Italian Essentials: Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso - poster largeMy sister recounts a remarkable tale involving three grand old movie houses:

Once a week for a period in the late 80’s and into the 90’s, the Riverside, California Fox Theater hosted viewings of independent and foreign films — which was the only way to see indies and foreign films in Riverside at the time, other than renting a videocassette.  The Fox was built in 1929, and besides being one of the old Fox movie palaces that sprung up around the nation in the 20’s and 30’s, holds its place in the history of cinema as the first theater to hold a public viewing of none other than GONE WITH THE WIND.

On this particular evening, my mother and sister (I was away at college) went to see at the Fox the great Italian love letter to old Hollywood and the movies, Cinema Paradiso.  While watching the movie, in which (minor SPOILER ALERT! — it happens about midway through) the old Italian movie house is brought to ashes by a fire started in only the most poetic way, mother and sister began smelling smoke within the theater!  Was this an enhanced sensory experience the theater was offering?  Not exactly.  The odor was faint enough not to cause alarm, so the audience continued to watch the movie.  After the film had concluded, they exited the Fox to find — lo and behold — that the Golden State Theater, which stood just across the street and a few yards down 7th Street, was in its final throes.  Cinema Treasures:

Originally opened in January 1890 as the Loring Opera House. Star[s] such as Sarah Bernhardt and W.C. Fields performed on its stage.

Cinema Paradiso - text block 1Later it became a movie theatre and was renamed Golden State Theatre, operated by Fox West Coast Theatres.

It was closed in January 1973, and stood unoccupied until the empty building was gutted by a mysterious fire (possibly arson due to the high cost of renovation?) in October 1990. City officials then approved plans to demolish the remains of the building.

Ever since I heard this story, I’ve considered witnessing the conflagration of two movie palaces in one night — one on film and one in the flesh — to be an amazing coincidence.  Alas, the trespasses of our past.  Once the old movie houses go, they shall not return — so we must treasure those that still stand.

Now on to the movie!

*   *   *

Cinema Paradiso is a lovely, charming, endearing and timeless classic that captures the exuberance of old classic movie houses and the joyous spirit of a night spent within.

There is a director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso, which adds nearly an hour to the running time.  It was released in 2002, and I don’t think I’ve seen it.  The widely-seen theatrical release is 124 min., and the one I’ve seen.  I mention it because critics are split as to which release is better.  At some point I’ll have to revisit Cinema Paradiso at its full length.

But no matter the version, Cinema Paradiso is completely essential.

Roger Ebert:

Yes, it is tragic that the big screen has been replaced by the little one. But the real shame is that the big screens did not grow even bigger, grow so vast they were finally on the same scale as the movies they were reflecting.

Cinema Paradiso - stillIn his 3 1/2-star review, Ebert knocks this movie down a peg for being too predictable.  My memory of the latter half of the film is not clear enough to agree or disagree with Ebert, but any such transgression is easily forgiven.  Now I’m not sure what happened — I can’t email Ebert to find out — but he awarded the new, longer version 4 stars while stating that it was inferior to the original, at 3 1/2 stars.  Go figure.

Stephen Holden of the Times, in his review of the director’s cut:

“Cinema Paradiso” has had its detractors. Yes, its sentimentality is shameless, but its child’s-eye view of the world — a view bursting with wonder, curiosity and longing — feels emotionally authentic.

Holden disagrees with Ebert about which version of the film is better:

The director’s cut, which will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, is more romantic, more emotional and ultimately more satisfying than the teary-eyed original. By adding 48 minutes to that two-hour release, and bringing back a character that had been deleted from it, the director’s cut sabotages the earlier version’s message, a variation of the old admonition that you can’t go home again.

You can’t go wrong with either version; the original is waiting for you on Netflix.

* * *

Cinema Paradiso - text block 2Besides all its other charms, Cinema Paradiso features a beautiful and perfectly fitting Ennio Morricone score.  And the language!  The movie could only be Italian — any other nationality would not work nearly as well.  The language, setting and score sing in harmony.

Cinema Paradiso is a wonderful film, which upon its release became instantly embedded into the canon of film.  A must for all cinephiles, that it’s in Italian only makes it better.


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