Cinema Paradiso is one of, if not, my favourite movie of all time. While it’s Italian language and subtitles may make it less accessible to the everyday audience, I do believe that the lessons found within, its challenges, its strengths and its pitfalls are illustrated in a beautiful and enchanting manner such that it is a worthy watch of people from all backgrounds and philosophies. In this blog, I will analyse some of the key scenes, provide my interpretation, and try to come to a conclusion about what the movie really means!
The Story of a Soldier and a Princess:
During the movie, as Toto is struggling with his feelings for Elena, his wise mentor Alfredo tells him a story which I have been wrestling for a long time. In this story, a lowly soldier falls in love with a beautiful princess. The princess, impressed by his depth of feeling, decides to marry the soldier on the condition that he stays under the window for a hundred days and a hundred nights. As such, the soldier waits and waits, he stands, determined to win over the love of the princess. But, on the 99th day, something in the heart of the soldier changes, and he leaves.
I’ve always been perplexed by this story. For the longest time, I never knew for what reason did the soldier leave, or for what reason the princess asked him to stand there. I never understood what was the fundamental lesson or the fundamental takeaway of the parable. Yet there was clearly something profound!
I believe one can posit a few suggestions:
- To take up the challenge was a necessity, as to back down from it would have demonstrated a lack of sincerity. The leaving on the 99th day was a symbol of defiance to the princess that her demand of commitment was capricious and that if he wanted to be with her, he could, but he did it out of spite to show his will power, yet turn his back on her. I dislike this reasoning, I believe it adds too much spiteful and “mature” thoughts into the work. When the movie is about nostalgia and infancy, to add such a twist, I believe, would fundamentally undercut the entire argument.
- The soldier was afraid. Perhaps, it was the fear that having stood in front of the gate of the princess, the princess would reject him on the 100th day, and that at this time, he would truly be destroyed, that his fear of failure, of rejection overpowered all prior commitment and caused him to leave. I’m not sure whether this suggestion is correct, if he was afraid, why did he leave on the eve of success? Surely, he would have had cold feet earlier. But even if it was fear, surely he would overcome it. He was a soldier after all, he faced worse things than rejection from a princess. I believe this cannot be the case!
- The soldier loved the princess. Here is another alternative! That the soldier loved the princess, yet he left as he knew that the moment that such a challenge arose, that the love could not be real. To love the other is as significant as loving oneself, one cannot love the other without first loving oneself. The terms are simple, yet how could one who loves himself hold to such terms. To put their fate in the hands of someone else to please their circumstances, clearly there is a wrong starting place. Hence to leave is not to stop loving the princess, but rather to respect one’s self-worth and to leave with his head held high. Yet is this truly the response? Could this explain his actions? Would he not have left earlier?
My solution is not, perhaps, to provide a solution, but rather to tell a counter-story. When I was talking to a dear friend of mine, I was pondering the meaning of this story. And this idea came to me, the right ending of the story may not have been that the soldier left… THE END… Rather, like in the movies, perhaps the soldier leaves, and then (as Elena does) the princess searches for him, upon which they either engage in passionate intercourse or the soldier rejects her. Perhaps, the story is more real than we think it is!
I quite liked this ending, though my explanation for this ending to my friend was insufficient. At the time I felt that it must have been due to some sense of self-respect or self-denial. However, I believe it goes further than that. Up until the 99th day, the pursuer, the decision maker was the soldier. He had all the cards in his hand, but he also had all the responsibility upon his shoulders. To the Symbolic Order, he was the petite autre (using Lacanian symbology) which had to please the Big Other, his actions were the pleasing of the wishes of the princess. However, by leaving, the symbolic order is destroyed. He is no longer the being thrown into the world, he is the active Other, the Big Other to which the princess must respond. Now that he stayed 99 nights, the princess knows it is not a lack of commitment or a lack of ability, in fact, it is irrelevant that the 100 days were not all accomplished. It was actually, for all intents and purposes sealed. To wait 99 days, to wait 100 days, what is the difference. Yet to leave is to say “You, Princess, You are now the one who needs to please the Symbolic Order. You! What do YOU want to do? What do YOU think that you need to do?” Hence, the role reversal is the significance of the story, leave, and see if they come for you!
Infancy, Maturity and Nostalgia, The Three Stages of Love:
Another theme in Tornatore’s masterpiece is love. What is love? How does it change through one’s life? How does it change through one’s struggle?
In my opinion, there are three developments of love, infancy, maturity and nostalgia.
Infant love is something unique. I do not mean the infant love of a 3 month old toddler, but rather love in the most pure stage. This is the love of the teenager. It is passionate, carefree, perhaps poisoned slightly by lust, but nevertheless overpowered by naivity and innocence. Such is the love when things like money, wealth, social status come into play, those were the days where gifts, activities, or anything in the world seemed to be insignificant. The infant love places blind faith in love over all else, a fairytale story where two individuals live happily ever after, that love will overcome all challenges and struggles in life. However, as with most things filled with naivity and innocence, pain is bound to occur and suffering inflicted. This can make people loose faith in this naive strength of love, and fall into the world of mature love!
Mature love is deceiving, I do not believe this love is mature, but is definitely more cynical and calculating. While love remains, it is not valued as the be all and end all of relationships. One recognises that in the fallen world we live in today, there is really not much room for “love” anymore. As such, one may try to make up such insufficiencies with gifts, with actions, with many things which can patch up what “love” seemed to have lacked in its infant stage. However, these are still insufficient and lead to superficial relationships.
Nostalgic love is different. It is the recognition of the failures of mature love and the blind leap of faith towards infant love again. It recognises its flaws, but rather aims to forget them and ignore them, in hopes that someone would be able to go beyond the flaws and embrace their insufficiencies. This love tries to encapsulate the carefreeness from the past, yet recognise the dark undertones of the potentiality for seeds of reality to fit in and break apart such love. In some sense, this love is a form of tragedy, the recognition of failure, the embracement of the insufficiencies of what is most true of humankind, and the determination to carry on until the end.
The Overarching Story:
Sometimes it is easy to analyse individual elements of a story whilst loosing sight of the bigger picture. I believe at the core of the movie is a conflict in dreams. While Toto dreams of being a filmmaker, he also dreams of a future with Elena. He accomplishes the former, and looses the latter, and likewise if he had decided to pursue the latter, he would most likely have lost the former. Either way, there seems to be a conflict at the heart of the story. But where does that leave us? Which one is more important?
In many situations, we may like to say that love is the idealic solution, yet reality approaches, then we turn to our more materialistic dreams. However, in the end, would that bring happiness? Or would we only result in nostalgia and a longing for the past which we cannot remake?
Either way, let me know your thoughts in the comments below about the film and the ideas discussed within this post!