Cinema Paradiso, now receiving a new home release 30 years after its first UK cinematic release, tells of a celebrated film director returning to the small Sicilian town in which he grew up, after hearing of the death of an old friend.
Told in a flashback, Salvatore (nicknamed Toto, and portrayed by Jacques Perrin as an adult, Salvatore Cascio as a young child, and Marco Leonardi as a teenager) reminiscences about his childhood relationship with that friend, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), an ageing projectionist at “Cinema Paradiso” – a small cinema in the town. With the guidance of Alfredo, we learn how Toto fell in love with filmmaking.
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The audience experiences the morality of the immediate post-war era, as the village priest, Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste), frequently censors the films on show. After thirty years away, Alfredo’s passing brings the now-middle-aged Toto to reconnect with the childhood and the memories that shaped him. It is the story of post-war Sicily, the changing of moral standards over time, and a meditation on the forces that guide and shape us in life. With a focus on the importance of our youth in developing who we become, and considering how easily we can lose touch with those roots, it is a wonderful, bittersweet, beautiful work of cinema.
Our review disc is a presentation of the 124-minute theatrical cut of the film: we note this, as Amazon and other retail sites are advertising this very release as containing both this and the equally famous and widely available 174-minute director’s cut. The longer version provided a bigger role for Alfredo in shaping the life choices that Toto made, as well as the choices that were made for him. The absence of this would be a loss; though that version does cast him in a different light – a less innocent one at that. In the longer version, however, Toto does reconnect with his childhood sweetheart, Elena, in a way that is a little uncomfortable to watch, and does little to serve either the story or our sympathies towards the character.
In short, there is far from a definitive answer as to which is the stronger version of the film, and it was the shorter, theatrical cut that made Cinema Paradiso a classic in the first place. Seemingly, there has been no further remastering of the film since earlier releases, with the picture quality failing to impress when compared to many other classic films released in recent years, and this has to be seen as a negative when evaluating this product. Sound options are advertised as both stereo and 5.1. On the review disc there is no stereo option: rather a choice between 5.1 and mono. There is the option to choose either American or UK English subtitles, or a track for the commentary. At a technical level, it looks… decent. It sounds… fine.
The audio commentary is advertised as being with director Giuseppe Tornatore and Italian cinema expert critic Millicent Marcus. When Millicent reveals early on that she has acted as a translator for Tornatore in the past, it would have been expected that this was to be a two-way conversation. In reality, this is a track that is almost all Marcus. She is a Professor of Italian and Film studies at Yale University, and, as such, clearly she should know her stuff. Her thoughts focus chiefly on what she is seeing, making observations on symbolism in lighting and sound choices. What Marcus lacks is the inside track on stories from the set, or insights into production.
This is a deeply dry track, primarily comprising an academic saying what she is seeing on screen. Aside from some commentary on symbolism and some historical and cultural context, this rises barely above that which could be expected from an audio description track. Tornatore is afforded a few, brief sections, the first of which doesn’t arrive until about half an hour in. They were clearly recorded separately from Millicent’s, though she introduces them to us. The director’s thoughts are kept to a single subject each time: for example, one covers his thoughts on the appeal of the film; in another he discusses his casting choices. Where home releases often skimp by giving us an interview where a commentary would be more satisfying, this is such a dull track, in its entirety, that it is fair to say that it would have preferable to have the filmmaker’s thoughts compressed into a shorter interview.
‘A Dream of Sicily’ is a 52-minute (as advertised: in reality closer to 55-minutes) documentary profile of the director, shot for an earlier edition of the home release, and, as such, appears to be in standard definition. Containing the first footage he ever shot (at the age of 13), the mixture of narration and to-camera memories, interspersed with home videos that speak to his love of capturing visual images and the Sicily that raised him, make this probably the strongest feature on the disc. Tornatore is an engaging speaker, a thoughtful presence, and he is able to articulate very well what about his youth he brought to bear on Cinema Paradiso.
‘A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise’ is a 27-minute documentary on the making of Cinema Paradiso and the characters of Toto and Alfredo. Beginning with Tornatore’s earliest impressions of cinema – with the size and scale of the screen being somewhat intimidating to him as a young boy – this feels, in style, not unlike the previous feature, but is focused solely on Cinema Paradiso, and the experiences that led him both to the story, and to the main characters. It also features contributions from a very aged Philippe Noiret. Again, it is not a new feature, and it all adds to the impression that not a stitch of effort has been made specifically for this edition, though it is entirely worth a watch.
‘The Kissing Sequence’ is a seven-minute featurette, where the director discusses the origins of the kissing scenes with clips identifying each scene. This does exactly what is says on the tin, but along with Tornatore’s warm presence, it is a pleasure to be able to source the shots that made up such a famous scene.
Finally there is a trailer – made for the 25th anniversary edition – rounding off what has to go down as a disappointing release for a terrific film. A weak commentary track and a lacklustre presentation – with or without the option to watch a celebrated longer cut of the film – give this a slight air of laziness in curating this product. Literally nothing here is new for this particular edition. That said, this remains a terrific piece of work, but there is little in the bonus features that suggest purchasing this is worth the investment over that of taking a streaming option.
Although a 1988 film, Cinema Paradiso was released in the UK in 1990. As such, this is clearly an opportunity to mark the 30th anniversary. Putting aside the issue of the longer cut, a look at the extras tell us that this release offers nothing more than that provided for the 25th anniversary edition. Whilst that leaves it a decent purchase for those yet to own a copy, it offers nothing new of value to those who do. That renders this a very ordinary release for a film that deserved somewhat more thought and invention than this.
Cinema Paradiso is out on Blu-ray on 7th December from Arrow Academy.