By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Near the beginning of Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, three figures are situated in the village theater in Sicily. The projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) pokes his head out of a little window cut just to the side of the smoky projection beam, a priest sits in the center of the room -- hand poised on a little bell, and little Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio), nicknamed "Toto," hides behind a curtain. All three watch Jean Renoir's The Lower Depths (1936).
The purpose of this private screening is to allow the priest to ring his bell at any scenes he finds "objectionable" (usually kissing) so that they can be trimmed before the film opens to the public. But all three members of the audience watch the film in rapt glory, their faces glowing and changing as the magic images from the screen pass over them.
Sitting in the Cinema Paradiso audience and watching the film, I found myself making the same rapturous look.
Indeed, it's hard for anyone who loves the movies to resist the charms of Cinema Paradiso, now released in a 173-minute "New Version" with 51 minutes added to the original 1989 version. Many film buffs I've spoken to cite it as their all-time favorite film, but many others despise its overt sentimentality.
I find myself leaning toward the former camp, though I can't go all the way and claim that the film is a masterpiece. When one pits it side by side with another Italian film about a lost and confused film director, Fellini's 8 1/2, it feels slight and fairly rudimentary. But the emotions it churns out are inarguably genuine, thanks in part to composer Ennio Morricone's masterful score.
The first 90 or so minutes of the new version plays very much the same as the original (a scene of Salvatore losing his virginity is added, giving the new version an "R" rating).
The little boy in the film becomes Alfredo's apprentice at the movie theater and grows up into a strapping young man (played by Marco Leonardi). He falls in love with a blue-eyed beauty named Elena (Agnese Nano), but circumstance, class lines and other obstacles tear them apart.
In the 1989 version, we never learn why or how they were not able to get together. The middle-aged Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), now a successful film director, returns to his small town for Alfredo's funeral. The film used this event basically as a coda and left off there.
It turns out that these scenes were intended as part of a fully-structured third act in which Salvatore finds the married Elena (Brigitte Fossey). They share a passionate reunion and compare notes, discovering after three decades what went wrong and how.
Tornatore includes a wonderful scene in which the adult Salvatore calls her for the first time. The camera focuses on her silhouette in the window, then focuses back to Salvatore through the phone booth window -- both in the same shot, but separated by at least three physical elements.
These scenes not only enrich Alfredo's character (in a way that I can't reveal), but they enhance the movie's four-hankie ending, in which Salvatore watches a reel of dozens of kissing scenes trimmed all those years ago from all those great movies (Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, etc.)
At the same time, the new scenes go a long way in easing the thick sentiment and explaining why the early scenes are so rose-colored. From Alfredo's point of view, the past is a trap -- gooey nostalgia can suck you in if you're not careful. The 1989 release seemed to joyously revel in this nostalgia, but now it has an interesting perspective to it.
While Fellini's hero from 8 1/2 was searching for a way to express himself, this hero is just as tragic in his own way -- his love of movies has gone consummated, but his one true love of flesh and blood has not, at least not until it's too late. And even then that magic night will become a memory, a trap to be avoided.
If the viewer could sit still for 7 hours in a row, Cinema Paradiso might make an interesting double-bill with Martin Scorsese's new four-hour documentary on the history of Italian film, My Voyage to Italy. Both films include clips of many of the same movies: Visconti's La Terra Trema, Fellini's I Vitelloni. Both films go a long way in describing the passion we can develop for movies. And though many movies become memories, they can easily be re-visited and become the present day again, thereby avoiding the trap of nostalgia.
But unless you have someone to share with, this too becomes a trap. Using this thought process, Cinema Paradiso has turned from sweet to bittersweet, and when the tears come during that final, beautiful scene, they feel earned this time.
DVD Details: Miramax's double-disc set comes with both the director's cut and the original 1989 theatrical release.