How does one write critically about a film that moved them to tears?
When I first saw Italian director Guiseppe Tornatore’s Oscar-winning drama Cinema Paradiso, it was on the big screen, and I was so engulfed in the emotion of it all that, like the patrons of the story’s theater watching Matarazzo’s Chains, I wept. Perhaps it was from imagined parallels with my own life, but I sincerely think that Cinema Paradiso has a timeless story that will appeal to all. The film tells the story of Salvatore Di Vita, or Toto, throughout his life from impudent child cinephile to renowned filmmaker (perhaps there is an autobiographical element?). The film doesn’t focus on Salvatore’s life completely, but rather specifically on his relationship with his childhood mentor and hero, Alfredo (French actor Philippe Noiret). The story does vary a little depending on the cut you see: the theatrical one is almost solely about Toto and Alfredo, while the director’s cut spends much more time on the relationship between Salvatore and his first love, Elena (Agnese Nano) - more on cuts later.
Alongside Salvatore’s coming-of-age story, we see several parallel elements: glimpses of Italian social history, the evolution of film display technology, and the trends in films themselves. Most of the film is told through an extended flashback, so who knows whether the memories we see are true; important events all seem to occur improbably close together. The same instant Toto and Alfredo have an important exchange is also the exact moment that Ciccio wins the lottery, and both events have ramifications on the rest of the story. Instead of a definite timeline, Salvatore’s memories seem intertwined by stream-of-consciousness connections represented by match cuts: the priest rings a bell and the film match cuts to church bells on the first day of school, one of Toto’s friends is beaten by a teacher and the film match cuts to Alfredo hitting things in his projection booth. We can never be sure what they are seeing is factual, but the nostalgia and emotion are so overpowering that they never notice. The first hour and a half of the film flows so easily that the majority of the film slips by before it fully registers how much has happened onscreen. As a bonus, the entire film is beautifully shot, immaculately crafted, intensely acted, gorgeously scored.
No discussion can be had about Cinema Paradiso without bringing up the film’s unabashed cinephilia. Obviously, Salvatore himself loves the medium, and much of the film concerns his time as a projectionist in the local cinema (the Cinema Paradiso, of course). More time is spent there than anywhere else, and we witness the community changing and growing within their beloved theater. More films are screened during the runtime of Cinema Paradiso than can be counted - a massively diverse selection that reveals the filmmakers’ own obsession. However, the film doesn’t focus on these screenings or draw too much attention to them; instead, the focus is reaction shots. We see the audience laugh, cry, cower in fear, heckle, and cheer - and we want nothing more than to join them. Unfortunately, some of the “commentary” about modern cinema is a little too heavy-handed, and sometimes subscribes to the Golden Age fallacy a little too much to be shrugged off. Despite this, any lover of movies - whether pretentious, pulpy, or all of the above - will find sympathy with the patrons of the Cinema Paradiso, a shared love of the transcendent moving image.
Cinema Paradiso is not a perfect film, despite my emotional connection. Much of the voice overs are quite obviously synced poorly, even untrained eyes will be brought out of the narrative. Some of the emotional impact of the film can be attributed to the cheap melodramatic manipulation techniques present in the order of some scenes and the score. Ennio Morricone (praise be) tries his best to dress up the main theme in as many settings as musically possible, but it still ends up being overused to the point of nausea, consistently being employed (especially in the latter half of the film) at any slightly emotional moment. It seems as though it should be an obvious choice to save an emotional main theme for the climaxes of a story instead of reunions with dogs that have been present for than thirty seconds of screen time previously. Never once does the implementation of the score defy convention; we always hear the string section sweep away when the lovers go in for a kiss. The story itself relies a little too much on clichés, too. One need not look long or hard to find many of the story elements in Cinema Paradiso elsewhere, and many of the story beats are easily anticipated. But perhaps this is part of the point, part of the appeal. Paradiso is paying tribute to film by distilling the entirety of its dramatic history into one beautifully cinematic platitude.
Now to the issue of cuts, another source of imperfection. The cut I saw first (and cried to) was the theatrical cut, a two and a half hour film. Before writing this review, I felt I should watch the director’s cut, which is twenty minutes longer. This second watch I found myself less moved, perhaps because I already knew the story, perhaps because the emotional impact itself doesn’t hold up to rewatch. The director’s cut feels like a more fleshed out story, several points of the theatrical cut that seemed truncated or inexplicable are elucidated by the extra footage. That being said, there is also plenty of irrelevant footage included in the director’s cut that only serves to bloat the total runtime. So which cut should you choose? It’s difficult to say. For those wary of major time commitments, the theatrical cut is an obvious choice: it contains all of the most emotional moments, and most of the feelings and realizations created by the extra scenes in the director’s cut can be found in the shorter version, if more subtle. For those looking for more (in general), the theatrical cut has lots of extra emotional impact, beautiful cinematography, meaningful dialogue, an a whole extra plot twist to boot.
Regardless of which cut you choose, Cinema Paradiso has one of the most beautiful final scenes of any film I’ve ever seen, on par with The Third Man, Whiplash, and Stalker. Your interest in and dedication to cinema notwithstanding, Cinema Paradiso is a charming classic and truly contains something for everyone.
- T. Malcolm