Naked emotion is a tricky thing to sell in motion pictures, especially in semi-autobiographical ones about confused mama's boys gradually learning that life exists beyond the control of their lens. Back in 1988, Giuseppe Tornatore challenged himself thus with Cinema Paradiso and upped the ante, adding his unabashed sentimentality to the already personal project. Like grown men planting kisses on each other's cheeks, there was a sense of daring to the proceedings, an oscillation between elegant civility and potentially grotesque embarrassment. Ultimately, Tornatore stayed the course and delivered a film that, though self-indulgent, still rings delightfully true in its appraisal of angst and longing.
Cinema Paradiso: The New Version may seem somewhat redundant at first, and why wouldn't it? The film has circulated for years in a few different cuts and running times, starting out at 185 minutes, getting trimmed to 155 for Italian audiences and 125 for international ones, then being rebuilt to 170 for the obligatory director's cut. Now, following the lead of Amadeus, Apocalypse Now and another recently rereleased film of confused boyhood featuring an ugly rubber puppet from outer space, the film returns in a revised form to give us the full scoop. At three hours, this cut demands a little extra patience, but it also delivers the closing of a full narrative circle, with a sense of reckoning leading beyond sugary childhood memories toward an emotionally integrated future.
For about an hour, this looks to be exactly the same movie as before (and sounds like it, with characters ceaselessly bellowing one another's names). In a tiny Sicilian village hampered by censorship and other Catholic baggage, little Toto (Salvatore Cascio) has lost his father to soldiering, so he adopts two foster fathers: the cinema and its local representative, the salty projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). Driving his mother (Antonella Attili) close to madness by blowing the family milk money on movies or nearly burning down the house with his stash of flammable outtakes, he's one mischievous brat. Fortunately, Alfredo takes the lad under his wing as an apprentice, albeit with firm guidelines and an uncanny perception of the boy's growing needs in life.
Cinema Paradiso: The New Version
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Once Toto grows to adolescence (portrayed by Marco Leonardi), the new version takes on increased depth and substance. Alfredo stands aside, leaving Toto responsible to his community for sustaining the magic of cinema -- a magic of which Tornatore's lovingly rendered, ever-evolving movie house and its patrons leave no doubt. We then partake of "new" footage of Toto losing his virginity to the friendly local wench on the cinema floor and telephone-romancing the love of his life, Elena (Agnese Nano), only to discover that he's been chatting up her infuriated mother. The middle of the film benefits significantly from such character-rich addenda, which, in turn, strengthens the case that both Leonardi and Nano are fine, expressive actors playing appropriately delirious and shallow, as is the wont of youth.
Those who have not seen the director's cut may find in this new version's final hour its most surprising -- and satisfying -- enhancements. We suffer no shortage of iconic lost boys in pop culture, from James Dean to Mad Max to Eminem, but precious few of them are observed growing up and actually confronting the crushing disappointments of their youth rather than merely reacting against them to the grave. Here Tornatore delivers just such an antidote to desolation, as the adult version of Toto -- or Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) -- takes a break from his fancy career as a movie director in Rome to return home to his aged mother (Pupella Maggio) and contemplate mortality via Alfredo's funeral.
While that plot device exists in even the shortest cut, the vital connection with the adult Elena (a brilliant Brigitte Fossey) finally manifests itself here. It's a deeply moving exchange, too, as Salvatore is first entranced by Elena's look-alike teenage daughter, then, catching himself, decides to approach the aging girl he lost and who lost him. After two richly rewarding hours traipsing down memory lane, Tornatore plops us into a tight shot with two middle-aged adults acknowledging reality. The mystery of Elena's vanishing worked in the shorter cuts, but now the story feels whole, the quest of Toto the hero explored to its fullest.
Even if the romance doesn't work for you -- granted, like life, it can be extremely maudlin -- the movie soars as a celebration of cinema and twentieth-century culture. Knowingly, Tornatore has booked his Paradiso less with the work of the Italian greats and more with the escapism of Hollywood, and in so doing, he's built a bridge of familiarity for casual moviegoers who might not know Antonioni from Andy Dick. Additionally, Cinema Paradiso has existed long enough now to provoke nostalgia in and of itself, thereby enhancing its thesis about the glory of the art form.