John Milton – Paradise Lost: “The world was all before them where to choose their place of rest…” (Cinema Paradiso/Palazzo Adriano, Sicily)

The small town of Palazzo Adriano, buried deep in the Sicilian hinterland to the north of Agrigento, comes into view after the last of several steep bends levels out onto the folds of a small valley. Dominating its silhouette, the church of Maria Ss. Assunta rises like a citadel from faded rooftops, over which a squat bell tower leans protectively inwards.

On the large town square, a second church—S. Maria del Lume—stands not far from an octagonal baroque fountain. A two-minute walk away, on the hilltop end of the main village street, a third church—S. Maria del Carmelo—appears. It’s late afternoon. Old men wandering onto the square from cobbled side streets greet each other and settle on a bench, pulling down caps against the lowering sun. Ancient Fiats rattle past. A scruffy, black-haired boy rides his bike in circles.

It must have been this—this almost unblemished picture of Sicilian gentility and small-town languor—that brought Giuseppe Tornatore here to film major scenes for his 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso. Winner of the 1990 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Tornatore’s movie turns on the relationship that develops in the post-war years between Alfredo, the crusty projectionist of a village cinema, and young Toto, a child enthralled by films. Narrated in flashbacks from the point of view of the older Toto, who has left Sicily to become a successful but serially lonely film-maker, Cinema Paradiso has achieved enduring status as an endearing if sentimental synonym for lost innocence and its twin sister: remorseful memory.  The town of Palazzo Adriano stands in for the village of Giancaldo: the bedrock of perfection on which illusion and artifice, encapsulated by the world of cinema seen through a child’s eyes, is based. Paradise, potentially lost.

It’s easy, walking through Palazzo Adriano’s shaded alleys, to re-imagine the disorderly joys of childhood; to sit quietly in S. Maria del Carmelo (briefly deconsecrated—with superb Catholic pragmatism—and used for scenes of raucous film screenings) and feel the rush of illusion as Bogart and Bergman, Gable and Leigh, Chaplin and Arbuckle step into small-town lives. How familiar – to linger over the photos and film props in the small museum next to the tourist office. Alfredo’s bicycle leans against the wall, ready to be ridden into the sunset. The attendant flips a switch and Ennio Morricone’s inimitable score swells through the room, creating a moment of nostalgia as intense as any in the film itself.

Back on the town square, I step gingerly up to five elderly gentlemen sitting in the late sun. Had they seen the film? Did they like it?

They look past me, pointing to the spot by the fountain where the hull of a cinema (constructed for the film set) existed briefly and was subsequently demolished. Pouf! They clap their hands indicating clouds of dust. This, they imply, was real performance: when spectacle ended and life in Palazzo Adriano returned to what it was.

If nostalgia is a consequence of displacement, reality might be a quiet town in the afternoon sun: old churches, some castle ruins and ancient Fiats grumbling across a square.

Eve Lucas

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