Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Class: Cinema Paradiso

Polpette di Melanzane (Eggplant, Mint & Cheese Fritters)
Pesce Spada Marinato Agli Agrumi (Citrus Marinated Swordfish w/ Arugula & Orange Segments)
Quick French Bread
Cozze Marinara (Steamed Mussels w/Tomato, Garlic, Shallot & Basil) with Linguine
Torta Arancione dell'Olio di Oliva (Orange-Scented Olive Oil Cake) w/Amaretto Gelato

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know I was in Italy over the Xmas/New Year holiday. While the entire trip was quite wonderful, Sicily especially got to me, especially because of the wonderful couple I was staying with. I really want to go back and spend some serious time visiting the rest of the island. And, of course, I ate really well the whole trip. So, even before I left, I was planning this class and thinking about what amazing meals I would eat there and serve in the class here.

But I couldn't just do one movie/meal, so this is part one of an Italian double feature. So stay tuned for more....

Meanwhile, class went really well tonight - and I have to say this might have been the best meal yet! Anyways, as usual, thanks to the wonderful staff and volunteers at Central Market Cooking School for making it all smooth and fun for me.

This is my second film to feature the great Phillipe Noiret, and I promise you it won't the last.

Cinema Paradiso is available for purchase & streaming at Amazon and is streamable @ Netflix and Hulu+.


"This land is cursed. When you're here every day you feel like you're at the center of the universe. It seems like nothing ever changes. Then you go away, one year, two... and when you come back, everything's different. The thread has broken. You don't find those you were looking for; your things no longer exist. Isn't that the case? You've got to go away a long time - for many, many years - before coming back and finding your people again. The land where you were born. But not now. It's impossible. Now you're blinder than I am.... Life's not like you saw it in the movies. Life... is harder."

As obvious from watching Cinema Paradiso, and like many of the filmmakers I've written about, writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore fell in love with movies at an early age. Born in Bagheria, a town near Palermo in Sicily, Tornatore noted, "I was born in the year television came to Sicily [1956]. We didn't have one in our house until I was nine." In those days, there were seven movie theaters in the village, with one next door to where he lived. "I went every day, sometimes twice a day, seven days a week," he recalled. "On Sundays, it was enough to join up with an adult who would pretend to be your parent. As a child, you could get in free. So we waited in front of the theater for older men in their 50's to arrive, and we would go up to them and ask if they would take us in with them. We would get in without paying, and once inside we would split up."

"The theaters I went to when I was 5 or 6 years old, like those elsewhere in Italy, were all built during the Fascist period or immediately after the war, and they remained intact until a couple of years ago when they were destroyed," Tornatore said in 1990. "The atmosphere that I breathed in 1960 or 1961 didn't differ much from the life in movie theaters that my parents told me about. They had seen the same Charlie Chaplin movies that I saw in the 1960's."

"In those days," he continued, "a film lasted three or four years. Sometimes in a village you could find a film that was released a few months earlier alongside one that was three years old. That was especially true right after the war, when the borders were finally opened to all films that the Fascists had blocked for years, films like 'Lost Horizon' and 'Gone With the Wind.'"

In his teens he became a successful still photographer. He learned about making movies from reading and going to the movies, made some documentaries on his own, then began working in television. He won the best documentary prize at the 1982 Salerno Film Festival with his film, Le minoranze etniche in Sicilia (Ethnic Minorities in Sicily). That led to him being offered the opportunity to direct his first narrative feature, Il Camorrista (The Professor), starring Ben Gazzarra in 1986.

"After ['Il Camorrista'] I was really a success but producers said, 'People don't go to the movies anymore so we don't make much money anymore,'" Tornatore said. "They didn't want to make movies in general. For about two years I was going around, trying to bring the producer some money [and was told] 'No, the cinema is finished, the movie business is finished.' So my reaction was to tell [in 'Cinema Paradiso'] how the movie business was before."

Many movie theaters in Italy closed in the late 1970's and early 80's in Italy. The national economy was in bad shape. And thanks to the invention of videotape, the communal theater experience was giving way to the home entertainment experience.

"While I was going through these problems [trying to get another film made], I decided to visit my hometown and discovered they had closed the cinema--the Supercine," he recalled. "For many years I had thought about making a movie about movies; now something clicked, and [in late 1986] I started to write the script for 'Cinema Paradiso.'"

"I liked the idea of telling about a little town of the '40s and '50s province where this cinema hall, at the center of town, was as a beating heart, had a definite function," he continued elsewhere. "I wanted to rebuild what the cinema hall used to be once; a sacred place where people used to know each other, to spend time together, to smile, and dream; I wanted to give an affectionate homage to the cinema keepers, and to the projectionists...."

"Cinema Paradiso was nearly impossible to get made," he said. Finally, he managed to get funding through a French co-production deal. "Even after we started shooting, we shut down production several times when the money ran out."

And while many people say Cinema Paradiso is a film about the love of cinema, or a film about a young man falling in love for the first time, it is also about the love between a boy and an older man who becomes both mentor and friend to the fatherless boy. Tornatore has said that the character of Alfredo, the projectionist, is a composite of several men who inspired him as a youth, including some who were projectionists.

But there was one man who imparted to him the need to leave his village as in the quote I have above from the film. "He was Renato Guttuso," Tornatore explained, "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 [he said]." But the man's words stuck with him and he made it a part of Alfredo's character.

As for the casting of the role, "The character of Alfredo in my mind was for an Italian actor," Tornatore recalled. "But it was impossible to have an Italian actor for that role – because they were not available, they were not free, or because at that moment nobody was available to make a movie with an unknown director." The film's producer suggested, since the film was a French co-production, they would need to bring in a French actor to play at least one of the leads, and was there anyone he would consider. Tornatore answered, "Maybe an actor like Phillipe Noiret?" Noiret said he was busy, but they urged him to at least read the script. "And immediately after he read the script, Phillipe sent us a message, 'I love the script. I'm available to do play all the characters in the film as you want, even the boy.'"

As for "the boy," Tornatore went on an extensive hunt of over 300 youngsters. "It wasn't simple at all, and it took a very long search before I found little Toto," he said. "I sent a team of collaborators with cameras into various towns close to where we were scouting – Palazzo Adriano in Sicily, getting them to photograph all the children between 8 and 11 years old. Eventually I chose [Salvatore] Cascio because he had this mouse-looking face, which I thought compared well to Noiret's good elephant look.... It made me curious. On top of that of course, he behaved like a bright little dreamer, and that convinced me."

If you're a film lover (and since you're at this website reading this, let us assume you are), one of the fun things you'll find yourself doing is trying to identify all the clips of other movies shown on the screen of the Cinema Paradiso. I'm not going to run through the names of all the films (a pretty good list can be found at IMDB here), but some include: Casablanca, The Outlaw, Paths of Glory, Bitter Rice, I Vitelloni, Stagecoach, and Ulysses. Tornatore said, "Some movies are in Cinema Paradiso because they were historically right to that period. Some others, because... they are the testimony of my love for some directors or actors."

Toto, the nickname Salvatore is known by in the film, is not a reference to The Wizard of Oz, but is a popular diminutive for Salvatore in Sicily. But it does connects him to perhaps the most famous Italian comic actor of the post-war years, Toto, aka Prince Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno De Curtis di Bisanzio Gagliardi, who starred over 100 movies in his lifetime. But the one that plays at the Cinema Paradiso is his 1949 film I pompieri di Viggiù, or in English, The Firemen of Viggiu, AND it is the film that plays the night the fire breaks out in the theater.

When Cinema Paradiso was first released, it ran almost three hours, and was pretty much panned and ignored by both critics and audiences at home. "It played for five days and did not make money," Tornatore recalled. "I was told by the producer to take it back and cut one of the episodes out of it."

"In two years, I lived everything that you can experience and meet in making a movie," he lamented elsewhere. "I was thinking about changing my job because 'Cinema Paradiso' was a big catastrophe at the beginning, and I was desperate. I felt like I made a mistake in everything, a big mistake. People that I know were telling me, 'Change your job. It's good if you write movies, but don't make them.'"

Instead, he decided to follow his producer's advice and recut the film even though he initially disapproved of the notion. "I decided to make the only cut that was possible to do – I cut only a part of the movie, the meeting of [grown-up] Toto with the [grown-up] Elena, and one or two scenes connected with this meeting," he said. "And after I called my producer, and said, 'Okay, if everyone is saying that if this movie was shorter it would have a big success, now you can show me that that's true. Now the movie is two hours.' The first reaction of my producer was that he's not happy. 'What happened to the movie? What did you cut?' After I showed him the new version and explained that the only way to cut the movie was to do that, and he agreed with me."

Yet its second release in March 1989, didn't make much of a difference for Italian audiences. "At that point, the script was put into a drawer," Tornatore said. "My producer sent me a leather-bound copy of the screenplay with a note that said, 'In any case, it is a good memory.' It read like an epitaph."

But then everything changed. The film showed at the Cannes Film Festival and was a huge hit with audiences there and took the Jury Grand Prize. Even then, the film wasn't recognized back home. Then came its win of Best Foreign Film at both the Oscars and Golden Globe Awards in 1990, followed by a slew of international awards and nominations, and suddenly Italians began to like the film. “It took the Oscar,” he admitted (PDF), “to get the film back into Italian cinemas.”

Then, just over ten years later in 2002, Tornatore was able to finally rerelease on DVD his original three hour version. Cinema Paradiso, The Director's Cut, offers a chance to finally see the reunion between Toto and Elena as grown-ups and consummate their romance. But, some audiences and critics think the shorter remains the better version. (I have to say I'm also in that camp.)

"As strange as this sounds, I believe that the butchering of Director Tornatore's original 1988 vision saved his film from utter mediocrity, and took it to an all together higher level," critic Roger Ebert wrote.

Finally, I can't end without mentioning that since Cinema Paradiso was partially autobiographic, Tornatore did base the love story on his first experiences with love. Though in real life, it played out much less romantically. When the film came out, the girl - now a woman, contacted him. "After she saw Cinema Paradiso, she recognized herself and she called me. And from that time on we call each other every once in a while., Tornatore said. "She was really beautiful and everybody courted her. I felt ugly, so I didn't think I would have any chance with her. So I never said anything to her. She came to me and she opened up a friendship with me. And I was so surprised that I told her then that I was in love with her. But she wasn't in love with me. I think that she fell in love with me about 25 years later but by then I didn't have the same feelings." Ain't love funny....


While Tornatore himself grew up in the late 1950's and early 60's, the film is set in the post-war years of the late 1940's and early 1950's. And while cinema attendance declined rapidly by the mid-1950's in most of Europe - for the most part due to the advent of television - movie theaters remained a strong cultural force especially in rural parts of Italy well in the late 1960's, as the director noted above.

University of Warwick (UK) film professor Stephen Gundle wrote an essay in the collection Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy in which he discusses this era. I thought some his thoughts were worth noting here.

"Even though out-of-town cinemas were often rough and ready places, hastily converted buildings in which a throng of people would sit uncomfortably on hard wooden seats to watch a worn-out print of an old film, they nonetheless offered a novel and highly-appealing alternative to the idle strolls and interminable card games that for many still constituted the stuff of popular leisure. For classes and communities previously excluded from mainstream social life, the cinema represented a channel of inclusion and participation as well as entertainment....

"[Italy] was still predominantly agricultural in the 40s and early 50s, with a majority of people living close to the land, outside both the industrial system and urban centers. The cultures of the people were not written and national, but oral and regional....

"In the conversion of the country from predominantly agricultural economy to a modern industrial state, [cinema] was a factor of considerable importance: an educator, a source of new ideas and the mediator of the passage to novel and unfamiliar modes of living. The cinema was not the place where values were formed, but through it they were interpreted and given some sort of social sense....

"Italian cinema became a source of recognition and even consolation for millions of people uprooted or disoriented by a vast and bewildering process of social transformation. This gave it a cultural function of great significance at a time when audiences elsewhere were in steep decline, but it also meant that as soon as the process of adaptation was complete and the vast majority reconciled to modern ways, the domestic film industry found itself with few ideas and no further social role to play."

And when it came to "social roles," the Catholic Church was very keen, as Gundle points out, to "shape the development of the medium in such a way that it did not undermine the Church's influence in society, and where possible, actually served to reinforce it.... From 1946 it began a concerted drive to increase the number of parish cinemas, which in 1945 already totaled 559.... By 1955 there were some 5500 parish cinemas in operation, many of them concentrated in areas of traditional Catholic strength.... often strategically placed in rural centers where they enjoyed a monopoly over popular leisure."

The Cinema Paradiso in the film is one of these parish movie houses. We see by the films shown on its screen, and certainly with the bell-ringing of the parish priest, as Gundle explains: "From very early on it became clear how [the Church's] influence was to be wielded.... [They] recognized that an optimistic, unproblematic type of cinema resting on an established system of shared values was much more conducive to the restoration of a traditional framework of social order after the turmoil of the war. Thus while Hollywood films did not always meet the desired standards of moral rigor, upbeat American comedies and westerns were deemed eminently suitable for family audiences and were often preferred to Italian [neorealist] films for showing in the parish cinemas."

As strange as it may seem today, at the time of its release Rome: Open City (our last Chef du Cinema pick), even with its priest hero, didn't make the Vatican happy.

Once television found its way to rural communities, the Church refocused its energies there and soon the parish cinemas were a thing of the past.


Now when I was a kid growing up in New York, traditionally my family would go out on Sunday nights to "eat Italian." For most of my youth, I thought "marinara" was Italian for "meatless tomato sauce." But somewhere along the way, I was introduced to "The Great Marinara Sauce Myth" which goes something like this: "[T]he meatless tomato sauce was prepared by the wives of fishermen, who tossed the sauce with the day's fresh catch. The name is from the Latin mare, or sea." So it is "the sauce of the mariners." However, this story is considered by the experts as being unlikely.

Another tale goes like this: "In the mid-16th century, Neapolitans developed marinara sauce. This was due to Spain occupying the kingdom of Naples in the 16th century and introducing the tomato to Italy. Marinara sauce literally means “sailor style” sauce. This sauce gets its name because it was originally developed by cooks aboard ships in Naples. The sauce was made for long sea voyages since it was easy to make, did not include meat, and the tomatoes prevented it from spoiling. It was a great way to preserve tomatoes even without refrigerators. It was also used to flavor fish and other foods."

Now, if you go back to my post on Charade where I wrote about the introduction of tomatoes to Italy, you'll learn that it took several generations after they first arrived from the New World to catch on with Italians. As according to John Dickie in his book Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, "[T]he first ever tomato sauce recipe in Italy... appeared in a cookbook called The Modern Steward, published in Naples in 1692. By that time, nearly a century and a half had passed since" the tomato first arrived in Europe. "In fact," Dickie wrote, "only in 1844 did 'vermicelli con salsa di pomodoro' appear in a Neapolitan cookbook."

So it seems also highly unlikely that tomato sauces were being made by Italians in the 1500's, and even though they had figured out you could make a sauce with tomatoes, it took about another 150 years before anyone thought to put it over pasta. Now beyond when marinara sauce first appeared, the question of what are its ingredients is also in dispute.

According to an article in Cooking Light magazine: "Some say that marinara is a very simple fresh tomato sauce with garlic and olive oil. Alla marinara means made in a quick and simple way, with just the few ingredients easily available to fishermen, writes Giuliano Bugialli in Bugialli on Pasta. He continues, "Some people mistakenly think the phrase means 'with seafood.'

Other authorities, like Arthur Schwartz in Naples at Table, say the association of marinara with seafood is no mistake. The name, they contend, is derived from the Italian word mare, which means sea. According to Schwartz, 'Marinara in Campania is most often a tomato-based sauce with Gaeta olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, and sometimes preserved (canned or jarred) tuna.'

In America, to add to the confusion, the word marinara is used to refer to any tomato sauce made without meat. Perhaps Italian cooking authority Marcella Hazan takes the wisest approach to the issue: In an extensive section about tomato sauces in her definitive cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, she never once mentions the term.'"

Then in The Silver Spoon (Il cucchiaio d’argento), which first published in 1950 and has become the most successful cookbook in Italy, they offer a recipe for mussels marinara that doesn't include ANY tomatoes.

Therein, the editors offer up tips to preparing mussels. They write: "These mollusks have several different names in Italian – cozze, muscoli, peoci, and mitili. Nowadays, most commercially available mussels are farmed, which guarantees a high level of cleanliness. However, they should still be thoroughly scrubbed under cold, running water, but not left to soak in water. Pull off the beards with the help of a short, sharp knife and knock off any barnacles from the shells with the knife handle."

So call this dish whatever you want, make it however you want, and believe whatever you want as to its history. This recipe is pretty much how it was served to me in Palermo, and it tastes mighty fine... and that's all that really matters.

As always, cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Cozze Marinara (Steamed Mussels w/Tomato, Garlic, Shallot & Basil) with Linguine
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

3 1/2 cups cooked linguine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped shallots
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups chopped tomatoes
2/3 cup dry Italian white wine
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Parmesan cheese, for topping

Cook linguine as per package instructions. Drain and reserve.

Pick through mussels and discard any that are opened. Before you toss, tap them a few times to see if they close. If they don't they are already dead and do not use. Keep on ice or in ice cold water until ready to use.

Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic, sauté for 3 minutes. Add tomato through black pepper and continue to cook, stirring for about 3-5 minutes.

Add the mussels. Cover and cook 10 minutes or until mussels open. Shake the pot a couple of times to stir them up. When done, adjust seasonings.

Serve either family style in one bowl or divide into four bowls. Serve with crusty (garlic) bread and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Cinema Paradiso Screenplay

Cinema Paradiso, Original Release Length DVD
Cinema Paradiso (Director's Cut) DVD
Cinema Paradiso (Two-Disc Deluxe Edition) both Original & Director's Cut
Cinema Paradiso OST CD
Cucina Siciliana: Authentic Recipes and Culinary Secrets from Sicily, by Clarissa Hyman
Sicilian Home Cooking: Family Recipes from Gangivecchio, Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene
The Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, by John Dickie

1 comment:

  1. Got a rave review for this class in Slackerwood! Check it out!