Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore is no Coppola, and Cinema Paradiso is no cinematic legend whose fans clamor for an Apocalypse Now redux. No legends circulate about Cinema Paradiso's lost footage, and audiences for cute art film schmaltz seem pretty satisfied with Cinema Paradiso for what it is: an affectionate treatment of the relationship between gruff middle-aged theater projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) and the mischievous movie-crazed boy Salvatore "Toto" (Salvatore Cascio) who haunts his every move.
Cinema Paradiso, released in its original form in 1988, was a mildly irritating feel-good film that treated the rascally pranks of Italian schoolboys with the same degree of affection that it treated the town whore. The Paradiso movie theater where Alfredo works offers one of the best play lists imaginable: a steady stream of Italian neorealist Luchino Visconti, Stagecoach, Kirk Douglas in Ulysses, Modern Times, even Michelangelo Antonioni (whose film leaves the public mystified, but, significantly, moves the village idiot).
And so, Cinema Paradiso is a film about the populist appeals of cinema and the function of the Paradiso movie theater as a kind of town square where all walks of life commune at the shrine of Ingrid Berman and Jean Gabin. The crowd weeps to Rossellini's dramas, laughs at Chaplin's follies and masturbates to the pert bottom of Brigitte Bardot in a film that somehow slipped beneath the censorious village priest's radar.
Cascio is appropriately loveable as a kid mad for the movies. He's a puppy-cute moppet who hides flammable film stock under his bed, in reference to the conflagration of 400 Blows, in the same canister that holds photos of the father who disappeared on the Russian front during the war. Alfredo assumes the role of a substitute father for Toto, and it's the nice, fractious chemistry of love and irritation between them that is probably the film's most endearing element.
But in this new, remixed Paradiso, much more hinges on the far less charismatic actions of the grown-up Toto (Jacques Perrin), who becomes a successful film director in Rome. Offering Paradiso in its original uncut form at a heaping 170 minutes, Tornatore has restored an ancillary love story in which the older Toto returns to the small Sicilian village of his birth to search for the love of his teenage years, the lovely Elena (Agnese Nano).
This new version of Cinema Paradiso may be right in putting a darker spin on film love in suggesting that slavish movie devotion can make romantic fulfillment elusive. But the digressive re-introduction of a love story between the grown-up and unhappy Toto and Elena is yawn-inspiring in the extreme and only indicates how much better this fluff is when it sticks to the world of film fantasy than when Tornatore heads out into the world of mortals.
Like taffy stretched too far, this addition pulls Cinema beyond its capacity to stretch, so that the overall light, sweet tone that so endeared the film to the public -- and scored it the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1988 and a Best Foreign Film Oscar -- is severely weakened. No longer a merely saccharine, nostalgic tale of an Italy enthralled with the cinema, Cinema Paradiso attempts to become a philosophical tract on love, loss and the sacrifices creativity entails, a goal less nimbly realized by Tornatore.
Like so many other things in life, this new Cinema Paradiso only proves that change can come at a price, and that some things are better left alone.
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