Cinema Paradiso (The New Version, 1988)

July 17, 2007

When Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso came out, it was one of those foreign films that comes along every now and then that actually manages to get some attention from those audience members usually scared off by subtitles. The attention was well warranted. In my opinion, it’s one of the most moving and heartfelt films to come out in the last 20 years.

A few years ago, I was given the DVD version of the film for Christmas.  It contains not only the well-known theatrical release of the film, but also the newly mastered “New Version,” incorporating about 50 minutes of additional footage that Tornatore originally intended to be included in the film. As is often the case, studio execs had balked at the idea of a nearly three-hour long film and thus the footage had been cut for theatres.

I am not really a fan of director’s cuts. While I respect the director’s view and think they can rightfully claim some provenance over their films, I also respect good film editors and think they usually tend to make good choices in their cuts. cinema2.jpgOn the other hand, I do think the commercial pressure put on film-makers can often lead to questionable compromises. The lack of faith in an audience’s attention span definitely can lead to some poor decisions – the classic example being the excessive editing of Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons, which took place while the director was off filming in Brazil. To his dying day, Welles insists that these cuts ruined his vision for the film, and finding the director’s cut of this film remains the elusive – and rather unlikely – holy grail of the film world.

Being a big fan of Giuseppe Tornatore’s film, I held out for some time on watching the new version, suspecting that all that extra footage would just water down the film’s undeniable emotional punch. Fast forward to the past week, however, when I finally decided it was time to give this new version a shot, thinking that maybe a scene or two of the deleted footage might at least be interesting. I wasn’t trying to be pessimistic – just realistic. I mean, why mess with a film that’s already that good? Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only did the extra footage not ruin the film, it actually made a great film even better.

Both versions of the film are more or less the same for the majority of the film. The film begins showing film-maker Salvatore di Vita returning to his apartment in Rome one night to discover that his mother had called during his abscence. Her message informs him that his boyhood mentor and friend Alfredo (played in the film by Philipe Noiret in one of his most famous roles) had just passed away in his hometown and the funeral would be held the next day. Most of the film is subsequently a flashback to Salvatore’s boyhood and his growing up under Alfredo’s tutelage and learning about life, love, and film. The biggest difference in the two versions comes when Salvatore arrives in his hometown for the funeral. At this point, the theatrical version closes relatively quickly, only lasting another 15 or 20 minutes or so. It focuses almost exclusively on Salvatore’s coming to terms with the loss of Alfredo and the old movie theatre, which is torn down while he is there. In the new version, on the other hand, Salvatore’s return last nearly a third of the film’s total running time, and the additional footage shows him facing additional aspects of his past, including his first true love, his family, and his changing hometown. This broadened view, in my opinion, makes much more sense with the rest of the film and makes it more cohesive as a whole. cinema.jpgFor one thing, it resolves many of the questions the theatrical version left unanswered concerning Salvatore’s romance with Elena (and believe me, if you were a fan of the couple’s moving romance in the original version, you will want to see how it gets wrapped up in the extended version). Further, the additional footage extends some of the wider themes introduced earlier in the film, and as a result, the film is not just a memorial for Salvatore’s lost friendship (as it more or less is in the theatrical version), it’s an elegy for his entire past – an eloquent portrait of why some of us can never stop being haunted and influenced by our childhood.

I suppose you can say it is a very rare experience indeed to get to see a film twice for the first time. And yet, thanks to this new version, I feel like I had just such an experience with Cinema Paradiso. I was blown away by the sincerity and artistry of the film the first time through. Then, seeing it again with all the new footage, I was blown away once again. If you’re like me – reluctant to see director’s cuts and skeptical that the additional footage is actually worth salvaging – you should check out the extended version of Cinema Paradiso. It just might change your mind.

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