Giuseppe Tornatore, A Master of Italian Cinema Constantly Reflecting on the Past

Film Review by Franco Ferrarini, Gastroenterologist and Film Reviewer
‘Film Legends Among Us’ series

There is no future, Salvatore: only the past exists. (Quote from “Cinema Paradiso”)

Portrait photograph of Giuseppe Tornatore.Giuseppe Tornatore is an Italian film director and screenwriter who, after the Golden era from the ‘50s to the ‘70’s led by Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, restored the impact of Italian cinema in the ’80s. Born in Bagheria, Sicily, in 1956, Tornatore’s interest in creative expression began at the tender age of 16 as a staging theatre director in Eastern Sicily for plays by Luigi Pirandello and Eduardo De Filippo. Tornatore was inspired by his mentor, the photographer Mimmo Pintacuda, who later inspired the character of Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) in Tornatore’s masterpiece “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). From 1981 up to now, Tornatore directed 12 feature films and 10 documentaries, not to mention a prolific output as a producer, writer, and film editor.

The ‘Past’ is an important concept that Tornatore explores in most of his films. Memories are vital for living in the present and planning for the future. However, some people might remain haunted by past events as seen in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In affected individuals, rather than trying to forget and moving on, which are virtually impossible, a remedial approach is to gradually learn how to cope with past trauma using psychological techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.[1] Themes of history and memories are analysed in Tornatore’s filmography either from a nostalgic viewpoint, as something that one desires to live again, or as a legacy that never really passed away. His characters are actively searching for fragments of their Past or passively impacted by it in the present.

From a nostalgia viewpoint, we find Tornatore’s most celebrated film, “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), for which he received the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1990, an almost autobiographical account. The protagonist, Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), was born in Giancaldo, a small town in Sicily. As the young boy, nicknamed “Totò”, fond of cinema, he develops a friendly relationship with Alfredo, the film projectionist at the local theatre “Cinema Paradiso”. When the theatre is destroyed by fire, which leaves Alfredo blind, Totò takes up Alfredo’s job in the rebuilt theatre. Totò and Elena (Brigitte Fossay), daughter of a local banker, fall in love but her family does not approve of their relation and suddenly relocate to another town. Totò believes that Elena does not really care about him. Depressed and frustrated, Totò decides to go to Rome to pursue a career in show business and vows to never go back to Giancaldo. In spite of his successful career as a film director he is not satisfied with life. After 30 years since leaving his hometown, he learns of Alfredo’s death, and decides to go back to his hometown. After the funeral Totò meets Elena who is now married with children. After having paid his respect to Alfredo and confronting Elena, Salvatore goes back to Rome, at long last reconciled with his Past.


In frantic search for her past, we see Irena (Ksenija Aleksandrovna Rappoport) in “The unknown woman” (2006), a Ukrainian sex-worker in Italy desperately trying to find her lost lover and her daughter. Unfortunately, Irena’s efforts to reconnect with the past end tragically when finding her lover’s corpse in a landfill, having been killed by the gangster Muffa (Michele Placido) and learning that she was mistaken in believing that Tea (Clara Dossena as a child and Valeria Flore as an adult) was her daughter.

In “Everybody’s fine” (1990), an old Sicilian man, Matteo (Marcello Mastroianni), takes a trip across Italy to visit his five children. Matteo wears eyeglasses which exaggerate his eyes, a metaphor for his desire to “see” everything in his childrens’ current lives. But he is deluded about the Past: he still thinks of his children as young innocent kids enjoying happy lives. To his disappointment, none of them is happy; they hide behind a wall of lies either to protect their father from the truth, or because they are ashamed of not living up to his expectations. Sometimes ‘lying’ is justified to survive. In the closing scene Matteo whispers to his deceased wife beside her grave: “Everybody’s fine”. ­

In “Baaria” (2009), the Phoenician name of Bagheria (“Gate of the Wind”), Tornatore illustrates 50 years of Italian history, from 1930 to 1980 through three family generations living in the town where Tornatore was born. Autobiographical references are evident here too: the film protagonist is a communist trade unionist nicknamed “Peppino”, Tornatore’s father nickname and occupation. The film’s surreal ending, which shows two boys (on one side Peppino as a little child and on the other the same Peppino as an adolescent) running into each other, hints at a Past that is still alive.


“The Correspondence” (2016) follows a love story between Ed Phoerum (Jeremy Irons), a mature professor in astrophysics, and one of his young students, Amy Ryan (Olga Kurylenko). After Phoerum dies from an astrocytoma (brain tumor), Amy starts receiving posthumous messages, videos, and emails from Ed. It transpires that Phoerum had prepared these messages to be sent at regular intervals to Amy after his death, his own way of keeping the Past alive. One might wonder if this kind of (forced) connection with lost loved ones is harmful or beneficial for bereaved families. Let’s consider the complex relation between the living and the dead: in one aspect, the living hold to the memory of their lost loved ones, often unintentionally, if for example the gaze falls on their picture, or intentionally, for example in the ‘All Souls‘ day, a day of prayer and remembrance for the departed observed in Western Christianity, or the Day of the Dead, in Mexican tradition a day in which the living and the dead reunite. On the other hand, life must go on, but this cannot happen if one remains obsessed by memories of the deceased, as is the case of Prolonged Grief Disorder, characterized by intense emotional pain and yearning, with difficulty accepting the death of the loved one and bitterness, which may lead to the development of sociopathic behaviour. Prolonged Grief Disorder occurs in 3.4% of bereaved people according to Treml J et al.[2]

Tornatore’s creative interest lies not just in the Past, another prominent theme is the condemnation of hatred and violence against the ‘other’. For example, “Malèna” (2000) is commonly interpreted as a retelling of Freudian’s narrative of transfer of a young adolescent’s sexual desire towards his mother. However, the film can be analysed differently: Malena (Monica Bellucci) is hated and feared by her female fellow citizens because of her beauty and the fear that she might lure their husbands. Fear and hatred are thus masquerading the women’s true feelings, namely envy. The women’s collective hatred explodes when they try to lynch her. Malena ultimately becomes a shabbily dressed, broken woman. Only when she looks like women in her community, she can finally earn their sympathy.

Psychological disturbance, which may well characterize the ‘other’, plays a major role in another of Tornatore’s films, “The legend of the pianist on the ocean” (1998). Here Danny (Tim Roth), an orphan and excellent pianist, is born and lives his whole life on a transatlantic ocean liner, stubbornly refusing to get off, and dies voluntarily on board when the ship is demolished. This is an example of an anxiety disorder akin to Agoraphobia, that is fear of vast spaces as the protagonist himself explains in a monologue in which Tornatore invites us to understand Danny’s disturbance using a phenomenological psychiatric approach,[3] that is by focusing not just on the underlying biological mechanisms of the disorder but also on the reasons why it arises.

Psychological disturbances surface also in “The best offer” (2013). Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is an acclaimed art critic and auctioneer affected by an obsessive compulsory disorder. Virgil falls in love with a woman apparently suffering from agoraphobia. To avoid revealing the film plot, it suffices to mention the following quotes by Virgil: There is always something authentic concealed in every forgery and his friend Bill (Donald Sutherland): Everything can be fake Virgil: joy, pain, hate, illness, recovery… even love which unveil the film’s main theme: interpreting life, in differentiating what is true from fake, is a difficult task, especially when some truths may be found in fake circumstances.


Tornatore’s attachment to people and life experiences from the Past is also reflected in his longstanding partnership with Ennio Morricone (1928-2020), one of the world’s best film composers. Morricone composed the score of 10 of Tornatore’s 12 films. Tornatore dedicated his last film, “Ennio, the Maestro” (2021), to Morricone reminiscing with great skill and emotion on Ennio’s career through film clips and interviews with eminent directors and actors.


Tornatore’s films received several nominations at international festivals, one Academy Award, one Golden Globe, two Bafta awards, one Grand Prix of the jury at Cannes, two European Film Awards and innumerable awards at Italian Film Festivals. Striking the spectators’ heartstrings, while masterfully addressing significant psychological and social issues, Tornatore’s films help their audience reflect on relationship with their past.



[1] Kar N. (2011). Cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: a review. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 7, 167–181.

[2] Treml, J., Brähler, E., & Kersting, A. (2022). Prevalence, Factor Structure and Correlates of DSM-5-TR Criteria for Prolonged Grief Disorder. Frontiers in psychiatry13, 880380.

[3] Jaspers, K. (1968). The phenomenological approach in psychopathology. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 114(516), 1313–1323.


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