Cinema Paradiso is a beautiful examination of the relationship human beings have with film. This connection is explored through the story of a young boy and his friendship with the projectionist at the town’s local cinema. The strength of this friendship is only surpassed in intensity by the boy’s deep desire to become a part of the world of movie making. This is a story not about the medium of film in itself, but about the real people whose lives are illuminated by the stories it relates.
As a tale primarily of ordinary Roma people, the costumes in Cinema Paradiso, as designed by Beatrice Bordone, help create a 1940s/50’s period world where this can be accepted without question. These people are not wealthy or fashionable; they are not movie stars and they are probably never going to leave their home town or make a huge impact upon the world. The clothing helps to tell their story, grounding the cast in reality through their worn, faded, everyday attire. There are strong consistencies in the way everyone on screen is dressed – the principles are infused with the same sense of reality as the supporting actors, and in turn extras are costumed with equal care. The reality of this small village is rooted in the seemingly small lives that take place here, the real people who we believe in because of the down to earth, every-day nature of their clothes.
Costume does not have to be spectacular to tell a story – simple devices can be powerful without overwhelming. A key example of this is in the mirroring between the clothes of the young Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio) and his great friend and mentor Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). For example, in a scene where Salvatore (affectionately nicknamed Toto) is learning how to work the projection machine, his white vest and braces are an almost exact copy of Alfredo’s. The two friends, so far apart in age, are united by a common passion. Here they both appear relaxed, at ease doing what they love best. There is satisfied relaxation inherent in doing a job you care about, especially one that brings joy to so many people. They are also hidden away, invisible in the projectionist’s booth – able to see yet not be seen. They do not have to stand on ceremony while engaged in this work, or indeed to be formal in front of each other. Their mutually casual state of half-dress reveals this. They are both comfortable in each other’s company and without the constrictions of formal attire.
Indeed, when young Toto finally gets to operate the machine himself, he proudly steps up to the machine bare chested, in just his shorts. The culmination of his learning and his moment of triumph are unhampered by the presentation and ceremony which seems to be required by everyday life. Clothes in this context represent expectation, a demand from society to conform and fit in. Even though the townspeople’s clothes are not grand, they are still infused with every effort to appear clean, respectable and well turned out. This is both an aspiration and a restriction, though more of the latter for young Toto.
In the shot after Toto operates the projection machine, we see him posing for a photograph with his family. The situations could both be described as special, but the clothes could not be more different. In this second, more formal setting, Salvatore wriggles in a bright silky white suit, standing out in stark contrast with his relaxed, bare chested look of the previous scene. Now, with his family, who love him but don’t really understand him, he is presenting a façade. Forced into his best suit, certainly less comfortable but not seemingly unhappy, the ease he shows in his sessions with Alfredo is replaced by the artifice of presenting a more acceptable, easier to understand face to the world.
The grown up Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) is shown at the beginning and end of the film, and at occasional moments interspersed throughout the narrative. It is through his memories that we are guided through the story. He is presented as successful and powerful, his sharp suits, suit jackets and and ties a million miles from the relaxed young boy we witness in the projectionist’s booth. The ever present connotations of a suit as the ultimate form of power dressing shows his achievement to be great, and yet he seems detached from his roots. The grey of his suit is a dismal shade, and underlines his physical and emotional disconnection from his home.
When he returns for the funeral, the nature of the occasion means all are clothed in black, unifying those of all ages and professions as they come together in grief and remembrance. Salvatore is finally able to connect with those who helped shape his early childhood, as all barriers melt away.
Cinema Paradiso is a key example of ‘invisible’ costume design. Good costume serves the narrative and creates characters so no one can question (or indeed notice) them. As such, it should merge effortlessly with the world crafted on screen. Its presence should be forgotten as the viewer is transported into another world that, for a couple of hours at least, is more real to them than the cinema they are sitting in.
By Bonnie Radcliffe
Bonnie loves clothes and their power to transform and create characters. She has worked in a variety of roles in costume for film, television and theatre, and wants to share her love for the power of costume design through her writing. She has recently started a travel blog at Holiday Girl.
Screencapped images have been cropped to better highlight costume details.
© 2015, Lord Christopher Laverty.