Anyone who truly loves movies must adore Cinema Paradiso (1988); director, Giuseppe Tornatore’s astonishingly affectionate and wistful romance of celluloid about a lonely boy’s life-long love affair with post-war Italy’s movie culture. I don’t know what I find more sublime and stirring about Tornatore’s masterpiece; the effortless way he gingerly massages three extraordinarily gifted actors of disparately handsome looks and equally as abundant acting styles (Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin) into one seamless and perfectly singular, transitional pièce de résistance about our titular hero, Salvatore 'Totò' Di Vita – orphaned in the war and raised by a careworn, though nevertheless devoted matriarch (Antonella Attili in his youth; Pupella Maggio, in her emeritus years); or Philippe Noiret’s Alfredo, a big and lovable, gentle teddy bear of a man, prematurely aged and blinded in a fateful accident inside his projection booth, and finally, composer, Ennio Morricone’s haunting and heartrending score; an affecting miracle of loveliness, never devolving into saccharine, serving both the remarkably subdued images on the screen - informing on each characters’ emotional content – and yet just as easily absorbed as a symphonic magnum opus apart from the movie. Irrefutably, Cinema Paradiso is Tornatore’s treasure, bequeathed to film lovers all over the world; a stunning achievement and very sincere reminder of the communal impact and reflection all truly inspired art possesses, particularly when unfurled from reels at our local Bijou.
Twice, our Totò is love-struck by this proverbial ‘thunderbolt’; first, as an impressionable child, skipping school and shirking his duties as an altar boy to skulk off to the unprepossessing movie house in his tiny village; later to be rebuilt as the lux-lined ‘Paradiso’ by the town’s wealthiest patron, Spaccafico (Enzo Cannavale). The Paradiso fast becomes the hub of the village; an oasis risen from the rubble and squalor of their bombed out lives in the hamlet of Giancaldo. Transparently, it serves a purpose, to unite a community devastated by the war’s fallout. As an impressionable child, Toto is as absorbed into these shimmering illusions set before him, eventually censured by Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste) who is sternly concerned about the movies’ impact on the moral welfare of his community. Aldelfio liberally applies his own brand of Catholic censorship to even the remotest hint of passion as innocuously represented on the silver screen by a singular embrace or ardent kiss. Ah me…what dear old Adelfio would have said about today’s cinema…hoo, boy! But I digress. Much to his mother’s chagrin, the artifice of the movies serves a real ‘reel’ purpose in Toto’s education and shapes the enduring passions in life as well as his aspirations for the future: above all else his unquenchable thirst to parallel his life with these celluloid daydreams; more real to him than anything in life. Begrudgingly, Toto’s mother condescends to allow him to apprentice with the Paradiso’s projectionist, Alfredo; a surrogate for the father lost to him in the war. And although this mentored friendship will remain paramount and stationary throughout Toto’s life, as he segues into adolescence as a raven-haired handsome young man, Toto’s heart is stirred by the purity of a grander amour with Elena Mendola (Agnese Nano); the daughter of a wealthy family briefly vacationing in his village.
From Italy’s sun kissed beaches to its moonlit and rain-soaked cobblestone byways by night, theirs is an extraordinary affaire du coeur; eloquently handled by Tornatore with a lithe appreciation for the fragility of young love, unaccustomed to these pulsating rhythms of premature separation and ultimate heartbreak. Cinema Paradiso is really two epics tightly pressed up against each other with an occasional overlap; the passage of time and the ephemeral quality of life itself intruding upon Toto and Elena’s window of opportunity for authentic ardor. Only capable of a more robust reflection in the sunset of middle-age, Toto’s panged affections for Elena in his youth staggers the mind as it so cruelly tears at his heart. While the maxim ‘life doesn’t always give us what we want…though it very often lends us what we deserve’ seems to apply; the penultimate finale to the original cut of Cinema Paradiso is actually more prescient and forgiving to these illusions of perfection originally ensconced in Hollywood’s movie-land culture; the proverbial ‘happy ending’ eroded both by changing audience tastes and Toto’s mature reflections, eluded to at the beginning of the movie as his aged mother writes her estranged adult son, now a famous Fellini-esque film maker in Rome, a letter to inform him of Alfredo’s passing. In Toto’s youth, Alfredo was the boy’s steady rock; the only influential male figure in his life. After his life-altering accident, with Toto becoming Alfredo’s eyes – literally – their bro-mantic relationship only deepened; centered on their innate love of the movies. Yet, after Toto’s conscripted stint in the army, and furthermore, suspecting his heartbreak over losing Elena will derail a young man’s future, Alfredo self-sacrificing, sets aside his genuine affection for this son he never had, cruelly making Toto promise he will never look back, either in anger or regret; the ramifications of these tearful goodbyes at a railway station not yet entirely understood.
It is only when an unmarked canister of film arrives at Toto’s fashionable apartment in Rome decades later, that the exiled past comes flooding forth; Alfredo, having squirreled away virtually every piece of censurable footage excised over the years, now lovingly edited into a tear-jerking tapestry of reflection. As Toto spent most of his childhood and youth bitter sweetly daydreaming inside the Paradiso, these long lost apparitions appear to him now almost as the missing pages of his own life – or rather – the imaginary one he would have hoped for; reality again eclipsed by this most perfect of comparative reflections, yet as incongruous of journeys. It all suddenly makes perfect sense; the past come full circle to enrich and inform the present, and hopefully, to direct a wounded soul through the labyrinth of middle-aged loneliness; movie art, the penultimate liberation from all Toto’s stagnated and lingering doubts. I’ve said it before, so I will state it again: You can learn an awful lot from the movies. This is, or rather was the supremely satisfying message and finale to Cinema Paradiso as it existed in 1988.
But then, in 2002m an inexplicable – and I would sincerely argue – unforgiveable alteration occurred. Unable to leave well enough alone, and perhaps nagged by the fact he had shot so much more footage than ever was used, Giuseppe Tornatore elected to revisit Cinema Paradiso with a ‘director’s cut’ – erroneously marketed as ‘the New Version’ by Miramax distribution. In an era where it had become something of the fashion for virtually all directors to suggest their movies as initially screened were decidedly not as they intended, I would like to take a moment herein to suggest to all directors as misguided as this, that whatever your second guessing after the fact, the movie first released to the public should always be considered your ‘director’s cut’. If not, than no self-respecting director has the right to slap his name on it, simply to acknowledge the investiture of time and effort put forth to make it in the first place; a sort of ‘hold’ until more time and moneys becomes available to supposedly re-envisioning the project: already conceived, and more importantly, embraced by the public at large.
Personal opinion of course, but I do not really care to see any movie re-envisioned, re-edited or, in the most appalling cases, bastardized by directors who, having acquired stature and clout since the original theatrical release, with their perspectives grown saltier, now gauche enough to consider their originals as grotesquely naïve and in desperate need of a new, though hardly improved Band-Aid fix; indiscriminately cutting out a communally cherished moment here, adding a new snippet or sound bite from some undisclosed archival bits, never intended for public consumption; remixing, redubbing, and, in the most egregious cases, populating their cinema landscapes with altered CGI trickery from the new and ever-expanding toy box of play tools to ‘enhance’ their visual milieu, as to equally piddle upon our collective golden memories of their original craftsmanship. George Lucas, you are not listening! But I digress.
Tornatore’s re-imagining of Cinema Paradiso is one of those egregious and indefensible rewrites; presumably made to satisfy nothing except the ego of its director, quite suddenly and inexplicably dissatisfied with having created an irrefutable chef-d'oeuvre the first time out of the gate. For the 2002 release of Cinema Paradiso substitutes a sort of rank ‘show and tell’ of the ‘missing pieces’ from Toto’s life, utterly to deprive the audience of that mystery and wonderment stitched into the original’s well-formulated poetic license, having then deliberately omitted portions while perfectly preserving our hero’s memories of his own past for the rest of us. Fifty minutes of footage is ‘restored’ in the official 2002 ‘Director’s Cut’; another whole ‘half’ of a movie. Yet it achieves very little, except to extend, rather than augment, this simple story. A few carelessly inserted sexual encounters between the young couple are offset by the ridiculousness of almost thirty-eight minutes applied to the last act. These additions propel the narrative forward into an entirely unrealized and utterly pointless third act. Toto, having wept warm tears inside the screening room and later, while attending Alfredo’s funeral in Giancaldo – is reunited with ‘remnants’ from his nearly forgotten past. Betraying Alfredo’s promise to never look back, Toto now begins to see false Elenas popping up all over the place; or rather, just one he repeatedly keeps bumping into in Rome. The girl, a spitting image for the one denied him so many decades earlier, is actually Elena’s daughter; Elena herself (now played by Brigitte Fossey) living in quiet desperation with her more prominent husband.
Toto and Elena are reunited, briefly. They share a rather passionless indiscretion while the husband and daughter are away. Yet, unable to come to terms with pretty much anything, they are parted once more, only this time on mutually amicable terms, and presumably, for all time, recognizing with an even more maudlin clarity that the past cannot be recreated or even rekindled for either of them in the present; decidedly, not for the future. There is a very good reason why imperfect love affairs endure; particularly at the movies, and, more importantly, in our minds. Consider: do we really need to see Ilsa and Victor Lazslo arrive safely in America at the end of Casablanca or learn what actually happened to Scarlett and Rhett in Gone With the Wind after he ‘frankly’ stopped ‘giving a damn?’ The answer is, no – because ultimately it is only in the mind’s eye where true love - imperfectly perfect: real (reel) or imagined, is sustained; faultlessly encapsulated and even more affectionately recalled through rose-colored lenses of false memory; easily corruptible by self-deluding idealism. No trice in life is excellence itself – no kidding. But if we skew any reminiscence through the miscellanies of a reverie, it can remain dishonestly venerated as ‘the one that got away’. And for better or worse, sometimes that lie is more potently fulfilling than the truth. Tornatore’s new finale plays merely as more ‘lost and found’ than ‘gone, but never to be forgotten’ and it insincerely wounds, if not entirely dismantles the more eloquent reflections put forth more succinctly in the original. It also alters the affinity audiences have for the original vision. Put bluntly, we get ‘more’ without getting ‘better’.
My best advice to anyone never having seen the director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso is to avoid it entirely. Your life, as well as your respect for this movie will not be enriched by the viewing experience. You will, however, be able to discover nirvana of a kind in Arrow Academy’s ‘new’ release of Cinema Paradiso; both cuts included on Blu-ray. It has taken an obscene amount of time for Tornatore’s sublime tome to reach these sunny shores in North America. In 2013, Arrow made Cinema Paradiso available on Blu-ray in the U.K. Another aside; I am generally appalled by how much deep catalog gets sidetracked and released to Blu-ray only in Europe but never finds its way to North America where, arguably, an even larger market exists for its conspicuous consumption. But now, at long last the wait is over. It has been over for five years already for those with ‘region free Blu-ray players’; frankly, an insult to the rest of us who have been patiently awaiting a better incarnation than the slap-dash hi-def effort released by Miramax Home Video from 2006.
Arrow’s North American incarnation appears to have been sourced from the same immaculate 35mm negative used to restore and remaster its U.K. release; both the DC and TC housed on separate discs and properly framed in 1.67:1. The original negative, scanned in 2K resolution, has been given the Tiffany treatment – an exclusive restoration overseen by James White at Deluxe Digital Cinema – EMEA in London: professional color grading augmented by a frame-by-frame eradication of virtually all age-related dirt, scratches and debris for a pristine image with no untoward DNR applied. Where the Miramax release suffered from sporadic gate weave and weaker than anticipated shadow definition, the Arrow is rock solid and stunningly detailed; preserving the sun-baked richness of Blasco Giurato’s gorgeous cinematography. There are variations between the TC and DC cuts. In brief, the reinstated footage looks as immaculate as everything else. However, color grading on the DC favors a distinctly warmer tonality; neither distracting or merely ‘off’, but decidedly ‘different’ from the theatrical cut. The reason? Hmmm. No one’s talking. Image clarity for both is bar none outstanding as is the subtle preservation of film grain looking very indigenous to its source. This is a reference quality release with absolutely NOTHING to complain about.
Arrow has gone the extra mile in the audio department too: featuring a cleaned-up 2.0 stereo PCM and 5.1 DTS remaster. The 2.0 is as close as possible to the original release of Cinema Paradiso. Still, it is hard to quibble over the subtle, but exacting precision inherent in this carefully re-purposed 5.1 soundtrack. Everything from Morricone’s score to the subtlest grunts and/or dialogue has acquired a richer sonic depth. The theatrical version features a fascinating blended commentary with Giuseppe Tornatore and Italian critic, Millicent Marcus. Disc A also contains Dream of Sicily; a near hour-long 2000 documentary on the film, and, two featurettes: at nearly a half hour, A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise, and the less than ten minute, The Kissing Sequence. We also get the original trailer. Disc B’s only extra is the re-issue trailer. Ho hum. Lost in the shuffle were a pair of featurettes’ included on the 2006 Miramax release: Exploring a Timeless Classic, and, Little Italy Love Story: Cinema Paradiso Style, plus Cucina Paradiso: the Food Network’s tribute. None of these sloppily put together junkets was particularly appealing and hence, none are missed herein. Bottom line: Arrow’s release of Cinema Paradiso is, from top to bottom, a quality affair deserving of a hallowed space on your movie shelves, but more importantly, in your heart. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)