One strives to resist using that oft-abused term “gamechanger”, but Cinema Paradiso was at the very least something of a turning point in late 20th century international cinema. Before the Oscar, Golden Globe and Cannes-heralded success of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 heartwarmer, the austere-severe methods of your Bergmans and Tarkovskys – the last remaining links to European cinema’s 1960s heyday – could still be seen holding sway at the arthouse.
Afterwards, however, you could say world cinema went south: it got sunnier, cosier, possibly a little more formulaic. Cute kids paired with oldtimers were the new black: between Paradiso and Tornatore’s 2000 film Malena, there came Kolya, The Thief and Central Station – films that Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein could buy up and reposition as cinematic package holidays. It’s a little harsh, perhaps, but: no Cinema Paradiso, no Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Tornatore’s film – reissued this weekend in its two-hour international cut – has gained bonus relevance 25 years on for hinging on the death of a projectionist: it’s the plot motor that tempts unsettled director Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) into memories of his childhood in a Sicilian idyll. Now, however, we’re confronted with the irony of a film obsessed with celluloid’s flickering images being screened in a digital restoration one need only push a button to start. The film’s nostalgia has intensified – or worsened – with the years.
It’s all back, shinier than ever, then: the growing friendship between the cheeky altar boy (Salvatore Cascio) and the grouchy projectionist (Philippe Noiret); the old clips that seek to spark a Proustian rush in cinemagoers of a certain age by unspooling everything from early Visconti to Brigitte Bardot’s bum; a mildly self-aware examination of cinema as a collective experience, and what it might mean to us; and finally Ennio Morricone’s score, drizzled over the top like several quarts of limoncello, and having roughly the same drowsifying effect.
I type this softly, given how the film places highly on so many cinephiles’ personal top tens (including, once upon a time, mine own), but the re-release reveals certain elements have weathered less well. There’s the terrible overdub, for starters, which reduces everyone on screen – even the generally subtle Noiret – to the level of those Italianate caricatures later heard flogging Dolmio. And Tornatore’s sentimentality, though unabashed, has been thrown into relief by the emergence of Paolo Sorrentino, who’s shown you can film Italian townsquares without washing away the rot and vice that might lurk thereabouts.
But then the whole film snuggles up to the idea of image as memory, and we know memories can sometimes be selective. Tornatore presented the world with a glowing image of an Italy that was democratic, self-renewing (thus the Cinema Paradiso becomes the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso), model-handsome (in the case of Marco Leonardi as the teenage Salvatore), and essentially decent – a place where the repeated bashing of a schoolboy’s head against the blackboard, or the pinching of a signorina’s culo is all part of either your bella or dolce vita.
You could notice how it’s also a place where an authority figure might somehow forbid a young man not to visit his mother for three decades – what went on in that projectionist’s box, to leave Salvatore so listless in later life? – but we’re all heading towards that final montage of literally stolen kisses: profane offcuts that pay off the running gag about the Paradiso’s strained relationship with the Church, while offering an illustration of the cinema’s ability to both foster and splice over any number of real-world heartbreaks. It is the greatest sucker punch in the history of the movies. And it gets you every damn time.
(MovieMail, December 2013)
Cinema Paradiso returns to selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its 4K Blu-Ray reissue on November 23.