Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A warm rush of sentimentality

Cinema Paradiso has long held a spot in my top 100 on Flickchart -- it's currently #87 -- but it's also been among the most long-neglected of the films with that hallowed ranking. It's joined some others I haven't seen in ages, like Stand by Me (#91), Schindler's List (#23), Field of Dreams (#20) and Do the Right Thing (#10). It had been since the 1990s since I'd seen all of them, and the others still remain on my list to rectify.

Unlike those others, I have seen Cinema Paradiso since then -- just not the right version.

That's right, in 2002 they released a director's cut of this beloved 1988 film, one which added nearly an hour to the running time. I had the opportunity of reviewing it at the time, as I was writing for AllMovie and they wanted some words on what was called Cinema Paradiso: The New Version. Well, as with most altered versions of beloved films, it was highly disappointing and richly deserved every bit of cutting its editor did to reduce a one-time 155-minute version down to the 122-minute version that has endured since 1988. However, this version was 18 minutes even longer than that original cut. Well, it sapped all the mystery out of the movie, and made everything unsaid said. The things that are unsaid in Cinema Paradiso are some of its finest elements.

Anyway, here's what I said at the time:

Like Star WarsE.T., and other movies that have been trifled with at their peril, a very different kind of film gets "corrected" with the arrival of Cinema Paradiso: The New Version, an update of Miramax's Cannes darling and Best Foreign Film winner. Unfortunately, the same motive of squeezing out a few extra dollars applies here as well, even if it's disguised as a restoration of the director's vision, rather than what it actually is: a compromise of the film's effectiveness. If this was Giuseppe Tornatore's original cut, it seriously calls into question the director's judgments as an artist. The importance of a judicious editor comes into sharp relief during this new three-hour version, which leaves the repeat viewer longing for the brisk pace of the original, and the first-timer grappling with why the film is so revered. The extra 51 minutes of footage bloat the previously poignant third act, drawing it out interminably and deadening its wonder. What made the ending of Cinema Paradiso so bittersweet is that it did not attempt to solve the riddles of lost love, which rarely get sorted out in real life. By providing an unjust and unwarranted explanation of the lovers' tragic separation, as well as a new epilogue, Tornatore brings his tale of nostalgic history thudding into the present tense. He also reverses the understanding of key characters, their motivations, and the ultimate vindication of their actions. The mostly untouched first two acts still burst with the joie de vivre of a small town invigorated and transformed by its communal love of cinema. But the last hour squanders the contagious momentum of the previous two, doing crucial damage to the emotional closing scene, a defining moment that has rightly assumed classic status. Instead of catharsis, the end now elicits a sensation that's regrettably contrary to that: relief. The date of 2002 on this film (which pertains only to the release of the extended version) explains the presence of actress Pupella Maggio, who acted in the picture in the late '80s but died in 1999.

Strangely enough, I did not write that last sentence and do not know who included it, or even if it was included at the time it was originally published. Pupella Maggio? I don't even know who that is, or why a long-delayed director's cut would require or even benefit from a clarification of who was living and who was dead.

So it was a relief on Tuesday night to get back to the movie I knew and loved, and had seen two or three times prior to 2002. It was a surprise how much of it I readily remembered. But it wasn't only the lines of dialogue, or the little character moments, or whatever else that makes a great movie great that I remembered -- it was the warm rush of sentimentality that the movie confers upon the viewer. In fact, I almost called this post "A warm rush of sentimentality," which come to think of it, is probably a more deserving name for a post about a movie I love. And, you know what, I am going to change it. (Old title: "Twenty years and one bad version later.")

One moment in particular I love underscores the missed connections that are part of the wistfulness of a movie like this. It's not the big missed connection, that young Toto doesn't get together with the love of his life and in fact, decades later, has still not settled with a soul mate. Rather, it's a little missed connection that stands in for the bigger ones that make up our lives.

Toto -- now properly called Salvatore -- is leaving Giancaldo, the town of his birth and entire upbringing to this point, for Rome. Never to return, if his mentor, the blind projectionist Alfredo, has anything to say about it. The train is leaving the station as a few well wishers watch him recede into the distance. One last one arrives out of breath, hollering his farewells. It's the priest for whom a young Salvatore once worked as an altar boy -- not the most important person in his life lately, but a familiar face who wants to send him off properly nonetheless. Salvatore seems unmoved by his belated appearance, his thoughts on other types of loss, but the priest seems truly disappointed to have missed the moment. "I was too late," he says to the remaining bystanders on the platform. "What a pity."

I can't say this for certain, but I believe he never sees that man again.

It reminded me of one of my favorite moments in Boyhood, when the youngest incarnation of Mason is pulling out of town in his mom's car, packed with all their earthly belongings. It's the first of many moves Mason makes, and in that moment, at that young age, he is unmoved by its significance in a way similar to Salvatore near the end of Paradiso. But next to his car as it rides out of town, he is followed a short ways by the kid who had been his best friend to that point, pedaling on his bike in an attempt to keep up with the car that everyone knows is vain and short-lived. Although Mason doesn't seem to realize it, the other boy recognizes that this is the end of an era. And indeed, that he will never see Mason again.

Boyhood and Cinema Paradiso both have significant quantities of sentimentality, without that seeming like the insult it invariably often is. Paradiso lays it on a bit thicker as a kind of emotional manipulation, relying heavily on music cues, while the sentimentality of Boyhood is more embedded into its unique structure, which allows us to feel like we are watching the passage of our own lives.

But let's be clear: sentimentality should not be something to disdain. When done effectively, as it is in these movies, it penetrates to the very core of our souls, the very thing that makes us human. Unearned sentimentality can quickly take you out of a movie, can in fact draw more attention to a film's shortcomings -- making us wonder why we're not feeling the things the film wants us to feel. But when done right, it's the very cathartic experience that makes us love cinema.

Love it as much as a little boy in a ramshackle theater in a small Italian town, eyes wide with the world's possibilities.

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