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Cinema Paradiso distinguished by superb acting

CINEMA PARADISO

Written & directed by Giuseppe Tornatore.

Starring Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio,

and Marco Leonardi.

At the Nickelodeon.

By MARIE E. V. COPPOLA

and JIGNA DESAI

IT'S EASY TO SEE WHY director Giuseppe Tornatore's second full-length feature film Cinema Paradiso won the Special Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as nomination for Best Foreign Film in this year's Academy Awards. The film distinguishes itself with its superb acting and fluid direction.

Cinema Paradiso, set in a rustic, close-knit Italian village in the 1940s and 50s, opens with Salvatore's mother trying to contact him with news of the death of Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), Salvatore's childhood, father-like friend. Upon hearing of his friend's death, Salvatore's mind flies to his youth in the village and his relationship with Alfredo, a projectionist, and the movies they showed together.

Toto, as the young Salvatore is nicknamed, is played with mischievous naivet'e by eight-year-old Salvatore Cascio. While the endearing monkey-like antics and energy of the impish Toto frustrate Alfredo, he cannot help but befriend the fatherless boy. Their relationship is based on a mutual love and fascination with films. Together at the Cinema Paradiso, they bring the villagers under one roof to view and experience images of faraway John Wayne westerns, as well as local and familiar ones of a fascist Italy. As the only regular entertainment in the village, the cinema draws the inhabitants together as a community.

The knowledge that Toto gains during his informal apprenticeship is utilized unexpectedly when a tragic fire blinds Alfredo before he can be rescued by his young friend. At the age of 10, Toto becomes the official projectionist of the Cinema Paradiso, fulfilling all the obligations of the position except screening each <>

film with the village priest to remove all the "pornographic" kissing scenes.

Cinema Paradiso continues with Salvatore's adolescence and first love. His fascination with film further expresses itself as he wanders the village with camera in hand. It is during one of these expeditions that he encounters blue-eyed Elena and is immediately enchanted. The smoldering passion that develops between the sensual Salvatore (Marco Leonardi) and Elena (Agnese Lano), and the wisdom gained from Alfredo, signify the beginnings of Toto's journey into manhood.

But Alfredo realizes that in order for Salvatore to grow and fully reach his potential, Salvatore must leave the village and its humble quaintness. The love between the two climaxes when Toto boards the train for Rome and Alfredo commands him to never return, never look back. Salvatore's education began with exposure to the world through films -- to continue developing, he must now enter that world, not simply observe it on the screen.

Upon Salvatore's return to the village 30 years later, Cinema Paradiso displays a touch of sentimentality as he journeys through the memories that surround and overwhelm him -- memories that he thought he was strong enough to handle. In particular, the gift that Salvatore receives in the final scene brings forth repressed memories in a moment of catharsis that reflects the passion that he and Alfredo shared in their friendship.

The appeal of the three actors who portray Salvatore is inversely proportional to their ages. The youngest, Salvatore "Toto" Cascio, makes his debut as a child captivated by the world of celluloid. Cascio's uncanny ability to immerse himself in the film, manifested by his memorization of his entire audition scene (including director's notes on camera angles, character descriptions, etc.), is all the more striking considering that he had never seen a film, much less acted in one.

The adolescent Salvatore, played by Marco Leonardi, brings a more focused <>

passion to the screen, still directed toward film but including Elena, his first love, for whom he braves the elements for 100 nights in a vigil outside her window. Leonardi's sexual charisma and intensity evoke memories of one's own torrid early romances.

Jacques Perrin, who plays the oldest Salvatore, is not given a chance to prove himself until the end of the film. It would have been nice to see a transition from Salvatore's village life to his current life in order to gain insight into his development from a boy wielding a camera with an unexperienced eye to a man who creates acclaimed films. It would also have been nice to explore his transformation after his return to the village after 30 years, to fully understand its effect upon him.

Noiret, an internationally known actor, imbues Alfredo with the warmth and tenderness that carry the film. Although an uneducated villager, Alfredo observes the world through the films that pass through his hands, and gains from them the wisdom that urges him to command Toto to <>

leave his birthplace.

Also noteworthy is the camerawork and the cleverly designed transitions between different time periods and characters. For instance, the transition between the young Toto and the adolescent Salvatore occurs as the blinded Alfredo caresses the child's face: As his hand moves away, the face of the young adult is revealed.

The camera captures the essence of the villagers' lives through vignette-like clips. A particularly memorable one is of a couple who begin their romance with a glance from the balcony to the floor seating in the Cinema Paradiso -- we later see them cozily seated together during their courtship, and later again with their squalling child in the theater. At the end they reappear as an elderly couple and silently acknowledge the role that Salvatore played in bringing them together.

Although a touch sentimental, the film captures a deep and passionate friendship while exploring the effect that movies have on our lives. Cinema Paradiso deserves the acclaim it has received.