“Anyone who loves movies is likely to love Cinema Paradiso.”
That definitive affirmation of writer-director Guiseppe Tornatore’s unadulterated love letter to the silver screen came from no less an authority than Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert, in his original review of the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner of 1989. Having finally seen it myself, I’d have to admit to feeling foolish, were I to try one-upping the master’s praise.
In fact, I’ve now seen it twice, at two different lengths. The “Twenty Fifth Anniversary” Blu-ray package offered by Arrow Academy generously provides both the 174 minute “Director’s Cut” and the famously award-collecting “Theatrical Version,” running at a more mainstream-friendly 124 minutes.
The catalyst remains the same: celebrated film maker Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin, State of Siege) receives a phone call from his mother, informing him that Alfredo (Philippe Noiret, Il Postino) has died, prompting Salvatore–now based in Rome–to revisit his Sicilian birthplace for the first time in thirty years, but not before slipping into a reverie of his childhood (delivered via flashback), starting when he was just five years old and living in the tiny, impoverished fishing village of Giancaldo; then struggling through the waning days of World War II.
He was called Totó back then and was still waiting, in vain, for his father to return from a duty tour on the Russian front. Despite serving as an altar boy, young Totó (Salvatore Cascio, The Pope Must Diet) proved to be something of an unholy terror to his young, widowed mother (Antonella Attili, The Star Maker), feisty Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste, The Sicilian Clan)—who not only serves as the village priest, but also as its one-man movie censorship bureau—and Alfredo, the middle-aged projectionist at the town’s lone movie house, who—despite his best efforts—becomes the boy’s surrogate father.
The flashback flashes forward twice: first into Totó’s adolescence (with Marco Leonardi now taking over the role) where he meets Elena (Agnese Nano, Miracle at St. Anna), the first woman to capture—as well as the first to break—his heart and finally, back to the present, where as a grown man, he returns to bury his most important friend.
I chose to watch the famous, shorter cut first and came away verily impressed by its abundant mixture of wit and pathos. The evolving love story between Totó and Alfredo is certainly one for the ages, particularly as portrayed by Cascio and Noiret. And yet, I couldn’t help wonder if Cinema Paradiso was really the best foreign film of that year or whether it had snagged its trophy by virtue of paying adoring tribute to the industry bestowing the honors.
I had no such reservations after viewing the director’s cut, which uses its additional time to flesh out Totó’s teenage and adult years (which is exactly where the story went pear-shaped for me in the theatrical version), providing a much fuller and more satisfying viewing experience; ironically, seeming to go from start to finish much more quickly than its truncated cousin.
Additionally, the director’s cut clears up a great mystery (left unsolved in the theatrical version), but more than that I will not say. Spoilers, right? Wrong!
Regardless of which version you prefer, this special two-fer set from Arrow Academy has got you covered. Both remastered films are presented in 1.66:1/1080p and beautiful to behold. What’s more, they’re kitted out with two equally effective sound options, allowing you to enjoy Ennio Morricone’s sweeping yet poignant score in all its auditory glory. Che cosa? You don’t speaka di Italiano? English SDH subtitles are available.
Bonus features here are rich and plentiful. Before one even gets to the discs, there’s a reversible jacket, each side featuring a different color illustration. More color illustration pervades the set’s photo-laden 33 page booklet, including a behind-the-scenes gallery, a scholarly essay by Pasquale Iannone and notes about the transfer project for technophiles (you know who you are).
Onto the discs: director Tornatore provides audio commentary, in the company of Italian cinema expert Milicent Marcus. The seven minute kissing sequence stands on its own, as Cinema Paradiso fans well know, but here Tornatore provides an assist, identifying each clip therein. There are a pair of featurettes: The nearly hour-long A Dream of Sicily, which features Tornatore sharing some of the first footage he ever shot in his life, in addition to talking with legendary director Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano) and painter Peppo Dicatgo, while A Bear and a Mouse is a 27 minute examination of the Alfredo and Totó characters, including interviews with the actors who brought them to life on screen. Additionally, there’s the theatrical trailer for the Director’s Cut and yet another trailer hawking this 25th anniversary re-release, apparently to satisfy the most persnickety completists.
“Life is not what you see in films,” Alfredo counsels his young charge, at one point. “Life is much harder.”
It’s sound advice and exactly the kind given by a responsible man to a formative child. But we know better, eh? We, who value cinema far and above its ability to occupy time spans, know that the very best films do, in fact, bring their worlds to life and invite us to join them, no?
If you’re one of us, you owe it to yourself to get Cinema Paradiso in this brilliant set.