I probably saw this movie about ten years ago at the National Film Theatre and loved, loved, loved it as a homage to the beauty of cinema. I have been trying to see it again ever since, but it just wasn't available through the usual channels and seemed to be little-known, even amongst the most ardent cinema buffs. Now, courtesy of friend Richard (he of the mini-cinema), I have my own copy and was delighted to have the opportunity of a second view. It was written and directed by the prolific and still active Ettore Scola whose filmography includes a number of remarkable Italian movies, although perhaps one rung down from the so-called 'greats'.
Marcello Mastroianni, one of the most consistently entertaining cinema stars, plays Jordan, who as a youth toured the Italian countryside with his father's mobile movie van, setting up sheets for a screening in rustic town piazzas, which filled with wide-eyed and star-struck locals, sucked in by the fascination of the movies' dream-world. Now an adult he has inherited the small town cinema established by his dad -- The Splendor. When new, it formed the centrepiece of the town's social life, with crowds rushing in to fill every seat to view each new attraction. However over the years the locals have morphed from finding it the biggest event in town to a who-gives-a-damn attitude as television and other activities replaced its appeal. One has only to consider the number of local 'movie palaces' from one's own childhood which have closed down over the years in favour of multiplexes and home entertainment to understand Jordan's concern. Where once he sought to present world cinema as an art form -- a way of broadening the town-folks' experience to a world view -- now his crumbling cinema is being consumed by rising debt and will soon join the dinosaur's graveyard.
Along the way Jordan has acquired a love interest in the curvaceous shape of French actress Marina Vlady (it is not clear to me that they ever actually married) whose shapely form as the Splendor's usherette and ticket-seller was a magnet to the menfolk of the town. Foremost among her admirers is Massimo Troisi's Luigi, who learns the projectionist's art to remain close to her and the movie-house. ( Troisi was the heart of the great film "Il Postino" and he died shortly after it was completed at the terribly early age of 41). In this movie, lured by his obsession with Vlady's Chantal, he also learns to love the magic of the movies along with Jordan and can empathise with the latter's heartbreak in the theatre's closing days.
Throughout the movie Jordan reminisces about times long gone by; the past shot in black and white seems far more colourful than the present-day action's Technicolor drabness. At one point we see him watching the closing scenes of "It's a Wonderful Life" in his nearly deserted theatre, and the tears form in his eyes, not just for the moving film itself but for a way of life fast disappearing. On the day before the Splendor is due to be re-developed into some sort of modern furniture store, the theatre is filled one last time by an audience singing "Auld Lang Syne" just like in the Jimmy Stewart flick, and indeed they and we can feel the tears welling.
This film was released the same year as "Cinema Paradiso" which stole all the kudos. They are both great Italian movies, but are really different kinds of homages to the movies. 'Paradiso' is more of a love-letter to Toto's youth and his love of father-figure projectionist Philippe Noiret, while this movie's melancholy focus is the fleeting loss of the dreams that movies can provide. I'm sure you are all familiar with the charms of 'Paradiso', but this film is well worth seeking out as an appropriate and equally moving companion piece.