Sunday, 19 February 2012

"Cinema Paradiso". A Review Of The 1989 Italian Film Now Reissued On A 2009 BLU RAY.

"…Grazie Alfredo…"

Name-checked by the ludicrously-well-balanced readers of England's "The Guardian" newspaper in 2007 as their favourite-ever Foreign Language film - Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso" was already the stuff of celluloid legend less than a decade after its release - and rightly so.

I remember the first time I saw it - I bawled my eyes out like a big girl's blouse - and it's been emblazoned in my heart and top five ever since. I make no bones about it - if "The Shawshank Redemption" is the greatest film ever made (and the absolute people's champ according to the IMDB database) - then "Cinema Paradiso" is the most 'beautiful' film ever made - and my number two with a bullet.

First aired in Italian cinemas in 1988 at 155-minutes - "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso" (its original title) was not well received at the box office. So edited down to a more manageable 123-minute length and given a shortened name - it was then re-presented by a terrified and weary Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. The results were magical. The cast was literally cheered and applauded by hardened film critics as they walked from the screening to their hotel rooms. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes that year, then the Baftas, followed by the Oscars and subsequently garnished some twenty-plus awards in Europe alone (they run like a role of honour before the film starts)...

Told in flashback and subtitles - an elderly Italian lady phones her son in Rome who is now a big movie director. A local man has died and his funeral is the following day - she feels he must attend. Failing to get through - her daughter who is sat beside her mum reasons that maybe he's doesn't want to remember - after all he's been away from home for over 30 years? But as she dials again - mother insists - Salvatore will make an exception for Alfredo. When the middle-aged but still devilishly handsome Salvatore Di Vata lies on his pillow beside his beautiful young starlet partner in his suitably plush apartment - the camera closes in on his guilty face as he remembers who and what got him there...

And so the story begins - we're introduced to Salvatore as a precocious young 8-year old boy (nick-named Toto) who lives in the small Sicilian coastal town of Giancaldo. As his mother Maria stoically waits for her husband to return from the Second World War - she darns socks and makes ends meet (subtly played by Antonella Attili). Meanwhile Toto sneaks away from his alter-boy duties with the town's priest - the hotheaded and sometimes comical Father Adelfio (brilliantly played by Leopoldo Trieste) to his real obsession - being with the wily old Alfredo in the projection booth of the local flick emporium 'Cinema Paradiso'. Childless himself, but big-hearted to a fault when it comes to the permanently inquisitive boy - Alfredo is a surrogate father to Toto and a hugely positive influence in the child's formative years (veteran French actor Philippe Noiret putting in a towering and endearing performance).

But more importantly - Alfredo makes Toto feel wonder. All those glamorous movie stars and the exotic locations they inhabit - their fabulous lives with all that possibility. Then there's the community who gather in the cinema - characters who spit - kids who drop spiders down the open mouths of sleeping patrons - hookers who sell their wares in the booth at the back. Onscreen there's Edward G Robinson gangsters - John Wayne cowboys - Charlie Chaplin comedians - gunshots followed by laughter (a few in the back seats of the cinema are timed to match those onscreen). And in between the feature films are newsreels that show war and horror and political change - but somewhere else. Then there's the really good stuff - like love and kissing and sex - if only the priest didn't vet it out with the shake of a bell ("Twenty-years! And I've never seen a kiss on screen!"). And as he peers out through the carved lion's mouth beneath the projection booth onto the gathered patrons below basking in that swirling combination of light and cigarette smoke - Toto gobbles it all up. Until one evening when Alfredo does the crowd a favour and the highly flammable film stock catches fire and changes the course of everyone's life...

Although accused of being a little over romanticized in places (young women wash their hair in fountains, happy kids carry books up school steps in glorious sunshine) - Tornatore is saying that this is an Italy of old where things seemed simpler. There are inkwells in school desks and children have their heads shaved in public to rid them of lice - but there's also laughter in the town square as people gather of an evening. And as the movie progresses with the decades - so some of that innocence and community is brutalized and lost (the final fate of the building itself, the town lunatic still prowling the square that no longer seems quirky but sad). "Cinema Paradiso" is funny and poignant a lot. The teacher banging the dullard kid's head against the chalk blackboard because he can't get his sums right - night-student Alfredo trying to skive answers off Toto as he sits an exam that only young children should be taking - the town lottery-winner who looks up at the burned-out shell of a building and thinks I can rebuild this...

But it's the relationship between Toto and Alfredo that drives the movie and is full of remembrances and sweetly observed moments. The scene where the child Toto rides in the basket on Alfredo's bike down the hill towards the town will make many think of the love they feel for their own parents. Toto then grows into a handsome 18-year-old who falls madly in love with a girl who gets off a bus as he's filming. Agnese Nano plays Elena and while Salvatore's initial advances are spurned, the beautiful Elena eventually comes around - only to have their love parted by fate and a banker father with other ideas for his daughter (their story as adults is considerably fleshed out in the extended 'Director's Cut'). Finally - the young Salvatore is told to leave this dead town and curdled past behind - go forward and create - never look back. Alfredo loves him enough to make the ultimate sacrifice - let him go - be his own man. And on it goes to an end-sequence that is quite possibly the best ever made.

The BLU RAY has been both praised and derided for picture and content. A little history is needed here to explain. A Theatrical Version was first put out on VHS in 1994 - DVD in 1997 - a greatly extended "Director's Cut" in 2001 (177-minutes) - a 2DVD set in 2003 which contained both versions - and finally a 4-disc box set is 2007 with both films, an Extras disc and the music CD by Ennio Morricone.

This 2009 single-disc Blu Ray contains the 'Theatrical Version' only and 'some' of the extras. Very much on the plus side of this BLU RAY is that one of those extras is the stunning Morricone film score - and it's the remastered extended version of 23-tracks. A very nice touch is that it plays on screen with great sound and a lovely collage of photos from the film (it essentially streams the 'Photo Gallery' extra) that also has shots of the cast and crew. There are interviews with a grown-up Salvatore Cascio (who played the child Toto) and Director Tornatore in the principal featurette - "A Bear And A Mouse In Paradise: A Documentary". And the wonderful montage of naughty cut outs that end the film is discussed in another extra that also tells you onscreen what clip is from what movie. It's good - it is - but it's also such a shame that the equally magnificent and more substantial 'Extended version' isn't on here - a very definite blot of this reissue's copybook.

The picture quality ranges from the truly gorgeous (outdoor sequences in sunshine) to the merely good (scenes in Toto's home, the projection booth and the cinema itself). When it's less than defined (which isn't a lot) - there are a few specks on screen and some grain - but not so much that it would detract. As someone who's seen this film a lot on DVD - I loved seeing the print this clean and clear on BLU RAY - far, far better.

Why does "Cinema Paradiso" resonate with audiences so much? I can't help but feel that it's the poignancy of the loss as much as the joy that touches us. Young love - young dreams - still fresh - still uncorrupted by life and its disappointments. The famous 'kissing' sequence that ends the movie sums it up best. It was apparently shown to the actor Jacques Perrin (who plays the adult Salvatore) without him knowing what he was going to see. His reactions of being blown away are real - and we in turn were exactly the same when we first saw it - blown away. Frankly Scarlett - if you're not in floods of tears by the time that sequence ends - check your pulse, you could already be dead...

"Cinema Paradiso" is a masterpiece - and sure this BLU RAY reissue of it is fundamentally flawed without that 'Extended Cut' to give you a fuller picture. But I have to say that re-watching it on this format has been a joy for me. I cried like a sop again - and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Beautiful and then some.

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