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Non-Review Review: Cinema Paradiso (Theatrical Cut)

Hmm… a dude who runs a film site loves a nostalgic movie about the power of cinema? I never could have called that one.

It's another day for you... for you and me in paradiso...

In fairness, I first encounter Cinema Paradiso when studying for my Leaving Certificate. It was on my English course for my end-of-school exams. Although I enjoyed it then, I always wondered what the film was doing on a course for fifteen-to-sixteen year olds. I’m hesitant to evoke a negative stereotype, but subtitles don’t exactly grab the attention spans of the kids these days – just like black-and-white doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the film is a classic – just wasted on a young audience. Plus the fact that most Irish classrooms are lucky to have a television the size of my laptop screen with dodgy reception for a classroom of over thirty students. Subtitles ain’t the easiest to read.

If the point of including a film on the course was to make English an accessible subject – “leitmotifs and themes aren’t just for old farts like Shakespeare, we swear!” – perhaps there are better films to aim at an audience than Cinema Paradiso. The Truman Show, a film recently added to the course, is surely one.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a personal aside. I love this film. Well, I’m going to be honest, I love “The Director’s Cut” of this film. The theatrical cut runs at two hours and – in its defense – breezes by. It reaches wonderful moments of power and clarity that can cut through even the most jaded cynic, but a lot – if you’ll pardon the pun – ends up lost in translation. Cinema Paradiso is a “coming of age” story filtered through the lens of a title character in love with the moving pictures. Salvator (or “Toto” to his friends) is fascinated with the local picturehouse (the Paradiso of the title), which serves as a hub for the small village in which he lives.

I suspect there’s a great deal of autobiographical reflection in Giuseppe Tornatore’s film – indeed, his own home town stands in for the isolated village where Toto grows up – and it’s filled with exactly the sort of “small town antics” that anybody who has ever lived in a tight community can relate to. The town is divided between the church and the cinema, both overlooking the central square – in fact, Tornatore punctuates his film with imagery hinting at how deeply engrained religion is/was in Italian day-to-day life (the Virgin Mary appears more regularly than some of the cast) – and the bulk of the movie’s social scenes are split between the two locals (indeed, Toto himself goes from altar boy to projectionist).

He's got an eye for film...

As Toto comes of age, we catch snippets of the various other patrons, and gain an almost overarching perspective on the social life of the community. A fleeting glance between a woman on a balcony and a man in the stalls leads to the two of them on the balcony and then – as times get worse – the two of them and a baby in the stalls. The film skilfully presents us with a community that has taken the picture house as its heart – people live there, people die there, people have sex there, people sleep there. It’s beautiful, it really is. Indeed, the theatrical cut almost perfectly preserves that sense of “cinema as a shared communal experience” aspect of the plot.

However, the film’s main characters don’t do nearly as well out of the cuts made to the film. The opening chapters – featuring a young Toto play endearingly (in one of the best child performances I have ever seen) by Salvatore Cascio – remain virtually untouched by the editor’s blade, so a lot of the film’s endearing charm in its first half remains. However, a rather significant plot development from the second half is removed entirely, which also gets rid of quite a lot of the ambiguity that those sequences had – leaving them feeling a lot more like the hallow nostalgia of the first half, just played a lot more clumsily. Several key character beats are gone, and the movie is the poorer for it – instead of Salvatore’s world become more complex as he grows up, it instead remains brightly charming and wonderfully whimsical.

Of course, maybe I’m just too in love with those sequences for my own good. My better half (at whose suggestion we stuck on the film – and at whose insistance we favoured the shorter cut over the longer film), having never seen the film before, could not figure out that a key note in the symphony was gone. So maybe I just miss it because I know it’s there, playing out in the background, but unseen. What’s strange, though, is that – despite adding an hour of deleted footage (and to be fair, at least twenty minutes of that is unnecessary) – the Director’s Cut flows better.

However, I’m not here to review the Director’s Cut. I might be at some point in the future, but not now. So I should really just get over the fact that this version simply “isn’t as good” and make with the critique, right? Truth is, there’s a lot to love here. Giuseppe can sure as hell frame a shot, and his camera work is nearly magical, every frame dripping with symbolism and rich with texture. This is cinematic flavour to savour. And then there’s the soundtrack, which is not only one of the best things Ennio Morricone has ever done (high praise indeed), but it’s also one of the best things about the film. Indeed, long passages of time go without dialogue as Morricone skilfully accompanies us through montage after montage. And it works – any other film would seem lazy for resorting to montages so frequently, but here it’s positively endearing.

And that montage. If you’ve seen it, you know the one I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen it, you also probably know the one I’m talking about (even if you don’t know that you know it). The Simpsons actually – fortuitously enough – offered a take on it on Sunday night, in what is arguably one of my favourite sequences from the show’s twenty-odd year history. I can’t find it on-line, but it was beautiful.

By the way (because this has been one of those rambling reviews), does anyone else thing that – between this and Nine – Italian film directors get a bit of a hard time with all their many lady loves? It’s frequently mentioned that Toto has become quite the ladies’ man, and I can’t help wondering if this is so close to becoming a stereotype that somebody should notify the Italian Movie Directors Anti-Defamation League?

Cinema Paradiso is a classic film, but in this form it is simply a great film, which reaches moments of pure cinematic beauty. Do yourself a favour. Watch the Director’s Cut?

7 Responses

  1. Such a memorable masterpiece of cinema and as movie bloggers, it doesn’t get any better than this. Would Toto be a movie blogger in the 21st century? lol. I should probably check the director’s cut (I doubt the TV version I saw was it….)

    • I think so – although these days he’d be painted as a guy who lives in his parents’ basement rather than a visionary film maker. 🙂

  2. As someone who grew up in non-English speaking country, I’m used to subtitles so it’s like second nature to me. I adore this movie, and your assessment of ‘cinematic flavor to savor’ is spot-on… it’s as delicious as your favorite Italian dish! I’ve only just seen this movie not too long ago and didn’t realize I rented the director’s cut. I actually want to see the original version now that has the ending with the older Elena.

    Oh, I also saw this the same weekend as NINE, so I laughed at your comment about Italian directors and the many lady loves. Methinks they might not mind the stereotype 🙂

    • Yep, as a guy whose national stereotype is being drunken and fighting (and having red hair), I can understand how “being great lovers” is a fairly decent cliché to be associated with.

      • Wait a minute, you are not sporting a red beard and hairs, while holding a mug of beer on your left hand and your right hand in a pack of ice (after a bar brawl last night)?

        You shattered my picture of you!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Oh, begosh and begorrah, you best be carryin’ on now – enough of yer blarney!

  3. I fell in love with this when I saw it several years ago. It was at the open air cinema in Templebar and there was nothing better:) And Castor, yep we all have red beards & hair, myself included, hehe.

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