Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” is surely one of the most beloved (and successful) European films of the last twenty years; the ode to film and friendship, constructed to wring laughs and tears from the most heart-hearted of viewers and lovingly shot to give a nostalgia- drenched halo to virtually every moment, won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 1989, and until Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” captured American hearts in 1997, it probably was the Italian film most familiar to American audiences. What isn’t much recognized, however, is that in its original Italian release in 1988, the picture was a failure. At the time it ran 155 minutes, and the local audience shunned it. It was only after the picture was trimmed to 123 minutes that it won plaudits at Cannes and went on to international acclaim.
Tornatore, however, apparently never agreed with the changes that transformed his film from a potential flop to a massive hit. (During interviews a couple of years ago he also complained that his later film, “The Legend of 1900,” had been shortened from 170 minutes to a mere 116 for its American release, although most viewers might have expressed the opinion that it was still overlong.) So we are now offered a much-expanded “director’s cut” of the beloved movie, nearly three hours in length. (Actually, it seems to have been circulating for a while on video and DVD in Europe, but this release represents its first official American appearance.) A bit of the extra footage is a beginning crawl listing all the awards the picture’s received over the years; but that hardly explains an extra fifty-odd minutes. Just how close this cut is to the original Italian release of 1988 is something film scholars will have to work on later if they can. If that version still exists, perhaps a massive DVD compilation at some future date will resolve all the questions by allowing one to see all the possible variants and permutations over a two or three-day span.
The issue at hand is simply whether this “Cinema Paradiso” is preferable to the 1989 issue. The answer is no, with the caveat that those who have a warm spot for the short version of the tearjerker will at least find it pretty much intact, and may also appreciate some loose ends being tied up in the added footage. The elongated cut preserves the story that so many people fell in love with (and a minority found unconscionably mawkish)–the friendship between Salvatore, a fatherless tyke enamored of movies in impoverished post-World War II Sicily, and the initially grumpy but ultimately soft-hearted local projectionist Alfredo, who becomes his paternal surrogate and teaches him the trade. As the pair Philippe Noiret and young Salvatore Caschio are as charming as they were more than a decade ago, and Tornatore’s expertise in using them to manipulate audience reaction remains as assured now as it was then. Most of the expansion of “Cinema Paradiso,” however, revolves not around them, or even on the romance between the adolescent Salvatore (Marco Leonardi) and his girlfriend Elena (Agnese Nano), but on the effort of the adult Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), returning home for Alfredo’s funeral, to find and reconnect with Elena (played by Brigitte Fossey, who portrayed the angelic five-year old Paulette in Rene Clement’s lacerating 1951 masterpiece “Forbidden Games”) and discover why she had abandoned him so abruptly. Structurally it’s easy to see what Tornatore was aiming at: a sort of cinematic triptych, revealing a character in his joyous youth, hopeful adolescence, and reflective old age; but he doesn’t pull it off very effectively. The added section is almost like a new, and completely different, film tacked onto the old one; its tone isn’t anything like that of the familiar earlier portions of the picture (even the lighting changes, creating a gloomier ambience), and the mood is much darker, more somber and even (in Salvatore’s virtual stalking of Elena) a bit creepy. The last act also adds a dimension to the Salvatore-Alfredo relationship that some will find unpleasant–and difficult to accept. Unlike the original, which sent viewers home with a sad but warm feeling, this cut is likely to leave a somewhat sour taste, especially if you read it as Tornatore’s apologia for his own career–as an argument that art justifies the sacrifice of everything else that might matter in life, or that great creativity is incompatible with the kind of love that totally absorbs a person.
All of which suggests that the responsible parties knew what they were doing when they trimmed “Cinema Paradiso” back in 1988. The longer version may be truer to Tornatore’s tripartite vision–and less simply cloying and calculated–but ultimately it’s also less coherent and emotionally satisfying. Restoring the lost footage is of historical interest, but it was probably an artistic miscalculation.