A boy in an Italian town helps a projectionist and falls in love with movies. He learns the craft and becomes a projectionist himself while still a boy, and he continues is friendship with the former projectionist.
The older Maria Di Vita (Pupella Maggio) tries to call her son, and a woman says he has not been there for thirty years.
The adult Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (Nino Terzo) comes home. The woman in his bed says his mother called and said Alfredo died, and the funeral is tomorrow. Toto tells her to go to sleep.
The child Toto Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio) is an altar boy and is falling asleep during mass. The priest Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste) reprimands the boy who explains why he is tired. The priest calls to Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) to start the film, and he shows a French film with Jean Gabin directed by Jean Renoir. They watch a love scene, and the priest rings his bell. The boy watches the film from a space between curtains. The priest says no, and the church bell rings.
In the town below women get water from a faucet.
In the Cinema Paradiso’s projection room Alfredo tells Toto he is not to come there. Toto asks for the film cut out, and Alfredo says no. He tells him to stay out of there.
At home Toto looks at his film clips in front of a lamp while his mother Maria Di Vita (Antonella Attili) is sewing. He looks at photos and asks his mother about his father he does not remember. She says he will come back, and he asks where Russia is. She tells him to go to bed, and he puts away the photo with his film.
Children run up the stairs to a church. In the Catholic classroom a woman teacher punishes a boy for giving wrong answers. She tells them they must learn their times tables.
Alfredo puts a film in the can and sees Toto looking through the opening. Toto says he paid to see the film and joins the noisy audience. They watch a western with John Wayne. Later they object to seeing news. Toto imagines the projection light coming out of the mouth of a lion. People watch an Italian film, and Toto is passed a cigarette. A couple are about to kiss, and the audience objects to the censorship. They watch Charlie Chaplin in a silent comedy and laugh.
At night in the street an employer hires some men to work. Men and Toto come out of the cinema. Toto walks to his mother who says she has been looking for him all day. She asks about the money, and he says he lost it. She slaps him for spending it at the movies. Alfredo asks how much money he had and asks his colleague what he found under the seats tonight. Alfredo takes the money and gives it to Maria. A man says he has to close the square and tells people to leave.
The priest and Toto lead a funeral procession walking in front of a horse-drawn cart with people following. Later they walk on a country road. Toto falls down and cries in pain. Alfredo is letting Toto ride on his bike in front of him. He says Toto is too sly to be his friend. Toto says that Alfredo has no children.
On steps Maria is comforting her little girl. She chases Toto and spanks him. Alfredo finds some burned film and a photo. Maria tells Alfredo he should be ashamed of playing with a little boy. She complains about Alfredo and his movies. Maria wishes his father would come home, and Toto says he is dead. Maria says no and cries.
At the cinema Toto signals Alfredo asking if he can come to the projection room, and he says no. Toto brings Alfredo his lunch from his wife, and he lets him stay. Alfredo says he started in this business when he was ten. He turned the projector by hand with a crank. If he got tired and slowed down, the film burned up. He says this is no job for him. He says you see a film a hundred times. You only get Good Friday off. Toto asks why he does it, and Alfredo says he is a nitwit. He asks Toto if he wants to be like him, and he says no. Alfredo says it is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. He says it does make one feel better to make people laugh. Toto adjusted some knobs, and Alfredo gets angry at him and makes him leave. He calls to Toto in the street and says he will not let him in anymore. A man in the street says he won the football lottery and faints. Someone goes into the cinema and announces their town won the lottery.
In the plaza women are painting boards red with their hands. Little boys get short hair-cuts and are de-liced with a spray.
In a Catholic class adults are brought in as night students and join the children at desks. During an exam the men struggle. Toto refuses to help Alfredo who looks at the paper of the boy next to him. Alfredo says he can’t do it. Toto signals that he will trade operating the projector for helping him. He takes a slip of paper and throws it to Alfredo.
Alfredo shows Toto how to operate the projector. He shows him where the film can catch on fire. Toto learns which side of the film has gelatin by tasting it. Alfredo shows him the shipping invoice he tacks on a board. Alfredo has brought a stool for Toto to stand on when he operates the projector.
A student leaves the Catholic school, and one boy says his father said he was a Communist.
From the cinema balcony Toto waves to the boy who is leaving in a car. He says it is lucky that Germany is closer than Russia.
Toto watches a film about Italian soldiers fighting in Russia.
They learn of his father’s death, and Toto walks with Maria by the rubble as she cries. He sees a poster for Gone with the Wind.
An audience enjoys a comedy. During a movie one man fondles a woman’s breasts, and a mother breast-feeds her baby. After a show people do not want to leave, and a man tells them they cannot show it again. People protest outside in the street, and Alfredo and Toto look at them from the balcony. Alfredo says a mob does not think. He says Spencer Tracy said that in Fury. He tells Toto to have faith in what he sees and to go to school. Alfredo shows a movie on a building across the street so that those in the street can see it. They thank him but complain there is no sound. Alfredo puts a speaker on the balcony, and they laugh during the film. Alfredo asks Toto if he wants to go down there, and he says yes and goes out. A nuncio persuades a man to sell them tickets at half price, but the people refuse to buy them. Suddenly the film burns, and Alfredo tries to put out the fire which spreads and burns his legs. People run out of the plaza, and Toto falls down. He goes back in the smoky cinema and finds Alfredo on the floor in the burning room. He covers his head and drags Alfredo’s body out of the projection room and down the stairs. Alfredo’s face is badly burned.
The adult Toto remembers these things.
The next day people look at the burned cinema from the street. The priest asks what they will do now and how will they get the money to rebuild.
A Nuovo Cinema Paradiso has been built, and people applaud as they enter. The priest blesses the place with holy water. He says Toto is only a boy and asks about the labor laws. Maria kisses the priest’s hand and thanks him. Maria and the priest watch the movie. A man removes a woman’s veil and kisses her bare back as people whistle. Then they kiss, and the audience applauds. The priest says he won’t watch pornography. Toto is alone in the projection room. A woman brings in blind Alfredo, and Toto welcomes him with a hug. Alfredo asks how school is, and Toto says he is working and no longer goes. Alfredo says this is not his real work but only a stopgap. He says some things are more important. Now that he is blind he sees better.
Alfredo talks to the teenager Toto Di Vita (Marco Leonardi) who asks him how he knew the movie is out of focus. People are watching a nude woman lying on her stomach, and a boy refuses to leave. Brigitte Bardot is in the movie.
Toto and Alfredo test new film that does not burn. A man spits down from the balcony, and someone throws food in his face.
Toto has a movie camera and shoots the slaughtering of a calf. He films a young woman walking by. The boys says she is a new student, and her father is the bank manager. She drops a package, and two boys run to get it. Toto hits the other boy, picks it up, and gives it to her. She says her name is Elena Mendola (Agnese Nano). The other boy puts his arm on Toto’s neck and gives him a black eye.
Toto shows the films he made to Alfredo and describes them. Alfredo asks about Elena, and he gives a detailed description of her and how he feels. Alfredo says the blue-eyed ones are the worst, and he warns him. He refers to a John Wayne movie, and they laugh.
Toto sees Elena walking on the plaza during a wind storm. He drops his films and runs to her. He says it is a nice day, and she laughs during thunder. She says she has to go and leaves. He calls himself a jerk.
Alfredo repeats his warning and tells him not to try. Toto says he talks like he made the world; he always has an answer. Alfredo says he will tell him a story, and they sit in a doorway. Alfredo says a soldier saw a princess go by and managed to meet her and told her he could not live without her. She said if he waited a hundred days and nights under her balcony, she would be his. So the soldier waited day after day and never moved despite the weather and insects. Finally after ninety nights he wept and could not even sleep. The princess watched him, and on the 99th night the soldier took his chair and left. Alfredo tells him not to ask him what it means.
Toto has books and waits while a man talks on a pay phone.
Toto is showing an Italian film, and people weep. After the end one man says he does not like it, and two policemen remove him.
People wait to get into the cinema, and the theater is packed. A policeman tells Toto that people have been waiting a half hour, and he asks what he can do. An old man says if it does not come soon, they will have to give them their money back. The owner tries to calm the crowd. A man stands up and says he saw the movie and will tell them the plot.
In church Alfredo and Toto sit down. He sees Elena come out of confession, and he whispers to Alfredo. Toto goes to the priest and points to Alfredo. The priest goes to Alfredo who says he needs him urgently. Toto sneaks into the confessional and talks to Elena who asks how he got in there. He says he had to talk to her, and he says she is beautiful. He says she makes him tremble. He admits he is in love with her. An old woman speaks from another window, and he blesses her and closes the window. Elena laughs and says he is sweet, but she does not love him. He asks her to listen and says he will wait every night under window. The priest tells Alfredo that he survived the fire in the cinema, but he will not survive the eternal fire.
Toto is waiting at night under Elena’s window. A calendar is marked. On a rainy night Toto stands in the narrow doorway. Several days have been marked in the calendar. Toto sits under her window. He hears people count down and celebrate the new year. He walks down the street as fireworks go off.
In 1954 Toto has a new projection machine and tears up a paper. Elena comes in and says his name. He turns to her, and they smile at each other. Very slowly they embrace and then kiss. The reel of film comes to an end, and the audience complains. He keeps kissing her.
Toto and Elena are eating a salad in a cactus leaf.
During a film they kiss in the projection room.
Toto is driving an old car that breaks down, and they laugh. He stops a car, and the man gets out. She covers her face.
Toto rides on a cart with the projector.
At night in a canal people on boats see a film projected on the side of a building. Others are sitting in rows of chairs in the plaza below.
Toto reads a letter from Elena who writes that she sees him everywhere.
Toto shows a color film outside at night. The film is Ulysses and shows the Cyclops. He cranks the projector. He lies down and asks when the rotten summer will end. He sees lightning and feels rain. Elena kisses him passionately in the rain.
The older Toto remembers this. He hears the words that he has to do military service in Rome. She says she will arrive on a bus.
The owner in the street talks to Toto on the balcony of the cinema and gives him instructions what to do before he leaves.
A bus arrives in the plaza, and Toto looks at his watch.
Toto is in the army and talks on a pay phone. His letters to Elena are returned to him in the barracks.
Toto gets off a bus in the plaza and carries his suitcases toward the cinema where a man is smoking on the balcony. He stops and shows affection to a dog.
Toto visits Alfredo who is in bed and feels his face. Alfredo says it does not matter if they talk.
They walk by the sea, and Toto tells Alfredo a funny story. Alfredo says they each have a destiny, but the land is cursed. He says you believe nothing will change, but then after a couple years some things are gone. He says now it is impossible. Toto asks which movie star said that, but Alfredo says nobody said it but him. He says life is not like in the movies. He tells him to get of there and go back to Rome. He says he is old and does not want to hear him talk anymore.
Toto sits alone on steps in the evening.
The older Toto is sitting up in bed thinking.
A bell rings. Toto kneels before Alfredo who tells him not to come back; but if he does, not to see him. Toto thanks him for everything he has done for him. Alfredo says he loved the projection booth, and he lets Toto go.
Toto is on a train leaving and waves to the priest and his mother.
An airplane lands, and the older Toto rides in a cab.
The older Maria puts down her knitting and embraces Toto by her gate as the taxi leaves. They come inside, and she says she has a surprise for him. She says she had the whole thing redone. She says he has time to rest before the funeral. He says it is only an hour by plane, and she says he should not have said that after all these years. He looks at the newly painted bedroom and notices the photos on the wall. He sees an old projector on a table and photos of himself and Alfredo.
At the funeral people walk behind the car with the casket. Maria tells Toto that he will be glad he came. She says Alfredo really loved him. She says he left him something. They walk slowly and stop by the burned out cinema. Toto remembers the faces that are older now. He goes to the owner and shakes his hand. He asks when he closed it down, and the man says six years ago in May. He says that Toto knows the old movie business is not what it used to be. Toto says he used to order him around, but the man says that now Toto is a big-shot. Toto helps carry the casket into the church.
At home Maria tells Toto that he never asked to see him. He said Toto must never come back. She opens a can of film and says he said strange things at the end. He told her things his mother should not know.
Toto walks in the burned-out cinema and looks around. He remembers whistling. He goes into the projection room and finds dusty film.
Toto projects a film in the room, and his mother sees him.
Maria at the dining table asks Toto what he is thinking. He says he forgot many things, but he feels like he has never been away. He says he deserted her, and she says he does not have to explain. He had a right to leave, to do what he wanted. She says every time she calls him, a different woman answers. She felt that none of them loved him. She wants to see him settle down and love someone. She says his life is there, and here are only ghosts.
In the plaza people are seated as they watch the demolition of the Cinema Paradiso. The owner smiles. Toto sees some boys playing around. A man walking says the square is his.
A plane takes off.
Toto hands someone the old can of film, and he sits in the audience alone as a projectionist starts the film. He watches the kissing and other scenes in black and white that were censored by the priest. He smiles and has tears in his eyes.
This sentimental comedy celebrates what the movies from the 1930s to the 1960s meant to people as entertainment that made them feel good by seeing them through the eyes of a boy.