It was pitch dark in the small Odeon Theater in Washington, DC. The movie had ended, the screen had gone black, but there was none of the creaking of seats, the quiet conversations or shuffling that usually marks the end of a movie. Everyone was rooted to their seats. The only sound audible was the sniffling of a hundred noses punctuated by a few sobs here and there.
Finally, as the movie theater staff came in to clean up the popcorn cartons and the soda cans and bottles, people slowly rose out of their seats and filed out quietly, many still sniffling and sobbing.
The movie was Life is Beautiful (the much more mellifluous La Vita e Bella in Italian). We had all laughed, shook our heads in wry understanding and become tense as the father, played very endearingly by Roberto Benigni, desperately tried to save his own life and that of his young son and tried even harder to save his son's innocence in a Nazi concentration camp. Benigni's antics had kept our spirits up and at the edge of our seats for much of movie. Even his character's death towards the end had evoked shock, may be a little bit of sadness, but not the kind to bring forth tears.
It was only when - after the allied forces had liberated the camp - the young boy suddenly came upon his mother on the road to their town and had fallen into her outstretched arms screaming in joy at having found her at last that tears started pricking the back of my eyes. As mother and son hugged and fell on the ground laughing and crying at the same time, we had all cried, our tension released at this sudden, surprising and happy development.
The reasons why I'm lachrymose at movies are various. Sometimes it's because the character whose voice speaks to me the most loudly and clearly is going through an intensely sad experience; sometimes it's just the connection at a very basic level between two characters - where one shows an act of kindness towards the other, for example; at other times the tears are brought on by an intense feeling of relief at the resolution of some conflict.
The movie I cried hardest at was Cinema Paradiso in the scene where Salvatore finds out that the old reel operator (the projectionist) at Cinema Paradiso, a movie theater in a small village, had carefully spliced together all the bits of film lying on the projection room floor and made a reel for him. As a young boy, Salvatore had begged the projectionist to give him the bits of film but the projectionist had steadfastly refused. Salvatore grows up, moves away to the city and loses touch with small town relationships and values.
He comes back to his village one day and discovers that the old man is dead but has left something for him. It turns out to be the reel. As Salvatore watches the reel with tears rolling down his cheeks, you see, through an adult's eyes, how absurd it was to have wanted the bits of film. Spliced together, they make no sense. But the reel is a symbol of the profound emotional connection between an old man and a young boy brought together by their love of movies. With enormous affection and love for the young boy, the old man had taken the trouble to make something that he knew Salvatore, even as a grown man, would appreciate.
Then there was Boys on the Side in which Robin, Mary Louise-Parker's character, is dying of AIDS and Jane, Whoopi Goldberg's character, sings her Roy Orbison's "Anything you want, you got it." Of course, Robin can't have anything she wants because she's dying. The scene is made more poignant because Robin and Jane start out being crabby at each other but then reach the kind of mature understanding that everlasting friendships are made of. Suffice to say I bawled.
Munnabhai M.B.B.S. is another one of those bawl-worthy movies. The movie had me in stitches for the most part, but certain scenes suddenly brought on tears, such as the one in which Munnabhai impulsively hugs a janitor who's been having a bad day.
Father of the Bride evoked a rivulet of tears when the father, after several desperate attempts, is unable to connect with his daughter before she goes off on her honeymoon; Veer Zara, when Veer pulls out Zara's anklet from his pocket and Zara pulls up her skirt just that little bit to show she's been wearing the other one by itself for all of the years they've been apart.
The thing is I never cried at movies, and would stare, fascinated, at any one who did. As a teenager, I couldn't understand why any one would cry at movies. Didn't they know that movies were not real? That so-and-so is not really dying?
I really couldn't tell you why all that changed or exactly when. Perhaps, as you grow older, your repertoire of emotions grows and you are more able to appreciate, understand and identify with a broader range.
Whatever the reason, my tear glands are getting a lot of use these days.