Of all the great cinematic love letters to cinema itself, only a few are quite as beloved and iconic as Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso. A deeply personal, decades-spanning tale of how one boy/teenager/man's life was shaped by his love of film and the mentor who introduced him to its enchanting power, it resonated with audiences around the world upon its release in 1989, and swept the Best Foreign Language Film categories at just about every awards show that year. Tornatore's film is one of the great modern works of Italian cinema, earning rightful comparisons to Fellini, but it is also imminently relatable for anyone who fell in love with the magic of movies as a kid, and felt them play an integral part in their coming-of-age. Yet for what a beloved classic Cinema Paradiso is, it has somewhat strangely struggled to maintain really good home video releases. In the mid-2000s it received a pretty impressive DVD special edition, which made Tornatore's 173-minute extended cut available in America for the first time. But after that DVD went out of print, the film languished without a re-release for years, becoming extremely rare and pricey in the process, before getting a lazy, totally bare-bones blu-ray release which only contained the 124-minute theatrical cut and not the longer version. That 124-minute version is generally considered by fans to be the superior cut of the film, but still, to only include one version of such a significant movie is a glaring omission, and rendered that release frustratingly half-complete at best. Now, to commemorate the film's 25th anniversary (albeit a couple years late here in the US - Europe got this same release earlier, at a more appropriate time), Cinema Paradiso is finally getting the truly spectacular special-edition treatment that it deserves, as a double-disc set from Arrow Films, containing both cuts.
Not only is this a long-overdue upgrade for an important piece of world cinema history, it is also an impressive milestone release for Arrow. The UK-based company has a well-earned reputation as one of the world's finest distributors of cult and genre films (tied only with Shout/Scream Factory for the distinction of the finest), with a track record of excellent restorations, exhaustive special features, and very cool and collectible box sets. But while all along they have released some classic and art-house films under their Arrow Academy brand, they have largely been known as a cult/horror company, and Cinema Paradiso is one of their biggest moves yet to release a film that we would typically expect to see from The Criterion Collection instead. To fit the occasion they have done some wonderful work on this release, meeting the challenge of directly competing with Criterion with a truly stellar remaster, and some great special features. With Cinema Paradiso: The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, Arrow is sending a big signal that they are no longer just "The Criterion of Cult Films," but a legitimate rival in the same niche.
Let's take a closer look at how they did with this major release.
Giuseppe Tornatore's film truly is one of the best movies ever made about the love of cinema. It is a wonderfully ambitious tale which works on several levels, all with truly poetic storytelling. Drawing heavily from his own memories of a childhood spent falling in love with the movies, Tornatore frames his story in flashback, from the perspective of a modern-day film director recalling the pivotal periods of time which started him down that path. From that perspective we witness the future filmmaker first as a little boy, Toto, and then as a teenager, Salvatore, as he grows up in his small Sicilian town during the late-1940s and 1950s, and falls in love with the magic of cinema through a friendship and mentorship with the town's film projectionist, Alfredo. The story works on at least three levels. It is in part a long-form coming-of-age story, using three major chapters to show the formative journey of Toto/Salvatore as he goes from a little boy to a middle-aged man. It is in part a slice of life of post-war Sicily, at a time of great change and uncertainty for Toto's small town, its inhabitants, and their whole country. And it is in part the story of the evolution of cinema, from the silent-film days that Alfredo recalls from his youth, through the first golden age of cinema which defines Toto's childhood, to the present day when the early movie houses like Toto's beloved Paradiso are fading into distant memory.
The ways in which these three plot threads weave together and build off of one another are lyrical and moving, capturing the experiences of growing up, the growth and change of technology, and the passage of time with authenticity and intelligence that flirts with, but never quite surrenders to, nostalgia. One can only assume that Cinema Paradiso stands right alongside Scenes From A Marriage as one of the major influences on Richard Linklater's career-long exploration of the passage of time and its place in the human experience. And all the while that he tells this story of the years' effects on film, Toto, Alfredo, and their town, Tornatore evokes the experience of mid-20th-century Italian life with every bit as much potency and poetry as Fellini's Amarcord. In fact, I would say that Tornatore's film is even greater and more powerful than Fellini's. Its themes have power beyond its period setting, though: if you were ever a kid captivated by the magic of those early, formative trips to the movie theater, then you can probably relate to Toto. And if you ever struggled with artistic or personal dreams, ambitions, loves, and doubts, there are definite things in his coming-of-age journey that will resonate with you. This film is, in short, a masterpiece, and absolutely essential viewing. The phrase "modern classic" gets thrown around a lot when it comes to acclaimed, critically-beloved films; Cinema Paradiso genuinely deserves the term.
Note: this review is written in response to the 124-minute theatrical version. More on the differences between the two versions, and which one you should watch first, in the Special Features section of this review.
Arrow Films did a brand-new 2k restoration of Cinema Paradiso for this blu-ray set, going back to the original camera negative to meticulously remaster both the theatrical and director's cuts of the film. The result is stunning: the picture quality is a major step up from the acceptable-but-not-great Miramax blu-ray, and if you skipped that blu-ray because of its lack of extras and omission of the director's cut, the difference between this Arrow restoration and the mid-2000s special edition DVD is monumental. Tornatore's beautiful shot compositions look even more gorgeous here, with rich colors, perfect clarity, and a healthy film grain which appropriately reminds you of the magical quality of celluloid so often evoked within the movie.
The film begins with a text screen explaining how the restoration was done, and offering the disclaimer that while they made the film look as pristine as possible, there are still elements of print damage inherent in the film itself which remain. I was at first confused by this, as there are absolutely no signs of damage that I could see; only later did I realize what they meant. The film includes footage from a bunch of the movies screened in the Paradiso - classics of both Italian and Hollywood cinema - and the prints of these films deliberately retain the scratches, blips, "cigarette burns," and other print damage that one would realistically find in a heavily-used vintage print shown at a poverty-afflicted small-town theater. I didn't think anything of this; it seemed obvious that this print damage was there as an artistic choice. The whole point is that film prints are physical artifacts, and each one is unique, with a set of scratches that are like scars telling the story of what that print has been through. It's a beautiful thing, and an essential detail in Tornatore's love letter to the medium. But in an era when pristine restorations that remove all of those things are expected by consumers, Arrow felt the need to explain that yes, that stuff is supposed to be there. Of course, this must have provided a unique challenge for the restoration of the scenes that incorporate that footage: what damage is on the film-within-the-film, there for artistic effect, and what damage is on the Cinema Paradiso master that needs to be restored?
Arrow appears to have done a perfect job sorting through this tricky restoration. Cinema Paradiso has never looked so spectacular, and this disc is absolutely reference-quality. Arrow has a built up a well-earned reputation over the last few years for doing excellent 2k and 4k restoration, and this one is certainly among their best. I also really like this concept of beginning a blu-ray with an on-screen explanation of how the restoration was made; I would love it if it became a trend they followed as a matter of course.
Arrow has remastered Cinema Paradiso's audio in both its original mono mix and a new 5.1 surround mix. Both, of course, are the original Italian; the Miramax English dub has rightfully been banished into obsolescence, as watching an art cinema classic like this dubbed would practically be a crime against the film. Since I don't have a surround set-up I could only judge the original theatrical mono mix, but it sounded fantastic. Arrow has cleaned up the audio meticulously, and it sounds rich and perfectly clear. Of course, the biggest test of Cinema Paradiso's sound quality is Ennio Morricone's beautiful, iconic score, and it shines through fantastically here. While I can't speak to how well the 5.1 track expands the film out from its original mono to surround, I'm sure the quality is just as strong. I can't imagine the film sounding much better than Arrow has made it sound for this disc.
The Special Features:
Arrow Films has curated a pretty impressive and very substantial array of extras for this 25th anniversary edition, including two documentaries (one about the making of the film, the other about Tornatore's career in general), an interview with Tornatore about one of the movie's most iconic scenes, and a very thorough audio commentary. But first and foremost, the disc presents both cuts of the film, together for the first time since the long-out-of-print mid-2000s Miramax DVD. This naturally will raise the question from newcomers to the film: which version is best to start with, the two-hour theatrical cut, or the three-hour director's cut? I would recommend starting with the theatrical cut. Cinema Paradiso is one of those rare cases where the director's cut is actually not the version preferred by most fans; not because it is bad by any means, but because the theatrical cut is generally thought to work better, especially for a first-time viewer. The consensus seems to be this: while the extra 50 minutes of footage in the director's cut is great in its own right, and adds some important things to the experience for those who already love the film (largely in expanding out the teenage and adult Salvatore parts of the story), it becomes a bit less focused and cohesive as a result of the expansion. It is important to note that the theatrical cut is not the result of studio interference; as Tornatore says in the making-of documentary, he made the cuts himself when the film was first released in Italy in a longer version and had trouble connecting with wide-release audiences. His cuts helped the pacing and focus of the film, and the 124-minute version is generally considered to work better as a unified whole. In short, the theatrical cut is the one to watch first and fall in love with, and the director's cut is the one to revisit after you already know the film, to expand your appreciation of it and to tell you more about the characters and their lives.
The special features curated by Arrow are very helpful for providing context and background for all of this, and everything else about the film: this is a very intelligent batch of extras, with a depth of content fitting to such a thematically rich film. The half-hour documentary about the making of the film is extremely thorough, and consists almost entirely of interviews with Tornatore, Philippe Noiret (who plays Alfredo), and Salvatore Cascio (who plays Toto as a child). The interviews are very interesting - particularly those with Tornatore, who gives very honest and very informative memories of the film's hard road towards its eventual (and to him, totally unexpected) classic status. The hour-long documentary about the filmmaker's life and career is equally interesting, featuring interviews with not only him, but other artists speaking about his importance to Italian cinema, and reaching all the way back to his own youth in its exploration of what shaped his work. It is worth noting that neither of these documentaries are originals for this blu-ray: the making-of doc is from 2006, from a previous European special edition DVD of the film, and the doc about Tornatore is from 2000, made for Italian TV. If there is a complaint to be made about this release, it is that Arrow could perhaps have done some new interviews, ideally with the actors not featured in those documentaries, like Marco Leonardi or Jacques Perrin (teenage and adult Salvatore, respectively), or Agnese Nano (teenage Salvatore's love, Elena). However, the two docs included are so strong, intelligent, and full of information that they nonetheless make up a solid package that doesn't necessarily need improving upon, though it might have been nice.
The new special feature that Arrow did prepare for the release, though, is a very good one: an audio commentary by Italian cinema scholar Millicent Marcus, with occasional interview segments featuring Tornatore throughout. While it is somewhat misleading for the box art to list this as a commentary by Tornatore and Marcus (his contributions are clearly from an interview done elsewhere, and not originally recorded as a commentary track), it is nonetheless a great, very valuable listen. Marcus offers a very deep analysis and history lesson on the film, and it feels very much like an academic lecture on the subject (which I mean strongly as a compliment). Tornatore's contributions, though sporadic, are very interesting, and build on the interviews with him in both documentaries to give a thorough look at his artistic process in making Cinema Paradiso, and his thoughts on it two decades later. Fans of the film will really enjoy this commentary, especially if they have an interest in film scholarship and analysis.
Overall, it would have been nice to see some new interviews created specifically for this disc, but since the features present are so good and so extensive, I really can't complain too much. Arrow has curated an array of extras that may not quite be on the level of a Criterion Collection release, but are pretty close. Fans should be very happy with everything that they get in this special edition.
Arrow's Cinema Paradiso: Twenty Fifth Anniversary Edition is a truly excellent release which finally gives this wonderful film the reverent treatment that it deserves from an HD update. Between its very good special features and its stellar 2k remaster, this is a pretty definitive home video release, and a very impressive entry in the Arrow Video catalog. This film has never looked so beautiful as it does in this new restoration, and it is a very beautiful film to begin with. This release is highly recommended, both to fans of the film and newcomers looking to experience it for the first time. It is a must-have.
- Christopher S. Jordan
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