Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Blu-ray Review: CINEMA PARADISO (1989)

CINEMA PARADISO (1989) Blu-ray

DURATON: 124 mins
VIDEO: Anamoprhic Widescreen (1.77:1) 1080p
AUDIO: Italian DTS-HD MA Master Audio 5.1
DIRECTOR: Giuseppe Tornatore
CAST: Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste
TAGLINE: A celebration of youth, friendship, and the everlasting magic of the movies.

Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 Italian film NUOVO CINEMA PARADISO was originally released in an 155 mins theatrical cut but was trimmed to a more manageable and better received 124 mins for it's international release under the title CINEMA PARADISO. It was this cut that I caught a 35mm screening of in the early 90's while living in Ithaca, NY. The screening was at the small Cinemapolis theatre on the Ithaca Commons. Not yet in my twenties, and coming off a decade of 80's horror devotion, this screening gave birth to my love of arthouse and foreign cinema which at this point weren't part of my cinematic vocabulary. My new found interest was fed all that year by the aforementioned Cinemaoplis and Fall Creek Pictures who were not only my entry point to Tornatore's CINEMA PARADISO, but Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's DELICATESSAN, Jaco Van Dormael's TOTO LE HEROS (1991), Gabriele Salvatores' MEDITERRANEO and Krzysztof Kieslokowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991) plus an American indie film that remarkably still has no DVD release 20 years later, KAFKA (1991), Steven Soderbergh's follow-up to SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989). Apparently '91 was a banner year for indie and arthouse cinema in addition to alternative music. At the time I was heavily into Nirvana, the Seattle scene and all things Sub Pop having not been weaned from the teet of metal but definitely having my horizons expanded.
CINEMA PARADISO opens in Italy sometime in the 1980's. Film director Salvatore De Vita (Jacques Perrin, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) returns home and is informed that his mother telephoned with news that someone named Alfredo has passed away. Salvatore, who has not returned to the village of his birth for 30 years, flashes back to his childhood during WWII and recalls the formative years of his life and a friendship with an crusty, though kind-hearted, theatre projectionist named Alfredo who imparted to him a love of cinema.

We are then transported to 1940's Sicily via flashbacks as only the magic of cinema can. We meet Salvatore at the age of six, he's a precocious little scamp who keeps his mother on her toes, he definitely a handful of mischievous energy. Consumed by an interest in film he spends most of his time at the Cinema Paradiso, a theatre at the heart of the town square. It is here that he befriends the projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret, Fellini's THREE BROTHERS) who begrudgingly lets the boy hang out in the projection booth with him. Through a series of montages we are introduced to the townsfolk who gather nightly to watch the moving images and they are a colorful cast of small town characters. Father Adelfio (Salvatore Cascio, THE WHITE SHEIK) dutifully approves each film before public viewing at weekly screenings in which he censors scenes of intimacy that he deems immoral, he does so by sounding a bell which cues Alfredo to mark the scenes and cut them from the reel, the decades of naughty nitrate litter the projection booth. During viewings of the film the townsfolk can be heard to register complaints, one man objecting, "I've been going to the movies for twenty years and I never saw a kiss!". The entire village is enraptured by the moving images, it's an idealized cinephile vision of small town life and while the film is sometimes critiqued for being overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative I thinks it's rather quite wonderful.

At first Alfredo's disposition towards the Salvatore is one of annoyance but he recognizes his love of cinema and takes him under his wing teaching him to operate the projector, edit and splice film and change reels. The two form a father-son relationship, it's a wonderful portrayal. In a tragic turn of events the highly flammable nitrate film catches fire and a blast of flame from the projector cruelly takes Alfredo's sight. The theatre is a complete loss but it is given a new lease on life when a man named Ciccio, who recently won the lottery, resurrects the theatre as Nouvo Cinema Paradiso. In an admittedly unlikely turn of events Ciccio hires the adolescent Salvatore as the theatre's new projectionist. With the introduction of non-combustible film stock a few years later Alfredo ponders "progress, always comes late."

Alfredo and Toto's friendship continues through the years and as Salvatore matures into a young man, now played by Marco Leonardi (LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE), he finds himself coming to Alfredo for advice when he loses his heart to a young beauty by the name of Elena (Agnese Nano), the daughter of a wealthy banker who frowns upon a peasant boy courting his daughter of privilege. At the height of their romance Salvatore is required to serve his compulsory military service and the two lose touch when Elena's family settles elsewhere. Returning to the Sicily following his service Alfredo urges the young man to leave the village, to return to Rome where he can pursue his dreams. Salvatore is hesitant to do so but Alfredo make him swear to never return, to not look back and not give in to sentimentality. Alfredo tells Salvatore "Whatever you end up doing, love it. The way you loved the projection booth when you were a little squirt". It's a promise he keeps but upon returning to the village 30 years laterSalvatore is overcome with regret at the decision.

During the funeral procession Salvatore sees so many familiar faces from his youth, he's overcome with feelings of nostalgia and regret. Later Alfredo's widow tells Salvatore how proud her late husband was of him, that following his career as a film director was a source of great pride for the elderly man. She gives him a box, inside it a film reel. Upon returning to Rome Salvatore screens the reel to discover that Alfredo has spliced together a compendium of what amounts to the greatest romance scenes of cinema cut from films over the years at the behest of Father Adelfio. He watches as tears of bittersweet joy stream from his face, basking in the glory of cinema and overwhelmed by emotion.

As a teen I found this film so incredibly moving, it was overwhelming. Neer had I seen a film that carried with it so much love for the  cinema or such passion for filmmaking. Revisiting it again 20 years later it still carries that same weight and then some. With a few years under my belt, a family of my own and my love for film grown, the film resonates deeper and stronger than ever. Much like director Giuseppe Tornatore's nostalgia for the cinema of his youth I find it difficult not to similarly gush over CINEMA PARADISO - it is simply a thing beauty.

In the longer theatrical version of the film the relationship between the younger Salvatore and Elena is fleshed out a bit more. When he returns to Sicily 30 years later he encounters a young girl whom bares an uncanny resemblance to his lost love. Through her he is reunited with Elena and attempts to rekindle their romance. The reunion scenes add some extra depth and poignancy to the proceedings plus there's a revelation involving Alfredo's involvement in their break-up which adds yet another level of bittersweetness to the film's finale. Without disavowing the international cut I would definitely recommend a viewing of the theatrical cut.

BLU-RAY: Umbrella Entertainment's Blu-ray of CINEMA PARADISO is a joy to behold even if not exactly reference material. The blacks levels could be better and it's not the sharpest image on Blu but it's significantly better than the previous DVD editions and worth an upgrade sight unseen. The only audio option is the Italian language 5.1 audio with optional English subtitles. Dialogue and effects are crisp and clearly audible and while it's center channel heavy Ennio Morricone's transportative score sounds quite brilliant and never better. Note that this Blu-ray is Region FREE and playable worldwide.

SPECIAL FEATURES: None, but the film is it's own delight even without the benefit of supplemental material, not that it wouldn't have been appreciated.

VERDICT: CINEMA PARADISO is a gorgeous love letter to a bygone era of cinema and to the glory of independent movie house that's swollen to perfection with nostalgia and sentimentality. A powerful film that nurtured my own passion for cinema at a particularly influential period in my life. I give this the highest recommendation possible and would easily place it alongside CHINATOWN, BLUE VELVET, THE THIRD MAN and TOUCH OF EVIL as my most treasured films. Seeing it projected in 35mm was one of my greatest cinema going moments and Umbrella Entertainment's Blu-ray is the closet I've come to reliving that experience since.