He is considered as one of the directors who brought critical acclaim back to Italian cinema. In a career spanning over 30 years he is best known for directing and writing drama films such as The Legend of 1900, Malèna, Baarìa and The Best Offer. Born in Bagheria near Palermo, Tornatore developed an interest in acting and the theatre from at least the age of 16 and put on works by Luigi Pirandello and Eduardo De Filippo.
He worked initially as a freelance photographer. He then worked for RAI before releasing his first full-length film, Il Camorrista, in 1985. This evoked a positive response from audience and critics alike and Tornatore was awarded the Silver Ribbon for best new director.
Tornatore's best known screen work was released in 1988: Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, a film narrating the life of a successful film director who has returned to his native town in Sicily for the funeral of his mentor. Subsequently Tornatore released several other films.