Cinema Paradiso (Arrow Academy) Blu-ray Review: A Love Letter to the Cinema

The poster of the movie Cinema Paradiso

Every year during the Oscars, my social media feed fills up with jokes about how often they are going to talk about how movies are magic. Every year the answer is “a lot.” You could make a drinking game of it. In the same way, awards shows, Hollywood in general and, honestly, cinema the world over, love movies about the movies. It can get a bit self-congratulatory as it’s basically people who make movies making a movie about how wonderful movies are. Yet, as a cinephile, as a man who loves watching movies I kind of love it. Movies are magic. They can take us to far away lands, transport us back in time, make us laugh, make us cry, make us feel. There is no art exactly like it.

Cinema Paradiso is a great movie about the joy of watching movies. In a small town in 1950s Italy, six-year-old Toto (Salvatore Cascio) visite the Cinema Paradiso movie house on a regular basis. The whole town comes to the cinema it seems. We see them watch a wide variety of films. They laugh uproariously at the comedies (and play tricks on the old men who falls asleep). They weep in the aisles at the dramas. They make love while watching Brigitte Bardot in …And God Created Women. They live out their fantasies watching made-up stories in the movie house.

Toto soaks all of this in and is fascinated by Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the cinema’s projectionist, and continuously pesters him with questions. At first, Alfredo resists, noting that the life of a projectionist is difficult and that Toto has greater things in store for his life. But eventually he gives in and the two become great friends as Alfredo teaches Toto the trade.

One night after the last showing of that week’s film has run, a crowd forms outside the theater demanding to be shown the movie. The owner refuses, but Alfredo turns the projector out a window and shows the film against a nearby apartment building. Midway through the film, the flammable nitrate catches fire and burns the building down. Toto saves Alfredo’s life but not before the fire blinds him. When they rebuild the cinema, Toto, though still a child, becomes the projectionist.

Years later, a teen-aged Toto (Marco Leonardi) continues to run the films and be enthralled by them but other things begin to take his interest. Mostly girls. One girl in particular, Elena (Agnese Nano), sets his heart on fire and they fall in love. But when Toto is called away for military service, Elena never responds to his letters and when he returns home, she is gone.

Alfredo, ever the friend, tells Toto to leave their small town, to go to Rome, and find a new life. To make movies and become successful. He does just that. The film is actually bookend with the older Toto (Jaques Perrin) living a famous life as a film director receiving word that Alfredo has died. Most of the story is told in flashbacks and the film ends with Toto visiting his old town and fondly remembering his friends and the old cinema.

Cinema Paradiso is a beautiful and moving ode to not only the magic of movies but the power held in the old-style movie houses. Seeing a film in those old places brought whole communities together to experience something wonderful.

The scenes featuring the young Toto are simply the best. Through the child’s eyes, we experience the enchantment of movies. Over and over again, we see the town packed into the Paradiso enthralled with what’s showing on the screen. Its a love letter to the cinema. When he becomes a teenager and deals with more typical adolescent dilemmas, the film becomes slightly less interesting. It’s still well told and enjoyable to watch but it feels just a little less enchanting. The film ends with the older Toto watching a reel of film saved by Alfredo in a scene that has become famous and remains magical.

Arrow Academy (a subsidiary of Arrow Video that focuses on more classic films rather then Arrow Video’s usual b-grade cult films – which makes Arrow Academy like the Criterion wing of Arrow) has done a wonderful job with this release. The video looks quite good. The colors are rich and bold. The lighting of the film is naturally a little dark but it’s still vibrant. There is some noticeable grain throughout but it’s uniform and so not distracting (and this seems to be commonplace with Arrow who clean the film of debris but leave the grain in). Audio is likewise very good. It features both the mono track and a DTS-HD 5.1 track.

This release features both the 123-minute theatrical cut and (for the first time on Blu-ray) a 173-minute Director’s cut. The latter mostly consists of an adult Toto reconnecting with Elena, learning why she never responded to his letters plus a few extended scenes at the beginning with the old Toto.

Extras include a commentary track with director Giuseppe Tornatore and critic Millicent Marcus, and a nearly hour-long profile of Tornatore full of reminisces by the director and some home movies. Also included are a short documentary featuring new interviews with Tornatore, Phillipe Noiset, and a grown-up Salvator Cascio plus the famous kissing sequence and the usual essays and photos in a very nice booklet.

Cinema Paradiso is a beautiful, loving film about the magic of movies and the community around them.

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Mat Brewster

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