It’s a masterful achievement in filmmaking as an empathy machine, a way for us to spend time in a place, in an era, and with…
"No good movie is long enough and no bad movie is short enough". As much truth as this phrase carries it is also a fact that editing choices greatly influence a film's outcome. One of the best examples to illustrate this point is Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso" which was released in 1990 as a 124 minute gem that won Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and the unconditional love of everyone I've ever discussed it with. Further, it made no sense to learn that a much longer version of the film had been released in Italy a couple of years before to mediocre reviews and box-office results. How could material this good ever be ignored? The answer came years later in a single viewing of one of those DVD editions that includes the complete 173 minute version. As strange as this sounds, I believe that the butchering of Director Tornatore's original 1988 vision saved his film from utter mediocrity, and took it to an all together higher level.
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"Cinema Paradiso" is the story of an Italian WW2-orphaned named Toto, at three stages of his life: childhood, adolescence and middle age (with a different actor playing him in each case). Toto's life is driven by the love of movies he acquires at the old local theater with cranky projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) becoming a surrogate father who teaches him about life and love while helping channel his interests into eventual success. "Paradiso" is also a great "first love" story and tackles other less personal but relevant themes, by portraying the parallels between the evolution of the cinemas of old and Southern Italy's social customs.
In the film's first chapter we see this coastal town during WW2 as it depends on the strict criteria of its actual moral leader (the town priest) on what makes acceptable viewing content (with everybody constantly complaining nonetheless). These were times very different from today as also proven by the loving but very un-PC parenting of Toto's mother. The Paradiso of chapter two becomes privately owned and these decisions are then made entirely from a business point of view with the movies screened jumping from timid to anything goes. In the final act we simply witness how these kinds of theaters became extinct in the face of the new entertainment forms available.
Movies are the universal language understood in every corner of the world and they bring together the unique population of the Cinema Paradiso, along with their search for a communal experience in which they can not only laugh/cry at the same time but even whistle mercilessly at the projectionist when a technical malfunction occurs. For this town of modest means this is basically their only source of entertainment and main reunion site so there are plenty of other goings-on while the lights are dimmed such as courtships, attendees napping or making-out, the breast-feeding of babies, the sharing of an occasional cigarettes and even mafia-type hits. One could simply say that life doesn't stop while movies are projected at the Paradiso. These concepts may sound preposterous to today's audiences but fact is the theaters of old had their own, peculiar communities and the movie effectively makes theirs seem real and hilarious.
Much of the appeal of "Cinema Paradiso" has to do with its cast of colorful characters which aren't particularly edgy and even seem naive when compared to those of current releases, but this is a big part of film's charm. My favorite is the super-expressive and impatient priest whose indignant faces at the sight of the screen kisses he "edits" and mannerisms while explaining the miracle of the loaves and fishes" to a faking Alfredo, are two of the film's best moments (the latter becoming a standard "multiplying" expression between me and my wife throughout the years).
Still, the film's central relationship is that between Toto and Alfredo and they spend the first chapter of the movie trying to wittingly outfox each other into having their way. Later on the youngster meets the early love of his life and he will come to realize that much like his early movie going days, this experience can never be replicated, no matter how many gorgeous girls his eventual fame will allow him to meet. During the last chapter of the film an older Toto will finally come back home but only to experience a sense of loss, that of a beautiful way of life, of a great love, of a friend and father, and yet, the final gift that Alfredo leaves him, which he was once too young to play with, will now manage to make things right for him, in the process giving us one of the best film endings I've ever seen.
The many faults of our film's earlier, longer version are a great tool to understand some of the things the shorter one got right to begin with. Even though it represents the "Cinema Paradiso" as originally conceived by Tornatore, the extra subplots and complications add nothing to the main theme of romance, friendship and love of the movies. It would seem the director got lost in the details and forgot the precise kind of movie he was making. Alfredo is now shown lying to Toto and being a factor in destroying his relationship with Elena, killing much of our sympathy for him. The clever complications involved in two theaters sharing two halves of the same print, now include a tasteless sex scene that makes little sense. Great characters and routines that worked to perfection in the theatrical version like the plaza nut and the movie censoring process are extended to the point where they are no longer funny. Even Ennio Morricone's sublime soundtrack can feel repetitive when played enough times.
As much as this lesser details hurt the movie, there are two significant alterations that turn it into something less than the sum of its parts. Take for instance the "first love" story, which coincides with the period "Paradiso" becomes a venue in which apparently everything goes. We see the theater prostitute giving Toto the works shortly before he meets Elena and, as a result, when he blames his clumsiness towards her on this being his "first time", this doesn't ring true and greatly diminishes the innocence of their relationship, which is pivotal to the story. Later on Toto goes back home for his friend's funeral and we watch as he runs into a young girl (her daughter) who looks uncannily like Elena (naturally, since she's played by the same actress) and by following her he encounters his old flame (as played by somebody else).
Unfortunately this older version of Elena is effectively competing with her younger version, with the ghost of a long lost love against whom she can't hold a candle and by portraying her committing adultery with Toto in a car, Tornatore does the film no favors. One could even argue that Elena is the equivalent of the shark in "Jaws": the less we see of her the more affecting she becomes and all these extra scenes do is take away the feeling of Toto's loss, diminishing the impact of the fantastic final scene.
Most "Director's cuts" are simply re-releases of a film with extra scenes that were cut from the theatrical release (for good reason) and put back for purely financial purposes, but there are exceptions, for instance, James Cameron is usually forced to trim his films in order to fit a certain number of theatrical showings per day and once you see his directorial cuts you never go back to the original. There are three considerations which I believe every filmmaker must take under account before embarking on the Director's Cut of a memorable movie: 1) The natures and attitudes of the characters audiences have come to know and love must not be altered significantly, 2) There must be no major changes in the dynamics of their relationships and 3) The movie must not be made longer than need to be. The longer cut of "Cinema Paradiso" fails on all three accounts and greatly reminds me of "Apocalypse Now Redux" in which the legendary Lt. Colonel Kilgore now seems witless while searching for his surfboard and Captain Willard (who could breath and think of nothing else than Colonel Kurtz) is now shown as a James Bond of sorts who has dalliances with beautiful girls at various steps of his journey. Both re-issues turn great classics into lesser movies and only serve in helping us value the powers of great editing. My recommendation for readers of this review is to stick entirely to the older versions of both and ignore that a new one even exists, otherwise you may find yourself forcing to apply the mental "erase button" that we usually reserve for the many sequels that have diminished their original entries.
"Cinema Paradiso" is a nostalgic look at a kind of movie going experience that is never coming back. Even though today's multiplexes are far more comfortable and clean, have fresher popcorn and countless teenage attendants to greet you and bid you farewell, they also have smaller screens, the constant distraction of cell phones/ texting devices and lack a certain atmosphere. Shortly after "Paradiso" became a sensation I learned there were plans to remake it as an ode to the American Drive-ins with Harry Dean Stanton starring in the main role. Despite the universality of the theme, I wasn't surprised that this project never came into fruition. Forget for a moment how the Italian language and idiosyncrasies fit this material so well but the short version of our film is one of those "lighting in a bottle" instances of the right setting, casting and music that's not easy to duplicate. "Cinema Paradiso" is the very best of the "movies about the movies".
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