Thursday, March 07, 2024

An Oscar-winning film, seen on a whim, changed my life

I don’t pay much attention to the Oscars ceremony, which will air on Sunday. Most years, I don’t see a single movie that’s been nominated. “Barbie?” Haven’t seen it. “Oppenheimer”? Nope. I’m a middle-aged mother with an 11-year-old son so I see few movies expressly for adults.

But once upon a time, an Oscar nod was reason enough for me to go to the movies. Ten days before leaving for college at Wesleyan University, I saw what is now considered a modern Italian classic: “Cinema Paradiso.” It won the 1989 Oscar for best foreign film. And it changed my life.

The main character is a famous movie director named Totò who, in the years after World War II, returns to the tiny Sicilian town where he grew up. The film begins in the present day, in an apartment in Rome, but an unexpected phone call sends the director back to Sicily – and the movie back in time.

In the director’s boyhood village, life revolves around the parish church and the lone movie theater. That’s where the whole town convenes in the years before television. Alfredo, the projectionist, is seen repeatedly shooing away Totò – back when he’s an adorable but incorrigible boy who is infatuated with movies and always grabbing strips of film that fall on the floor. Alfredo eventually relents and agrees to teach him his profession. In the course of the film, Totò transforms from a tiny tot who uses a stepstool to reach the projector into a teen using his first movie camera to capture frames of a pretty girl he likes.

Before I saw the film, I knew no Italian, and had no plans to study it. But when I arrived at college a short while later, I enrolled in Italian 101 and signed up for a hybrid literature-study abroad program – all because I fell in love with the sounds I’d heard in the film. Eighteen months later, I left to study in Italy, and after college, I went back to live in Tuscany as an ex-pat. Since returning to the States, I’ve written this blog as an ode to small Italian pleasures. The film is one of many reasons a part of me will forever remain in Italy.

The movie does what all good fiction does: it makes you wish you lived in the world evoked by the story, in this case, Italian small-town life. I felt as though I had gone on vacation, to another country and another time. 

It also reminds me of the necessity of pursuing something that’s not inherently useful or handy. Knowing Italian won’t really get you out of a jam. Even traveling the world, you’ll find Italian will help you in only a handful of place outside of one solitary country (Italy). But studying Italian has been the great passion of my life; it’s allowed me to step inside the mind of another culture and revel in small moments, such as eavesdropping on a conversation between a barista and a regular at café in Rome or dining in a remote countryside restaurant where not a single other person speaks your native language. Fluency, after all, is a form of immersion not unlike diving into a pool or hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I saw the film at a now-defunct arthouse cinema in Manhattan. Last year, I watched it with my students at a small college in Hartford where I was teaching Italian. I sat in the back of our darkened classroom, and took notes, my eyes brimming with tears of nostalgia. In one scene, Totò is at home in his kitchen pretending to be a cowboy, mimicking shoot-outs from westerns he’s watched at the theater. A lighthearted moment balanced with the knowledge that his father has gone off to war and never returns. In the space created by that absence, Totò’s friendship with Alfredo, who is childless, looms far larger than the token love story in the movie. 

The film is about more than a boy who grows up to be a director; it’s about how longing and loss shape our lives, as well as the power of community. Totò leaves his provincial hometown on Alfredo’s advice, without ever looking back, and becomes successful in the big city. But the cost to both men is considerable. On his return, he sees what’s happened to the village – and his one-time mentor, Alfredo – since then. As the director revisits landmarks of his youth, he realizes he’s abandoned the people who loved him the most.

Watching the film at 18, I absorbed a culture completely foreign to my suburban New York upbringing. It drove me to master Italian so I could understand bits of dialogue that escaped me on the first viewing and it introduced me to what would become my adopted country. Since then, its language and customs have infiltrated every corner of my life. That 11-year-old son I mentioned? His name is Leonardo, and one afternoon in Italy not too long ago, a Florentine friend of mine insisted on teaching him to curse in Italian. I am raising him in a house where Italian words cover every surface, from book covers to the posters on the living room wall, and boxes of pasta in the pantry. 

So go to the movies. See a film you know nothing about. It might change your life. And one day, when he’s a little older, I’ll watch “Cinema Paradiso” with Leonardo – in the hopes that he, too, falls in love. With the movie or movie-making or Italian. As long as he knows the beauty of falling in love with something powerful enough to change your life.




  1. Anonymous10:37 AM

    I love this! It was a movie that resulted in my first trip to Italy. Now I want to go back! This is lovely.

  2. Oh wow! I guess that's my situation, too!


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