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For Your Consideration: 'Cinema Paradiso'

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Nuovo Cinema Paradiso
(dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)
Original and Director's Cut
When Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, cut down to two hours for international release in 1988, won the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes and Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, it put Giuseppe Tornatore (b. 1956) on the map. The Sicilian-born director was known up to that point mainly for writing and directing documentaries for television, and he had one feature film to his credit at that point, Il Camorrista (The Professor, 1986), based on the life of the Camorra boss Raffaele Cutolo in Naples. Tornatore released Nuovo Cinema Paradiso at a length of 155 minutes in Italy, a tendency toward over-long films became one of his signatures. In response to the criticism of the length, he cut the film to a length of 123 minutes for international release, making it into a rather different movie. One can now appreciate this by watching a third version of the movie, the Director's Cut, which clocks in at 173 minutes.

The differences between the long and short versions mostly centers on the short version's excision of most of the latter part of the love story between the main character, Toto, and a woman he knew as a teenager named Elena. By leaving the resolution of that plot strand open in the short version, Tornatore shifted the film's focus to Toto and Alfredo, the projectionist at the local movie house who becomes Toto's mentor, and Toto's rejection of nostalgia for his homeland so that he can go in search of a career as a film director. Toto's village, Giancaldo, is based on Tornatore's hometown, Bagheria, near Palermo, where most of the film was shot. Tornatore returned to the place for his more openly autobiographical film, Baarìa (2009), which is the Sicilian pronunciation of the village's name. It was there that Tornatore, as a young man, became involved in acting and theater, not unlike how Toto became a projectionist.

The short cut of the film puts more emphasis on the sentimental and comic evocation of Bagheria, too, making the film -- perhaps unconsciously, but perhaps not -- very much in the mold of Federico Fellini's Amarcord, which is set in that director's hometown of Rimini. There are multiple parallels between the two films: the use of dialect, the focus on children (Fellini's main character was his best friend, Titta), the skewering of Catholic and fascist pieties, the regret for the quirky individuality of Italy's regions. Fellini also turned importantly to a heartstring-tugging score by Nino Rota, and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso was the first of Tornatore's many collaborations with composer Ennio Morricone, a score that prominently used a melody composed by Morricone's son Andrea, who also became a film composer.

Most of the nostalgia in Nuovo Cinema Paradiso is about the disappearance of the old cinema culture. In the 1980s, Tornatore was concerned about the closure of old movie houses, because of the encroachment of videotape and corporate cineplexes. (It is no coincidence that the quirky little art movie house where I first saw this film, when I was an undergraduate student, was closed within a couple years.) At that point, though, Tornatore could only have imagined our world of digital movies now, where entertainment is available on every laptop and smartphone screen. The quirky small movie theater, where people from all walks of life gathered, is so far gone that young people now may never have known such a thing. "The old movie business is just a memory," says the owner of the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso at the end of the film, as the beloved old theater is about to be destroyed. "No one comes anymore. Che peccato!"

As Martin Scorsese, another director who reveres early film history, did recently in Hugo, Tornatore also gives many tributes to the films that influenced him in his youth. Excerpts show up on the screen from Jean Renoir's Verso la Vita, John Wayne Westerns, and Chaplin's City Lights. In particular, movies about Sicily play an important role, including Luchini Visconti's La Terra Trema, a docu-fiction about Sicilian fishermen, and Pietro Germi's In nome della legge, also set in Sicily, and there is something important in these references about the idea of seeing one's life or surroundings elevated to the level of film. In a sense, Tornatore seems to have made one movie in the short version, which brought him fame, quite different from the film he probably actually wanted to make.

Tornatore's other films include Stanno tutti bene (Everybody's Fine, 1990 -- later made into an American film with Robert de Niro), Una pura formalità (1994), L'uomo delle stelle (1995), La leggenda del pianista sull'oceano (1998) with Tim Roth as a piano prodigy who grows up on an ocean liner, Malèna (2000) with the scorching Monica Bellucci, and La sconosciuta (2006), a sort of Hitchcock thriller. He made his first film in English last year, The Best Offer, with Geoffrey Rush playing a man obsessed with an heiress art collector, and he is reportedly shooting another English-language film, The Correspondence, in Scotland.

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