For cinema enthusiasts, it's not all that easy to explain why their admiration stretches beyond just "going to the movies". One might chat about frames-per-second, reel shifts, combustible celluloid and the end of an era, while another might talk about the emotional power of a single frame and the capacity to weaken a film's essence with an editorial snip ... and, again, punctuate it with "end of an era". Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo cinema paradiso), delicately composed and sincerely affective, comes about as close to actually visualizing an all-encompassing love for the motion picture as one could expect. From the history, the technical aspects, to the lingering effect that films themselves and the experiences at the theater have on an audience, Giuseppe Tornatore's love-letter to the art of movies wraps all those facets around an unflappably classic story of growing-up and romance, and it's absolutely charming while doing so.
Like many stories behind why people love movies (mine centers on worn-out VHS tapes of Young Frankenstein and Star Wars), it starts by focusing on how a young child -- here, a vibrant boy named Toto (Salvatore Cascio) -- began chasing after their interest in cinema through meager means. Told in flashback form within the mind of an aging film director, Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), shortly after he receives a grim call from his home town, his memories recall a poor but delightful Italian village circa the end of World War II, where a small movie theater brings its families and citizens together for evenings of entertainment. Just like the way some people do when they're fondly reminiscing about a time in their life, the film lovingly weaves through the city's people as they paint, chat, and carry on about their business while Toto goes to school and, oftentimes, sneaks into the projection room of the cinema, "Cinema Paradiso", where he pesters the projectionist (and jack-of-all-trades) Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) to let him help.
Toto builds the foundation for his appreciation -- and knowledge -- of the way movies work between the walls of the old movie theater, even if it seems like a child looking for something else to do away from his home (where his mother is in denial about the location of their father, off at war for far too long). That becomes the heart of Cinema Paradiso: watching Toto, a young Salvatore, develop his keenness for the craft in commonplace ways. He learns about the power of editing through the watchful eye of the town's priest, who screens the films first and makes Alfredo remove scenes of lewdness (all the way down to kissing); he learns rudimentary details about distribution, delivery, and returns through Alfredo's wall of tickets; and he learns about the timing behind switching out reels and hand-cranking the projector by watching his weathered mentor, who reminisces about how far the industry has come. With either a grin or a look of determination on his face, the filmmaker begins to emerge in young Toto.
As Cinema Paradiso paints its picture of youthful enthusiasm behind cinema's craft, it also pays careful attention to making the Italian setting where Toto grows up a place of fond -- and not-so-fond -- remembrance. That's the work of Tornatore's direction, where he infuses the town's dusty bucolic setting with Ennio Morricone's emphatic score and the focused, sublime photography from Blasco Giurato. He moves around the town giving each face some personality, and while the film progresses through Salvatore's memories, he revisits them: you'll see a loving couple meet, fall in love, and become a family inside his memories. And it all pivots around the movie theater, to which Tornatore shapes a sweet and involving sense of community within the nightly showings, a breath of fresh air amid wartime strife. They let out cat-calls, Indian hoots and hollers, hiss at villains and cry furiously at emotional scenes, a glimpse at the early affective influence of images in motion.
There's another side to Salvatore's memories, though, those that kept him away from such a warm and inviting place for an immeasurable amount of time. After an impeccable quick-shift through the years, Cinema Paradiso refocuses on Toto as an older-age teenager (Marco Leonardi) in love with a gorgeous girl, and how his passion for movies -- and the aging movie theater itself -- transforms into an ambition towards making them. The story of his love affair(s) isn't complex, and it's certainly not one unheard of: a boy endlessly chases a hard-to-get girl, and he uses a handheld camera to shoot footage as a creative outlet. But as a continuation of Toto's story, it doesn't need to be complex; the emotion within each scene of its familiar components becomes effective due to the investment build with the young boy at the start, knowing that these memories are what transition young "Toto" into Salvatore. Familiar faces transform around him, life happens, and we arrive at the point where the aging director lies morose in a dark room.
Cinema Paradiso is one of those movies that you can describe beat-for-beat and not take away from the experience, which builds into a moving epitaph to the way cinema once was folded within an elegant story of growing up, its delightfulness justifying the idealistic memories. Little things say a lot through Tornatore's direction, such as the growth of the married couple to the focus on a weathered poster announcing "Transgressive Cinema" amid the ruins of an old theater: it's about change, trying to adjust to the change, and the decline of the way things are, especially at the movies. And incredibly, the things that the film says remain consistently relevant amid the perpetual conversion at the theaters, from audience attitudes to 3D gimmicks and the tone of movies themselves. When Cinema Paradiso finally comes full-circle and Salvatore witnesses the fragments of memories from his childhood flowing in front of him, it's a reminder of what's truly impactful and enduring -- and what can't disappear with the end of any era.
As an extension of the licensing agreement between Lionsgate and Miramax, Cinema Paradiso projects onto Blu-ray in a single-disc presentation contained within a standard eco-aware blue case. Note that only the shorter Theatrical Cut can be found on this disc, not Giuseppe Tornatore's director's cut.
Video and Audio:
It seems appropriate to talk about natural film properties when discussing the marginal improvement in Cinema Paradiso on Blu-ray: the 1.66:1 1080p AVC encode reveals a finer caliber of film grain and contrast (though it's still quite heavy, crushing details occasionally) in the naturally hazy visual temper, while the ability to watch the film natively at 24fps enhances the experience. On top of that, a modest uptick in detail refinement and skin-tone balance gives the transfer more life, while the print itself shows a respectable reduction in dust and other imperfections. However, when compared against The Weinstein Company's DVD from a few years prior (review), it's a marginal difference that will only satisfy those projecting on a larger screen -- and, even then, this mostly boils down to the nuts-'n-bolts of Blu-ray's tech itself. It's a fine transfer, though, one that certainly preserves Tornatore's perspective aptly, but those looking to hold onto the standard-definition disc for other reasons (discussed below) won't be missing out on a glorious difference.
Similar comments can be leveled towards the Italian monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track: a noticeable improvement in sonic suitability, but not something that begs for an upgrade. Morricone's score, the sound effects, and the ADR dialogue stand out brighter, cleaner, and less bulky in comparison to the Dolby Digital track from the DVD, hitting clear high-notes and riding a finer balance in mid-tones -- showing a little mid-range bass activity. Rainfall sounds especially good this time around, as well as the assorted click-clacks and such in the projection room. Again, the biggest compliment befalling this Blu-ray presentation comes in its spotlessness, as the aural presentation reveals little-to-no hiss, thumps, or any other rough points.
Here's the downside -- a big one, in fact. The two-disc DVD put out by The Weinsten Company comes with four rather substantial special features: a pair of documentaries, an audio commentary with Tornatore (and an Italian film expert), and Tornature's director's cut of the film. Since this Blu-ray is sourced from Miramax, and the rights to these features aren't under Lionsgate's umbrella, all Cinema Paradiso arrives with on Blu-ray is the Theatrical Trailer (HD). It's unfortunate, especially considering the incremental nature of upgrading the film to high-definition based on audiovisual merits, but at least the price is right.
Cinema Paradiso is pure, joyous adoration for the movies that's been distilled and delicately slathered on-screen, and director Giuseppe Tornatore uses that concentrated appreciation as the impedance behind a simple but sublime story of a young fan that grew up into a man who makes them. Recalling through memories the path he went on to get to where he's arrived, every element of the film -- the drama, the laughs, the music, the photography, and the way it all comes together -- emits an emotional resonance about the love for film that's delightful to behold, and still relevant even in the current theater-eschewing climate (if not more so). While you should undoubtedly check out the movie, in either of its forms, it's a toss-up over whether to go with the DVD or Lionsgate/Miramax's Blu-ray: the high-definition presentation does improve on audiovisual merits, but only modestly, while The Weinstein Company's DVD contains a bevy of worthwhile extras that don't make an appearance on the Blu-ray, most prominent being the lack of Tornatore's director's cut of the film. This disc still comes with a lukewarm Recommendation based on the content, the aptly-handled digital elements and the inexpensive price tag, but I'd opt for the two-disc DVD if it's an option.