The score for “Cinema Paradiso” was composed by Ennio Morricone, who died Monday at 91, after breaking his leg in a fall. And that wasn’t even his most familiar work. Over the course of a stunningly varied and accomplished career, Morricone wrote the signature Man With No Name theme for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the masterful orchestral-choral accompaniment to “The Mission” and the ethereal sonic dreamscape for “Days of Heaven.” As The Washington Post’s Adam Bernstein wrote in his obituary, Morricone “was impossible to categorize. His portfolio seemed to span every conceivable mainstream genre, including comedy, drama, romance, horror, political satire and historical epic.”
Bernstein also noted that Morricone “saw himself as a full partner in telling stories on-screen.” And that made him a rarity, not only as a composer who wasn’t content with providing wallpaper or easy emotional “beats,” but one whose music was great enough to take pride of place alongside larger-than-life actors and visual images. Ask movie composers about their jobs, and most will say something diplomatic and self-effacing about simply being there to support the director’s vision; many will add that, if you are noticing the music, it means they’ve failed. The best movie score, they’ll tell you, is the one that doesn’t fade into the background but never stands out enough to be differentiated from the aesthetic and sensory world the film creates.
The audience can feel when that balance is off-kilter — when a too-lush musical score draws more attention to itself than to the people on-screen or when it pushes and prods us to laugh or cry on cue.
Morricone rarely put a foot wrong in calibrating how much density, volume, narrative line and depth of feeling to bring to the movies he worked on. And, as often as not, he brought a lot, creating compositions that could elevate even the pulpiest spaghetti western or horror film. “Orca” might have been a forgettable B-movie about a ruthless killer whale, but Morricone’s exquisite theme for the film captured the grief and heartbreak that motivate the animal’s quest for revenge. Similarly, the music he wrote for “The Mission” will last far longer than the actual film. In one scene, an 18th-century Jesuit missionary portrayed by Jeremy Irons plays the oboe in a South American forest, to the wonderment of the indigenous tribesmen who gather to listen. The scene is earnest to the point of condescension, but the piece Morricone wrote for it — called “Gabriel’s Oboe” — became one of his most enduring compositions.
It’s no surprise that Morricone’s most memorable work as an auteur in his own right was created in concert with filmmakers known for similarly ambitious visions: Sergio Leone, Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino. Over the course of his astonishingly long and varied career, Morricone wrote music for more than 400 films; although he received an honorary Academy Award in 2007, he won his first and only competitive Oscar in 2016, for Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”
As gorgeous as Morricone’s music was for those directors’ movies, it’s the nine relatively modest notes from “Cinema Paradiso” that exert the most haunting power today. Giuseppe Tornatore’s wistful memoir about the small-town theater where a director fell in love with the movies feels painfully apropos when a pandemic has shuttered most American multiplexes. (It’s hard to imagine someone 20 years from now writing an elegiac paean to time spent scrolling through their Netflix queue.) At a time when we’re missing movies more than ever, we’ve lost the man who captured that feeling better than anyone. But we’ll always have the achingly tender goodbye kiss he left behind.