Director Went From Failure To 'Paradiso'

August 25, 1991|By Judith Michaelson | Judith Michaelson,Los Angeles Times

Director Giuseppe Tornatore has interrupted his translator, picking up on a seemingly minor term: "Il cinema. . . ."

Not the movie business, he corrects. Movies.

It is not a minor point, of course. This is, after all, the man who made "Cinema Paradiso," his semi-autobiographical movie about the love of movies, all kinds of movies. Remember little Toto growing up in postwar Sicily, who fell asleep as an altar boy at Mass but crossed himself in awe before entering the movie projection booth?

"In two years, I lived everything that you can experience in making a movie," says the director, referring to "Paradiso," which was "un grandissimo flop" in Italy. A flop, that is, until it was discovered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 and won the 1990 Oscar for the best foreign-language movie.

Mr. Tornatore is not yet a name on foreign filmgoers' lips the way Fellini, De Sica or Bertolucci is, but "Cinema Paradiso" has quickly become one of the best-known -- and best-loved -- Italian films ever made.

The film also gave him a calling card to Hollywood, but the director isn't sure yet how he will use it.

"I don't know if I will be so famous," he begins hesitantly in a West Hollywood hotel suite, but his face is a giveaway. Mr. Tornatore cannot suppress a smile; he is almost blushing. "If it would really happen, of course I would like."

He says he has had a number of offers, but nothing, thus far, that makes him want to drop everything and transplant himself for two or three years.

Mr. Tornatore's new film, "Everybody's Fine," stars Marcello Mastroianni as a retired civil servant who is certain that his three sons and two daughters, named after characters of lyric Italian opera, are too busy to visit because they are important people with "jobs that count." And so he sets out the visit them.

"The premise of the movie," says Mr. Tornatore, "is the impossibility people have today to communicate in their private lives. . . . Today there is such sophistication of the technology of mass communication that it is very difficult for private communication.'

"Everybody's Fine" also turns into a rather dark travelogue on life in Italy today: a subway mugging, homeless people living in cardboard boxes, commuters wearing masks for smog protection, a stag blocking traffic while staring down drivers with what seems to be a grim grin.

Salvatore Cascio, the Toto of "Cinema Paradiso," has a cameo role as Scuro's eldest child as seen in the father's imagination.

If you knew Mr. Tornatore just from his movies -- rooted in remembrances of things past -- you might expect a much older man. Yet Mr. Tornatore is a compact man with warm, dark-brown eyes reminiscent of young Toto's. The day of this interview was his 35th birthday, and he had just spoken to his mother by phone from Sicily, where his brother and three sisters still live. His father is a retired labor union worker. "In my family," says Mr. Tornatore, the middle sibling, "we call each other every day. If one day we don't call they know already something's happened."

Mr. Tornatore lives in Rome in a small apartment near the Vatican; indeed it is the same apartment he had before "Paradiso's" success. Because of traffic and the inability to find parking, he sold his car and now gets around by bus.

Where "Cinema Paradiso" was magical, "Everybody's Fine," which he made before "Paradiso" became successful, is

melancholy, its mood matching the chill of autumn during which the movie takes place.

TC "When I wrote the movie, I was thinking about changing my job because 'Cinema Paradiso' was a big catastrophe at the beginning, and I was desperate," he explains. "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.' So I probably put into the new movie all the melancholy and all the problems. . . . When I decide on a movie, there's a very close connection to my feelings."

Mr. Tornatore knew he wanted to make movies when he was 15 or 16, and started to think seriously about it when he was 20. In his teens he became a photographer and went on to win national awards. He then began making television documentaries.

His feature debut was in 1986 with "The Professor," about a real-life Neapolitan who controlled a powerful crime empire -- even from prison. That movie, never released in this country, starred Ben Gazzara.

("I think the film is one of the best gangster pictures ever made," Mr. Gazzara said recently. "I could have killed the producer. I told him to shoot two versions. 'You've got to have an English version. . . .' ")

"After that I was really a success but producers said, 'People don't go to the movies anymore so we don't make much money anymore,' " Mr. Tornatore said. "They didn't want to make movies in general. . . . So my reaction was to tell [in 'Cinema Paradiso'] how the movie business was before."

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