Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Guiseppe Tornatore

Guiseppe Tornatore's First Love

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Giuseppe Tornatore Movies on DVD

Giuseppe Tornatore reminds me of a cool uncle. He seems like someone you'd want to have at Christmas, someone who would give you a big bear hug and tweak your nose and pull a nickel from behind your ear.

Maybe itŐs the cuddly old-fashioned style of his filmmaking, from his first Oscar-winning hit Cinema Paradiso (1989), to Everybody's Fine (1990) starring Marcello Mastroianni, to The Star Maker (1995), to last year's The Legend of 1900 starring Tim Roth. These films all ooze a kind of tender nostalgia, not the icky kind, but the kind that warms the cockles of even the hardest hearts the world over.

Or maybe it's just his warm presence. Even though he speaks through a translator (he understands English but is not comfortable speaking it), Tornatore seems genuinely happy to have company.

Tornatore's is in town to promote his latest film, Malèna, his best since Cinema Paradiso. It tells the story of a 15 year-old boy named Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) who falls in love with an older woman in 1940's Sicily. The movie is told from the boy's point of view, which puts the movie dangerously close to objectifying the woman. But Tornatore achieves the equilibrium required to make it work. "The story is simple," he says, "but I knew that the film was complex because it required an extremely delicate balance. If I had told it from an objective point of view, from a third person, I would have had to tell the story of Malèna objectively. I would have had to show and tell too many things about her, and this would have impoverished the mystery of the character. For example, when the news arrives that her husband has died, it's very difficult to resist showing the moment in which Malèna hears the news. But, I had to renounce it. I like that we don't know everything about her."

Malèna came from a short story by the legendary film writer Luciano Vincenzoni, who co-wrote Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1966). Tornatore came across it ten years ago. "I never thought of making a film from it. It seemed too simple to me. I wanted to do things that were more complex. And then about five years later, while I was shooting a television commercial, I met Monica Bellucci. And while I was working with her, she made that story come back into my mind. And I said to her, 'I know of this story, and you could play the part very well. But I'm not sure that I'm ever going to make the film. If one fine day, I decide to make the movie, I'll call you.' Five years later, I called her. But I have to say, it was really her that brought the story back to my mind."

Cooking the story on the back burner for so long turned out to be an advantage. "All of these elements, all of these choices, were born throughout the years. Every once in a while I thought about it, and I said 'Well, If I had to do this again, I'd do this...' I had a long incubation period. So when I made the film I was able to enjoy the benefit of this long period of reflection."

Tornatore's films seem to strike a chord no matter what country they play in. The story of that powerful first love, the one we never forget, will resonate with anyone who sees the film. Tornatore himself remembers his first love, with whom he lost touch for many years. "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. At Christmas time we call each other. We call each other for our birthdays. [Unlike Malèna] she was my age, more or less. She wasn't so much older than me. 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."

Tornatore dreamily finishes his thought, "I remember the first time that I kissed a girl. There was only one kiss with this girl and then I never saw her again. It happened more than thirty years ago and I remember it perfectly. When you say that there's something universal in the film, that's what it is."

December 22, 2000

Partial Guiseppe Tornatore Filmography
The Professor (1986)
Cinema Paradiso (1989)
Everybody's Fine (1990)
A Pure Formality (1994)
The Star Maker (1995)
The Legend of 1900 (1999)
Malèna (2000)
The Unknown Woman (2008)

Movies Unlimtied