A man for all Sicilians

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The Independent Culture
Giuseppe Tornatore's Sicilian childhood nurtured his love for the movies. In his latest work, `The Starmaker', he reflects once more on the golden age of film. But this time, as he tells Helen Birch in Rome, he's shown the darker side of his passion

On the day I met the director Giuseppe Tornatore, to discuss his new film, The Starmaker, in his scruffy office on a hill overlooking the Vatican in Rome, he had just been to Marcello Mastroianni's funeral. Tornatore, a serious, bespectacled figure, with a slightly distracted manner, had worked with Mastroianni just once, on his 1990 film, Everybody's Fine. But he had been watching Italy's most famous movie star since he was five years old.

In those days, most small towns in Sicily had their own cinema and, as a child, Tornatore, now 40, used to go to the local picture house in the village of Bagheria, near Palermo, once, twice, sometimes three times a day. Although this was in the early Sixties, the age of La Dolce Vita, of Vespas and pneumatic Swedish blondes, the Italian "economic miracle" and tabloid sleaze, in Sicily, the neglected runt of its mother country, the cinema, like the church, was still the focus of community life, and that life, Tornatore says, had changed little since the end of the Second World War.

Later, having learnt his trade by devouring books and making "small ethnographic documentaries that no one saw", Tornatore successfully plundered his memories of those days spent enraptured by the silver screen in his whimsical film, Cinema Paradiso, the surprise winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1989. Through his two protagonists, Alfredo, an ageing projectionist, and Toto, his young protege (loosely based on himself as a boy), Tornatore explored, with unashamed nostalgia, a simpler, golden age when cinema-going offered audiences the power to dream and dissemble.

Despite a mauling from the Italian critics, the film's misty-eyed narrative sent millions reaching for the Kleenex and the British reviewers searching for plaudits in a way that would be unimaginable had the film been set closer to home (sentimentalism being less vulnerable to nit-picking if it is delivered in a foreign language by a cute boy and a doddery old man). But Tornatore vigorously defends his use of nostalgia in the film. "Nostalgia is always used negatively," he says, in halting English. "But sometimes you can only understand the real value of some parts of your life a long time afterwards. For me, nostalgia is a moment of feeling, through which you can make a new judgement of your past. It is one of the ways we get to know ourselves and our culture. And yes, if discovering that your life was not like you thought it was, then nostalgia is a recurrent theme of my movies."

Indeed it is. Since Paradiso made him an international name, Tornatore, who moved to Rome when he was 26, has been quietly making films that have had little impact outside Italy. Now, seven years after becoming the toast of Cannes, he has returned to small-town Sicily in the Fifties and to the subject of how ordinary folk relate to cinema. Both a companion piece to and commentary upon the dewy dreaminess of Cinema Paradiso, The Starmaker takes the glossy, cynical world of La Dolce Vita to the poor citizens of Sicily and observes the clash of cultures. It is, says Tornatore, an attempt to show the dark side of his own love of movies and the flip side of the impulse to nostalgia. Equipped with a battered camera, a box of used film stock and a rickety van, Joe Morelli, a con man posing as a talent scout, tours the island, setting up a tent in each town and offering its gullible inhabitants the opportunity to screen test for a studio in Rome in return for 1,500 lire. Out of tumbledown houses and crumbling apartments, bandits and Mafia men, children and prostitutes, priests and soldiers flock to make their dreams of glamour come true. Asked to deliver a couple of lines from Gone With the Wind before Morelli's empty camera, they begin to tell stories, confess their sins, confide their hopes for a better life. There is a sincerity and directness about these vignettes that more than make up for a rather mawkish plot involving a mad young woman who draws Morelli back to his own humanity (a device that is rapidly becoming a cliche of arty European cinema).

To find his confessors, Tornatore himself turned starmaker. He sent his own talent scouts out to trawl Italy's provincial theatres and Sicily's small towns in search of "faces, real faces"; people who would bring to the film a fresh, unsophisticated quality. One of them, Tiziana Lodato, who was plucked from obscurity to play the mad woman, has gone on to make a couple of other films. It is tempting to conclude that for Tornatore, film and life, life and film always play in split frame. In fact, if a theme can be gleaned from his work, it is the preoccupation with regionalism. Like his compatriots, the writers Leonardo Sciascia and Luigi Pirandello, Tornatore sees himself as a Sicilian, rather than simply an Italian artist. The personal vignettes in The Starmaker serve, he explains, as a metaphor for the fractured history of an island people who have suffered numerous invasions.

"There isn't another region in the world that is as small but has inspired as many movies as Sicily has inspired," he says. "And yet so much of what makes Sicily and Sicilians different has not been expressed in those films. For centuries, Sicily was a land of conquest and each time Sicilians learnt to accept their new conqueror with new hope, and each time those hopes were crushed. That is our eternal history. In the period just after the war, everybody had a politics; everybody's personal history informed it and everybody thought they knew the best path to the future. So in The Starmaker you have the Mafia, the Communists, the Fascists, the anarchists... And for a moment, cinema was one of the metaphors of that future. But," he sighs, lifting his hands in a gesture of hopelessness, "in Sicily the future never comes."

Tornatore is diffident about his own future. He has finished the script for a new film but he won't elaborate. And wary though he is of the professional disasters that have befallen so many European directors in Hollywood, he may take up one of the invitations he's received to go and work there. Money is always a problem, you see. "And there's always a limit to your budget, which limits the kind of story that you can tell. But even though today people have a different relationship to movies, I will go on making them, no matter how I have to do it. Because," he pauses and gives a slow, sad smile, "I love the movies"n

`The Starmaker' opens today