Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
In 1966, New York recording engineer Jerry Samuels hit the Top 5 with a tasteless and moderately controversial novelty hit, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” Back then, thinking you were a certain long-dead ruler was widely understood as shorthand for paranoid schizophrenia. Samuels probably didn’t have to explain to a single listener why he had chosen the nom de vinyl Napoleon XIV. The joke, obviously, wouldn’t have had the same currency in 1821, the year the exiled Napoleon escaped from St. Helena and made his way back to Paris.
Historical literacy has declined since 1966, so perhaps we should note that it’s generally agreed that Napoleon never escaped from St. Helena. He died there in 1821, still under the watchful eyes of a British garrison. Yet according to Simon Leys’ novel The Death of Napoleon, the man who expired on the South Atlantic isle was actually an impostor, a simple sailor recruited for his physical resemblance to the former emperor. The real Napoleon escaped on a ship bound for Brest, and—despite some rerouting complications with which any contemporary airline traveler will empathize—eventually arrived in Paris. So why didn’t history record Napoleon’s triumphant return? That’s what The Emperor’s New Clothes, taking its cue from Leys’ book, sets out to explain.
After six years on St. Helena—”six years of English cooking,” the diminutive conqueror shudders—swaggering Napoleon (Ian Holm) switches places with cowering Eugene (Holm, too) and heads for Europe, forced to swab decks along the way. The ship’s captain skips Brest and instead lands at Antwerp, so the incognito emperor must travel to France by canal boat and coach; the latter makes a disconcerting stop at a battlefield that has become a tourist attraction: Waterloo. Napoleon arrives in Paris only to find that his contact—a loyal, competent soldier who became an inept greengrocer—has just died. He left behind a beautiful widow who’s called Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity’s embodiment of the case for monogamy) and a lot of overripe melons.
Still a brilliant tactician, Napoleon-as-Eugene amusingly leads the fruit merchants of Paris (impersonated by Turin) on a successful selling campaign, saving them from ruin and winning Pumpkin’s heart. Meanwhile, on St. Helena, Eugene-as-Napoleon is having much more fun. Growing into his role, he comes to enjoy bossing around his subordinates and tweaking the British. When told that the time has come to reveal himself as an impostor, he professes not to know what the conspirators are talking about. He even begins dictating his imaginary memoirs.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a cinematic one-liner, leading inevitably to a joke that mid-’60s Top 40 listeners should be able to anticipate. Rather than crowd the trek to that gag with frantic attempts at yuks, however, Palookaville director Alan Taylor—who scripted with Kevin Molony and Herbie Wave—takes a gentle path. The humor is mild but warm, with an agreeable lack of desperation; even a bit in which a man slips on a banana peel is more conceptual humor than slapstick. And though Napoleon has his moments of imperial hubris, Holm winningly plays him as more of a scamp than a tyrant.
Ultimately, Napoleon’s new empire turns out to be a house in Paris, which is ruled as much by Pumpkin’s kindness and common sense as by the former ruler’s military smarts. The implication, of course, is that any sane man would prefer domestic comforts over political power, a conclusion that seems naive in this (or any other) era. Still, such a moral is entirely in keeping with the outlook of this modest but charming film.
One of Miramax’s early commercial successes, the truncated 1990 version of Cinema Paradiso is often cited as an example of the distributor’s overzealous streamlining. In fact, director Giuseppe Tornatore himself pared the film to two hours, after 185-minute and 150-minute versions were badly received in Europe. The result was a warm, if overly sentimental, ode to cinema and lost youth that fans (and some critics) consider definitive. Such devotees may be unhappy with the new cut, which reinstates both 51 minutes of footage and a darker tone.
Previously unseen sequences have been restored throughout the movie, but they don’t significantly alter the first two chapters. The film still begins as the story of mischievous Toto (wide-eyed moppet Salvatore Cascio), an 8-year-old movie obsessive who keeps pestering Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist at a bedraggled cinema in the small Sicilian town of Giancaldo. It’s the late ’40s, and Toto’s mother is sure her husband will eventually return from the war. Toto knows he won’t, however, and settles on Alfredo—and cinema—as his surrogate father and tutor in the ways of the world. This seems a better choice than the silly local priest, who previews each new movie and signals by ringing a bell whenever he encounters an amorous scene that must be excised to protect local morals.
Toto and Alfredo’s relationship is precarious at first, in part because the boy’s mother doesn’t want her son spending all his free time at Cinema Paradiso. But Toto eventually makes a deal with Alfredo that guarantees his place in the projection booth. Then a fire takes Alfredo’s sight, and Toto becomes the full-time projectionist.
Answering to the grown-up name of Salvatore, the boy (now Marco Leonardi) is still working there nearly a decade later, when he develops a new passion: Elena (Agnese Nano), the pretty new girl at school, whose bourgeois father will never accept a working-class youth as her suitor. Salvatore is indefatigable, however, and eventually wins Elena’s love, if not her parents’ approval. In swoony scenes that mirror the romantic dramas Salvatore projects, the young lovers express their eternal but hopeless love. Then Elena’s family packs up and moves, and Salvatore never sees her again.
At least that’s what happened in the two-hour version. The new Cinema Paradiso significantly expands the third chapter, which had served principally as a framing device. Now a successful middle-aged film director based in Rome, Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) returns to his hometown for Alfredo’s funeral. Following the old man’s injunction to never come back, Salvatore hasn’t visited Giancaldo in 30 years. Tellingly, his symbolic first home—called the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso since its post-fire refurbishment—is about to be demolished.
Yet in the longer cut, Sicily is not the cursed wasteland Alfredo claimed. Salvatore has a long-overdue dialogue with his mother, and glimpses a young woman who eerily resembles his long-lost Elena. He follows her and soon discovers that she’s Elena’s daughter. He then meets middle-aged Elena (Brigitte Fossey)—a character who doesn’t appear in the shorter version—and learns that it was not fate that kept them apart. This is the development that may separate partisans of the two-hour Cinema Paradiso from those who prefer the longer work. As Salvatore and Elena recount the events of the last day they saw each other, their revelations change the film’s disposition considerably.
Without disclosing exactly what it is that Salvatore learns about that day 30 years ago, it can be said that Alfredo made a crucial decision for his protege, one that made the boy an artist. That perpetual discontent is the price of inspiration is a dubious premise, but it’s one that suits Cinema Paradiso’s moviecentric worldview. If the movie is broad and a bit breathless, it’s because it takes its cue from the slapstick and melodrama that Alfredo and then Salvatore show their neighbors nearly every night.
The town’s cinema itself is a microcosm of life, of course, a place where people eat, sleep, spit, fight, jerk off, and screw, inhibitions loosened by the heightened emotions flickering on the screen. But the movies also reflect their viewers, from Hollywood entertainments that promise romance and escape to Italian neorealist films that depict postwar peasant life. As Salvatore is about to leave home, he projects two very different road movies: the Kirk Douglas Ulysses and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Outcry. (The latter, a flop in Giancaldo, also symbolizes the rise of Italian art cinema and its lack of popular appeal.) The longer version of Tornatore’s film still celebrates swashbuckling adventure and bodice-ripping romance, but it also includes a welcome dollop of Antonionilike sobriety, balancing a tale whose two-hour cut is overly weighted toward nostalgic evocation of childhood. The expanded Cinema Paradiso is not so sweet as the original, and for that it’s the better film. CP