Luhmann, Mass Media and Cinema Paradiso

Describe and explain Luhmann’s philosophy of the mass media both as it pertains to and in relation to the film Cinema Paradiso.

Niklas Luhmann was a 20th century philosopher who wrote extensively on the topic of mass media. Cinema Paradiso (1988) is a widely-acclaimed film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore which tells the story of a boy as he falls in love with cinema. I will talk about Luhmann’s systems theory in general, before looking at how Cinema Paradiso features the doubling of reality, cinema as entertainment and consensus among viewers.

Luhmanns’ Systems Theory

In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann tells us that for him the term mass media “includes all those institutions of society which make use of copying technologies to disseminate communication”(2). He believes that our society is made up of three types of systems; physical systems, biological systems and social systems. Out of these three only social systems can communicate.

Our society is made up of many different systems that help to manage our society ; the legal system, the health system, the political system, the economic system etc. These systems have codes, which allow them to interpret an event in a way relevant to that system. For example, in the health system the code is healthy/unhealthy. Events happen outside of any system, but are then copied into a system through observation.

The code for the media system is information/non-information. The mass media is not interested in what is true or false, it is concerned with what is appealing or exciting. This is why so many people like to read gossip magazines. For Luhmann, the mass media speeds up our society. Once a piece of information is reported, it is no longer new. This leads to a constant search for new information. The mass media teaches society about itself through what information we deem important.


My own example is what happens if a person who drunk driving knocks down a cyclist. This involves the health system and the legal system. The legal system is concerned with the responsibility and punishment of the driver, because he has done what is illegal rather than what is legal. The health system is more concerned with treating the cyclist and looking at the injuries that were caused. Driving under the influence is illegal due to the results that alcohol has on the body, as studied by the health system. While the systems are functionally different and work with different codes, the systems can interact.

The mass media system is unique in that is ‘doubles’ the other systems. The legal system is only interested in what falls under legal/illegal but the mass media system can look at all of the other systems. It connects with the other systems and interprets them using the code information/non-information.

At the start of Cinema Paradiso we are introduced to Salvatore Di Vita, affectionately nicknamed Toto, who is a mischievous, cheeky, young boy. He seems to take nothing seriously, until we see him in the cinema. His facial expression and his actions are that of wonder and awe. We see him more in the cinema than anywhere else.

The cinema and the films that are shown mirror Salvatore’s own ageing process. His personal growth is always tied to the cinema in some shape or form; he smokes his first cigarette in while watching a film, he loses his virginity on the floor of the cinema, he gets his first job there as Alfredo’s replacement and he kisses Elena for the first time in the projectionist booth.

Giancaldo is a working-class village where there is no chance to gain real fame or fortune. Only money can help the people get out. Alfredo feels stuck in Giancaldo, a fate he wants Salvatore to avoid. He wants Salvatore to make a real life for himself, something he can only do by leaving.

During the screening of La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare (Luchino Visconti, 1948), we can see all three of Luhmann’s program strands. There is advertising for a new John Wayne film, then the news is shown, before finally getting to the entertainment. However, for the young Salvatore, worried about his own father in Russia, the projection booth again acts as his escape. Instead of watching the news he turns to the booth, imagining the lion’s head coming to life and roaring. This distracts him from his fears until the film begins.

Cinema as entertainment

For the people living in the small town of Giancaldo, the cinema is entertainment. For them, it is a social occasion, which everybody gets involved in. As a group they laugh, cry and shout together. To not have seen a film is embarrassing. This is what leads to troubles from locals when they can’t watch the latest film to be shown. When the cinema burns down the priest remarks “What do we do now? No more entertainment in the village, nothing”. Luckily, Ciccio wins the pools and decides to rebuild the cinema, re-naming it the ‘Nuovo Cinema Paradiso’. The entertainment is brought back to Giancaldo. Entertainment is a big part of Luhmann’s mass media system. The films are a treat for the townspeople. They are not on all the time,  this is what makes them special. It provides them with a temporary distraction from their work, without being so long that it hinders the running of their lives. Luhmann declares that “every piece of entertainment must come to an end, and must bring this about itself” (56). It is only by it ending, we can move onto newer and more exciting pieces of entertainment.

This brings me onto Luhmann’s theory of redundancy and variety (Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems,134). In our society we want both of these. If we have a favourite television show, we like to know that it will be on the same channel, at the same time, on the same day of the week, but we want there to be different content each time. In The Radical Luhmann, Moeller defines it using democracy as an example by stating that democracy becomes stable because it allows for instability: “governments change, but the system thereby remains intact” (91). In Cinema Paradiso we see desire for both redundancy and variety in the cinema-goers. They want to be able to watch a film in the cinema, at set times, on set days, but have a different film to watch each time. The viewers have their routines: there is one man who repeatedly falls asleep, there is a man who continually spits on those from the balcony and the children always sit at the front. Alfredo tells Salvatore he works nearly every day of the year, a continuing task that he has to perform. The people of Giancaldo want to see a new film as often as they can. While there is redundancy, the latest film provides them with the entertainment. When Salvatore goes to get Part Two of Catene, Ciccio says he can just replay Part One, but this isn’t what the audience wants.

For Salvatore, the cinema is a way of escaping his worries. It is his slice of heaven. Our first view of the projection booth shows it with a spotlight coming from somewhere high in the room outside the shot, casting a shaft of light onto Alfredo and his equipment. This gives the booth a divine feel, reinforcing the idea that it is Salvatore’s sanctuary. In the Cinema Paradiso he can take a break from his own reality and join the reality of the film through his imagination. In The Reality of the Mass Media Luhmann agrees that this entertaining, saying “it is extremely tempting to try out virtual realities on oneself” (59-60).

The Doubling of Reality

The film doubles the reality of Salvatore and Alfredo’s lives. The film in many places seems to predict what will happen in the rest of Cinema Paradiso.

The first film that we see playing in the Cinema Paradiso is Verso la Vita (1936). It was directed by Jean Renoirand features a group of poor people hoping for a better future. In the clip we see, Vassilissa saying to Wasska: “One day everything will be ours, we’ll go away together… to live the good life.” This is exactly what Alfredo hopes for Salvatore. At the end we see that by Salvatore fulfilling this dream of Alfredo’s. They have both won.

During the film the narrator tells us the fishermen must endure “12 hours of  blood and sweat to take home the bare minimum required not to die of hunger.” This shows the poverty of the people. After the film is over there are men being told that “Here you work from dawn to dusk … and no questions about pay.” The poverty of those in the film is contrasted with the workers outside the cinema. It merges the reality of the film with the reality of Giancaldo.

The fact that Alfredo and Salvatore are in a film, talking about and quoting films, makes Cinema Paradiso postmodern. Television shows such as The Simpsons are very postmodern because they make many references to films, books and even other television shows. For us as viewers, the film is separate from our lives, we know that these characters are only actors playing out a role. However for a short while, we are supposed to buy into the fictional reality of the plot. Luhmann says “the mechanism of generating the text must not appear again in the text itself” (57). If we were to see a crew member in the film, we could no longer take it seriously, and it would lose its entertainment value. The films the characters of Cinema Paradiso talk about are in our world. We can go and watch these films. These numerous references to other films blurs the lines of reality. It places the story line somewhere in between reality and fiction.

When Salvatore takes over from Alfredo, we see him mimicking Alfredo’s actions. When Salvatore is in trouble later on, he quotes Alfredo. The film becomes self-referential by doing
this. Salvatore keeps invoices how Alfredo did, he eats out of a tin that looks very like Alfredo’s, he put up posters in the booth like Alfredo did. Salvatore’s imitation of Alfredo repeats what we originally saw Alfredo doing.

At the end of the film, it is Giuseppe Tornatore that works as Salvatore’s projectionist. This cameo makes Tornatore both a character and the director: both fiction and non-fiction.

Consensus among viewers

Luhmann says that viewers do not have to agree on what they have watched, they are perfectly entitled to their own opinions. After the screening of La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare the audience is leaving, chatting among themselves about the film:

“Nice film. That young man worked so hard”

“Why did he go and buy that boat?”

“Idiot! You didn’t understand anything”

Everybody is different. Certain things in a person’s past may make them react to a piece of film differently to the person sitting next to them. It depends on, but is not limited to the personality of the viewer: their likes, dislikes, past and current situation.

However, the people of Giancaldo nearly always react as a whole to the films. When they watch Catene, most of the audience are crying. We are shown all types of people dabbing their eyes. The films are seen as social gatherings, and we repeatedly watch the audience members reacting in very similar ways.

Luhmann’s system theory regarding the mass media is easily applied to Cinema Paradiso. We can analyze it regarding the doubling of the mass media, cinema as entertainment and the consensus of audiences. Cinema Paradiso is a film about the greatness of film. It’s many references to other works make it easy to talk about in the sphere of the mass media.

Works cited


  • Borch, Christian. Niklas Luhmann. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
  • Luhmann, Niklas. The Reality of the Mass Media. Trans. Kathleen Cross. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Print.
  • Moeller, Hans-Georg. The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Print.
  • Moeller, Hans-Georg. Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems. Chicago: Open Court, 2006. Print.


  • Catene.Dir. Raffaello Matarazzo. Titanus Distribuzione, 1949.
  • Cinema Paradiso. Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. Miramax Films, 1988. DVD.
  • La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare. Dir. Luchino Visconti. Compagnia Edizioni Internaionali Artistiche Distribuzione, 1948.
  • Verso la Vita. Dir. Jean Renoir. Arthur Mayer & Joseph Burstyn, 1936.

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