruptly because the fire fuse link would give way and the shutters would drop in front of the booth ports in the middle of the show1!   The idea was, that if the nitrate film "flashed" (that's how it burns - it's a cross between "ignite" and "explode"), the projection booth and the fire would effectively be sealed off from the rest of the theatre and the patrons (presumably creating a "projectionist flambé" in the process).

Some of the regulations are obvious.  For example, smoking is never permitted in the booth; the projectionist should never leave the booth (a regulation that prompted the installation of toilets within the booth itself). Others regs are extremely complicated and inconvenient.  For example, no more than three feet of film can be exposed at any one time.  This means that each film reel has to be carried back and forth from the projector to the rewind room enclosed in a metal can.  Each reel has to be stored in the rewind room in its own fire vault (there are usually between six and twelve reels per feature).  In addition, there should be no wood or combustible items in the booth; everything, including the furniture, has to be metal.

For decades the projectionists had to be licensed by the NYC Department of Gas and Electricity. The process is lengthy and difficult, requiring the candidate to know all city, state, and federal electrical regulations and fire codes. These and electrical formulas as well as knowledge about film, projectors and sound systems are all condensed into a three-hour written exam; passing that, an additional practical exam must be passed. Today the licensing process is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Unlike home 8mm or school 16mm projectors on which the supply reel and the take-up reel of safety film are simply mounted on projector arms, theatrical film reels are mounted in magazines - enclosed metal cases which sit above (the supply reel) and below (for the take-up reel) the projector mechanism. The film must pass through fire barriers (or "traps") just where it enters and leaves the projector mechanism -- the idea being that if a fire were to break out in the projector head (the most likely place a fire would start) -- it would burn only the relatively small amount of film in the projector head, but could not travel up or down to flash the much larger quantity of film on the supply reel or on the take-up reel because it would be stopped by the fire traps. For all the precautions, however, there were still a number of disastrous fires in some of the largest theatres in the country, all attributed to nitrate film as the combustible material that caused the fires.

In the mid-forties it was the Eastman Kodak Company who introduced a new film stock which they called "safety film." Many people incorrectly assume that this film will not burn; safety film does burn - but it does not explode like nitrate film. It doesn't burn once the heat source is removed. Although Kodak developed safety film specifically for use in the amateur film market, which could not be expected to grow significantly if the film being offered for sale would burst into flames if you looked at it the wrong way. The new triacetate safety film quickly began to replace nitrate film in the theatrical industry as well.

Today, safety film is used for every feature film produced by the Hollywood studios. However, nitrate films are still kept and used, especially in archival situations.  Studio archive vaults still keep original prints of older titles even if they are on nitrate stock. In our theatre, a cartoon or a short or even a "snipe" (those short strips of film that say "coming soon" or "starts Friday") may be found to be on nitrate stock. For this reason, a good projectionist is still taught and diligently follows all of the old regulations and safety procedures that were designed for nitrate film.                               - FA



From the outset, Giuseppe Tornatore, director of the Academy Award-winner CINEMA PARADISO, makes it clear that this film which he has crafted is his own personal labor of love. This is a film about his childhood and his life-long love - the movies. Like most Italian love stories, it is unabashedly passionate, shamelessly romantic, and unquestionably from the heart. This isn't the first time an Italian film-maker, or a poet or a writer has jumped into his work with both feet and all of his heart. Frederico Fellini, who as a child had always loved the circus, gave us his AMARCORD - a wonderful love-poem of a film that is ripe with the same Italian flavor that CINEMA PARADISO exhibits quite proudly. Accepting this, and perhaps forgiving the broad and sometimes obvious strokes that Tornatore uses, the film has quite a unique charm; it becomes a touching tribute to youth, imagination, and the movies that tie them together.

To look at CINEMA PARADISO as a story about a movie theatre in Sicily is only to see the surface. Tornatore has woven a multi-layered fabric about the relationship of art and life and how those who love both can teach and pass down their passion from one generation to another. He uses a series of flashbacks to tell the story of Salvatore as a grown man, returning to the town of his boyhood to attend the funeral of his mentor, Alfredo, the local projectionist Through flashback, we meet Salvatore the boy and all his wonder and curiosity. He plays in the small town square, dusty and stark, but is inexorably drawn to the town's only cinema house. There, magic happens. As was true in many small towns around the world, the cinema was the central meeting place for the townsfolk - a communal focal point to escape the hard reality of the poverty of the streets outside; in the Paradise Cinema they could be transported to other worlds, other lives.

The power of the film image to fire one's imagination and one's passion is Tornatore's recurring theme. He uses fire as a symbol of this power. It is the actual nitrate film itself that is always in a volatile state, ready at any moment to ignite into an uncontrollable conflagration. The projectionist, the keeper of the images (or art), is caught in a film fire that destroys the theatre and blinds him. Tornatore wants us to love cinema and the arts in general, but he is also very aware of their dangerous, hypnotic powers.

The priest is also a character that is used to reinforce the idea that art is powerful, but if it is all that you know, it becomes dangerous and destructive. He watches the films and rings the small sanctuary bell (used in the Mass) to signal which scenes must be cut from the film before it can be shown. Each time boy and girl/man and women move toward a passionate embrace, the bell rings and out goes that footage. But Alfredo is a wise teacher; he has preserved all the kisses of all the films that he has ever shown and has left them to Salvatore as his final gift, bringing Tornatore's theme back full circle: that only after one has inhaled the fragrance of life itself does the creative expression in art (or in film) become meaningful and precious.

The camera work of Blasco Giurato is marvelous to behold. It lingers on the faces of the generations that parade past the town square, and it lovingly pauses longer than the three second shots we of the American cinema tradition have become burdened with (thank you so much, MTV). The camera is allowed to drink in the scenes rather than fly past them. Philippe Noiret is not a newcomer to the foreign film buff. We saw him here several seasons ago in his highly acclaimed THE CLOCKMAKER. As is his forte, he underplays the aging Alfredo, letting us imagine the turmoil and pain the man is feeling inside. In the scene when he admonishes the young adult Salvatore to leave the town and never turn back (even though this will mean sacrificing their friendship), we are watching a seasoned actor at the height of his craft.

CINEMA PARADISO has its faults; many critics (Americans all) disapproved of its heavy-handed use of the fire symbol, the film's overt sentimentality, and its bittersweet doses of nostalgia. But one must appreciate the context of these elements; the movie is about looking back to the passions of youth, opportunities missed ...it is about unrequited love; it is set in post-war Italy and it is about Italians who never claimed to be reserved or undemonstrative when it comes to love and life. Suggestion: go with it; allow Tornatore this peculiarly European, particularly Italian romanticism, and for two hours leave all your New York/Brooklyn cynicism at the door. The whole ebb and flow of the film then rings true ...and that is all anyone can ask of movies and, for that matter, life.

Enjoy the passion Tornatore has for both the reality of life and for the imagination of art (the cinema). He is telling us that we need to keep a balance between both. "Life is not like the movies;" Alfredo tells the youth; you must live life instead of watching it. But he also knows that without those magic, flickering images to fire the imagination, one might never have arts' creativity to live life fully.                                                                                                               -- FA

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