Cinema Paradiso

 ★★★★★ 

Indulge yourself with the definitive version of one of the greatest films of all time. This multi award-winning homage to the love of cinema tells the story of Salvatore, now a successful film director, returning home for the funeral of Alfredo, his old friend who was projectionist at the local cinema throughout his childhood.  Soon memories of his first love affair with the beautiful Elena and all the highs and lows that shaped his life come flooding back, as Salvatore reconnects with the community he left 30 years earlier.

Cinema Paradiso is one of the most beautiful films ever made, both in spirit and photography. It’s an unashamedly nostalgic story about friendship and life, much of it told in flashback as Salvatore remembers the remote town he left behind, especially his old friend Alfredo and the cinema which is in the centre of the town. The story is like a love letter to film and the best moments happen in the cinema (especially when the town has gathered for a performance) or because of it. We first see Salvatore, or Toto as he was known, as a young, cheeky boy, running circles around Alfredo the projectionist. He grows into a young man with the films as a backdrop.

The town has a wonderful cast of characters and it’s one of those rare stories you wish wouldn’t end. The photography is gorgeous throughout and director Giuseppe Tornatore has a great eye for simple, but powerful compositions with fluid editing that sometimes leans toward fantasy (the transition between young and teenage Toto or the sequence in the rain); a story about the magic of cinema should have more than its fair share. It’s rather poetic too to have Ennio Morricone doing the score, one of cinema’s finest composers. In regards to the cast this isn’t a film about performances and there is no reason to pick anyone out in particular because they all seem inspired by the material, except perhaps the exceptional Phillipe Noiret.

There are many sublime moments in this uplifting and gently comic story and it’s difficult to pick one from another, but the funny early sequence of the local priest reviewing films and having every kiss removed is built up to hilarious effect when the audience watch in hope that finally they’ll see one that got through! It can be sad and moving as well and somehow, the very final moments encompass the whole thing. Simple and effective in the best way.

If I’ve made it sound a bit too sentimental, well be assured it has a vein of realism that always keeps it grounded, unlike Italian films that tried to capitalise on its success like the silly Life Is Beautiful. Take the cinema away and you would have a rather typical story about a young man, scorned by his first love, dreaming of escaping the dusty town he is trapped in, but he is willingly trapped by the cinema so it stays magical throughout, with Alfredo as a concerned voice of reason telling Toto he must leave and must not let himself be blinkered. Indeed the framing device is that Salvatore hasn’t been back to the town for 30 years.

His reason for staying away is expanded in the Director’s Cut and we have a fascinating situation here. I’m so glad both versions are included in the DVD set (plus Morricone’s soundtrack CD). The theatrical cut is fairly passive and if you enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption or Amelie, you should love it. The DC adds a thread to Salvatore’s return to the town in which he learns a harsh retrospective lesson that proves what we want is not always best for us. It’s heartachingly sad though and makes you think a lot more. Some feel it bloats the film, but this is perhaps only because they’re not used to seeing so much extra in the final chapter. It works very well and adds a challenging perspective.

New viewers should watch the theatrical cut and then the DC when they inevitably return to this wonderful film. I’ve often spoken of the magic of cinema and if you feel the same way as me you will adore this story. If you don’t feel the same way by the end check you still have a pulse!

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