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A Deeper Vision of 'Paradiso'

June 13, 2002|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore first set out to make an autobiographical film about the magic and power of movies in 1988, little did he realize the impact it would have throughout Europe and the U.S. "Cinema Paradiso" not only captured the hearts of critics and moviegoers, it won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 and the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1990.

Yet the two-hour version that audiences have come to know so well, in which a small-time movie house washes away the despair of a struggling Sicilian village in the '40s and '50s, and inspires a wide-eyed boy to fall in love and later become a famous movie director, is not the original vision Tornatore had in mind.

Unfortunately, the longer version, in which the melancholy movie director (played by Jacques Perrin) returns to his village one last time and desperately tries to rekindle the romance with the first love that he has never forgotten (played by Brigitte Fossey), first flopped in its native country. Heartbroken, Tornatore cut the romantic payoff along with some other revealing footage, but it didn't seem to make any difference until the film found new life at the Cannes Film Festival and was snatched up by Miramax Films.

Now, after all these years, the original director's cut of "Cinema Paradiso" finally sees the light of day in the U.S. when it opens Friday. What a difference the extra 48 minutes make. It's like watching another movie. We get a sense of closure, and the story takes on greater depth and complexity. The disparity between movies and life becomes more ironic, and the great friendship between the young boy and Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the local film projectionist who serves as his father figure is much darker.

For Tornatore, there is a certain artistic vindication in getting his original version released in the U.S, as he discusses the merits of both versions through an interpreter.

"I think that the long version, with all of its ingenious editing, has more the form of an epic romance, which, behind its playful and melancholy feel, cannot hide its tragic heart. The 125-minute version is closer to a novel, is more reassuring and manages to make the finale more strongly cathartic.

"Certainly in the [original] version of the film, the character of Alfredo takes on much more layered and, at first sight, contradictory tones. In the version shown around the world, Alfredo is an entirely positive and reassuring character, a deus ex machina who can draw a happy ending from what is only a bitter and melancholy denouement. In the [original] version, Alfredo seems to betray Toto [the protagonist] since it is he who pulls the strings of the young man's life to the point of making him sacrifice the great love of his life on the altar of another love, that for the cinema. In the shorter and more consolatory version of 'Cinema Paradiso,' the plot frees [Toto] from the need to have to make such a painful choice."

Tornatore has Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein to thank for releasing the original version of "Cinema Paradiso." According to the director, Weinstein first approached him two years ago, but it wasn't until last year's success with "Apocalypse Now Redux" that Miramax made the commitment to release his director's cut.

"We're trying to give a smart audience something to see this summer," says Mark Gill, president of Miramax L.A. "These director's cuts are fun and interesting--they provide a new way of thinking about revered movies."

Gill says he tested both versions of "Cinema Paradiso," and viewers responded more positively to the director's cut. "They liked getting an answer to the love of a lifetime, and it helped that this version is a little steamier." It has an R rating.

Like it or not, Gill says, we face a cultural problem in this country. "We're only interested in what's new and different. Longer versions spark conversation, like 'Apocalypse Now Redux,' which aroused passions."

Tornatore contends, however, that first impressions are harder to shake. "It is certainly the case here that when a film we loved in the past returns to the screen with new scenes added, comparison and debate is inevitable. In general, people in the industry are more interested to see the added details, but the majority of the public usually remain tied to the first version of the film."

"Cinema Paradiso" opens Friday at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 477-5581.

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