Italian Film Maker Makes Name for Himself : Movies: Giuseppe Tornatore’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’ garnered an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film.


“Cinema Paradiso,” which won a special jury prize at Cannes last year and is an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, introduces to American audiences its writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore.

His film takes its title from an ancient Sicilian village’s movie theater, where the film’s young hero (Salvatore Cascio) falls in love with the movies while growing up in the postwar era under the influence of the theater’s kindly, paternal projectionist (Philippe Noiret). Jacques Perrin plays the boy as a middle-aged adult in the film’s framing sections.

It’s the kind of film that appeals to movie lovers everywhere, and Tornatore acknowledges that it is in part autobiographical. “As a child, I had the same curiosity as that little kid,” said Tornatore, who was born in Bagheria, a village near Palermo. “I invented any kind of reason to get into the projection booth.”


However, he added that Noiret’s character is a composite of many men, some of them projectionists. It is Noiret who forcibly insists that the boy must leave his hometown if he is to have a hope of fulfilling his destiny, but with Tornatore, the man who said the same thing to him was someone he barely knew.

“He was Renato Guttuso, a very famous painter, who had returned to Bagheria, which was his hometown, for some big celebration in his honor. Perhaps it was a birthday, I don’t remember. I told him I’d made some movies--I made my first documentary when I was 15 years old--and I asked him for his advice. He said emphatically that I had to go away! --that was all.” But Tornatore listened to him.

The 33-year-old Tornatore, speaking through an interpreter, is some 20 years younger than his screen alter ego. A dark, compact man of gently humorous but essentially serious nature, he is a self-taught film maker--”I tried to see as many films as possible and to read as many books about them as possible.”

Eventually, one of his documentaries was bought by television, which led in 1979 to his being hired to make documentaries for TV. From 1978-85, he was president of a film cooperative that produced a picture in Sicily in 1983 with the late actor Lino Ventura, which gave him his first opportunity to shoot some scenes for a movie. In 1986 he made his first feature, “Il Camorrista”--the Sicilian equivalent of the Mafia is the Camorra --starring Ben Gazzara and Laura del Sol.

“Then I developed several projects, but I couldn’t find a producer to back any of them. While I was going through these problems, I decided to visit my hometown and discovered they had closed the cinema--the Supercine. For many years I had thought about making a movie about movies; now something clicked, and I started to write the script for ‘Cinema Paradiso.’ ”

Starting at the end of 1986, Tornatore spent two months on the first draft, drawing upon notes he had kept over the previous seven years. Once again, he faced the struggle to find a producer. This time, one of Italy’s most distinguished veterans, Franco Cristaldi, came to the rescue and put together a co-production deal with France, which brought in Noiret and Perrin. The French actors spoke in their own language and were dubbed into Italian.

For Tornatore, Noiret became the patient mainstay of what proved to be a complicated 13-week shoot. Not only was it necessary to re-create the ‘40s and ‘50s, but also to find a town with a piazza large enough to allow the construction of a sizable theater--which was promptly destroyed in a windstorm and had to be rebuilt. The search for this key locale took four months, and the film’s village is actually a composite of six different towns.


One of “Cinema Paradiso’s” charms is that it tantalizes audiences with glimpses of about 50 films--among them John Ford’s “Stagecoach” and Luchino Visconti’s “La Terra Trema.” You may also spot in a vintage swashbuckler the late Amedeo Nazzari, a popular star for 40 years, who played himself in Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria.”

“A provincial theater would play all kinds of movies,” said Tornatore. “For one day, it might play a film by one of the grand masters, then a typical adventure picture the next two or three days.”

Tornatore feels indebted to Ben Gazzara for launching his career as a feature director. “ ‘Il Camorrista,’ which I adapted from a novel, is the story of a minor Neapolitan criminal who is jailed very young and decides to become a very big criminal,” said Tornatore. “I gave Ben the book, showed him my documentaries, and he got very enthusiastic. We did not have a producer, but he said not to worry, that he would call a press conference to announce that we were going to make the picture and that this was the way to attract a producer. He was right.”

Tornatore is in post-production on his third feature, “Everybody’s Fine,” starring Marcello Mastroianni. “It’s the first time he’s played a really old man,” he said. “He’s just retired and decides to journey all over Italy to look up old friends. Some don’t even remember him. It will be released in October.”

One of the surprising things about “Cinema Paradiso” is that while we discover its hero, now in his 50s, has gone on to a successful career as a director, he hasn’t worked out his personal life. Asked if he is married or has children, Tornatore said no, adding with a wry smile, “maybe this part of the movie really is my autobiography.