One of the most heartwarming films in recent memory, Cinema Paradiso celebrates the power of the moving image in a most intriguing and innovative way. The narrative, relayed mostly in flashbacks, centers around a famous Italian film director named Salvatore Di Vita.
Returning home late one evening, he learns that his mother has called to say that someone named Alfredo has died. This cryptic message sends Salvatore into something resembling a trance. He has not been back to his home village of Giancaldo, Sicily in 30 years! Through the gauzy haze of memory, we learn that as a child, Salvatore had developed a friendship with the gruff projectionist at the local movie house.
Through the early sequences of the film, we’re also made aware of the unique cultural circumstances of life in a small town in Italy just after World War II. In a very seamless way, we discover that nitrate film stock is extremely flammable (the movie house catches fire, prompting Salvatore to save Alfredo’s life, thus strengthening the bonds between the two of them. We also discover that in post-war Italy, the Catholic Church was the final arbiter of taste and decorum. This emerges during a screening when the audience can be heard booing when there are missing scenes that cause the film to suddenly jump. These missing sections (filled with kisses and warm embraces) we soon learn were censored by a local priest. The deleted scraps were left helpless in a pile on the projection room floor.
Salvatore continues to work at the movie house all through high school. After his graduation, he leaves town for compulsory military service. Upon his return, his friend Alfredo urges Salvatore to leave Giancaldo permanently, reminding him that the town is too small for him to ever find his dreams.
Salvatore obeys his friend’s counsel, but he returns home to attend Alfredo’s funeral. After the service, Alfredo’s widow tells Salvatore that her husband followed his successes with great pride, and that he left him something – an old stool Salvatore once stood on to operate the projector and an unlabeled film reel.
After returning to Rome, Salvatore watches Alfredo’s reel and discovers that it comprises a very special montage: It contains all of the kisses and all of the romantic scenes that the priest had ordered cut from the movies. Spliced together to form a single and very special good-bye.