When you think of cinema, Turin may not be the first city that comes to mind. While Paris, a city famed for its cinephilia, has its cinemathèque at Bercy, somewhat off the beaten path for tourists, Turin makes sure almost every visitor experiences cinema history: its Museo Nazionale del Cinema in situated right inside the city’s most famous landmark, the Mole Antonelliana. This is a building which distinguishes Turin’s skyline, looking like a giant church steeple. In fact, the building used to be a synagogue, and it was built high in order to compensate for the small plot of land available. Like most towering landmarks, the Mole Antonelliana is a magnet for tourists who want to go up: thankfully, instead of a gruelling spiral staircase, there is a glass elevator which whisks you to the top—the hard part is waiting in line, sometimes up to an hour, as the elevator takes a maximum of 10 people at a time. The view from the top of the Mole is enjoyable for a few minutes, but the museum inside has enough to keep visitors happy for hours.
The cinema museum has four floors, plus a temporary exhibition space around the walls inside the spire, which visitors can enjoy by walking along a gently spiralling ramp with a dizzying perspective on the main exhibition space below. In many ways, Turin’s cinema museum is like so many others across Europe: it tells the same history of cinema they all do, illustrated by displays of historical artefacts: from shadow puppets, magic lanterns, and zoetropes to scripts, costumes and film posters. Where Turin’s cinema museum differs is in the quantity of these artefacts, and of the degree of interactivity in their display.
The first floor of the museum traces cinema’s history from its beginnings. Like other cinema museums, Turin’s displays many of its artefacts in glass cases, but it also sets many of them in motion. When you first walk inside, jointed shadow puppets come to life against a white sheet, giving a sense of their original magic. Alongside historic lithographs of adults entertaining children by using their hands to make animal shadows, a diagram on the wall shows visitors how to create their own rabbits, squirrels and human profiles. Old magic lanterns are plugged in, so that visitors can see exactly what kind of images this old technology actually created and the sort of motion it could simulate: shadows moving across a churchyard, a frenetically bowing devil, or fireworks on a London skyline. Not content to simply display stereoscopic postcards alongside the devices required to appreciate them, the museum has an entire room where visitors can peer inside stereoscopic boxes, or look through a binocular viewfinder and press a button to flip through a series of stereoscopic views of Edwardian weddings, postcards of old Turin and even nude women (the last in a red-curtained booth labelled ‘adults only’).
While the first floor of the exhibition is fun, the displays on the second floor are more like an amusement park. Film clips are screened inside appropriately themed spaces, including a reproduction of the famous Café Torino, a scientific laboratory, a 1950s living room, a space capsule and a saloon. The places to sit or lie to view these clips are also playful: a bed, a toilet or, in the centre of the exhibition space, dozens of red plush sun loungers with speakers in the headrests. Regular cinemas should really introduce the last type of seat: considerations of space aside, there’s no reason why we need to sit bolt upright to enjoy a film….
Like the first floor, the third floor is more educational, taking visitors through every level of filmmaking, from script and budget to costumes and sets. This section is illustrated mainly by production stills from film history, with an approximately equal representation of Italian and Hollywood cinema. Here too, though, the museum has paid attention to interactivity, allowing visitors to step inside a simulated director’s office, or watch themselves taking part in a special effect on a TV screen, which makes it look like they are falling down a hole.
Perhaps the best part of the entire exhibition, though, is the least interactive one: the fourth floor’s beautiful selection of world cinema posters from the 1920s to the 1990s: Nosferatu, Jules et Jim, To Catch a Thief, Riso Amaro, Il Gattopardo… The overwhelming impression here is that movie posters were most artistic between the 1920s and 1960s: later posters just aren’t as striking in their design, or entrancing in their effect.
Turin’s cinema museum is billed as kid-friendly, but it is of equal interest for serious film lovers, who might do well to leave the kids at home: while fun, the exhibits won’t keep the little ones entertained long enough for the adults to appreciate everything.
For visitor information, and to learn more about current exhibitions, consult the web site of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema.