One hundred years after his birth, Federico Fellini still stands apart as a giant of the cinema. The Italian maestro is defined by his dualities: the sacred and the profane, the masculine and the feminine, the provincial and the urbane. He began his career working in the slice-of-life poetry of neorealism, and though he soon spun off on his own freewheeling creative axis, he never lost that grounding, evoking his dreams, memories, and obsessions on increasingly grand scales in increasingly grand productions teeming with carnivalesque imagery and flights of phantasmagoric surrealism while maintaining an earthy, embodied connection to humanity. Bringing together fourteen of the director’s greatest spectacles, all beautifully restored, this centenary box set is a monument to an artist who conjured a cinematic universe all his own: a vision of the world as a three-ring circus in which his innermost infatuations, fears, and fantasies take center stage.
The Criterion Collection upgrades Alberto Lattuada’s and Federico Fellini’s Variety Lights to Blu-ray, presenting it on the first dual-layer disc of Criterion’s latest director-centric box set, Essential Fellini. The presentation comes from a new 4K restoration, which was in turn sourced primarily from the 35mm original camera negative, with a first generation combined dupe positive filling in where the negative could not be used. The picture has been encoded at 1080p/24hz.
Criterion’s previous DVD edition (long out-of-print) sported a disastrous video presentation. Damage could be pretty heavy but that was the least of its problems: it was interlaced and was bombarded with ghastly artifacts, from jagged edges to ghosting. While less-than-stellar at the time on a standard 4:3 CRT television, it’s unwatchable now.
This new presentation is a wonderful and substantial upgrade over that DVD, and I think it helped me appreciate the film a bit more: whereas I was fairly indifferent to it initially, I found it far more charming and entertaining, even visually pleasing this time around. There are spots here and there throughout the film that can look a little dupey (lacking texture, looking a little fuzzy, shows some fading), but I’ll attribute that to the alternate sources that had to fill in where the negative was less-then-optimal. Outside of these few moments the new restoration and encode looks incredible, adding details to the picture that I hadn’t really noticed before o(those costumes are more impressive looking here) and managing the film’s grain far better than the DVD could ever dream of doing, giving this picture more or a film-like look. Gray scale also offers a drastic improvement: where the DVD’s presentation was harsh, with heavy blacks and whites and very little in-between, the grayscale here looks far better with smoother, with more natural looking blending. Blacks are also not as heavy, allowing for more shadow detail, and whites no longer bloom.
Restoration work has also removed most of the damage that was there previously. Some minor marks remain, along with some minor pulses and shifts in the frame, but it’s all quite easy to overlook as a majority of the picture is incredibly clean without a single mark ever popping up. It's a substantial improvement I regret this isn’t the way I initially saw the film.
Criterion’s disc presents the film’s soundtrack in lossless PCM. It’s also an improvement over the previous DVD, sounding cleaner and sharper on the whole. But it’s still pretty flat and lacks much in the way of fidelity and range. It sounds fine but that’s all I can say about it.
Outside of an insert the previous DVD included nothing supplements wise. For this edition (again, found in their Essential Fellini box set) Criterion throws on a couple of new features. There’s the first part of a four-part interview with Fellini for a program called Second Look, with the other parts dispersed throughout the rest of the set. Hosted by filmmaker Andre Delvaux for Belgian television in 1960, this 34-minute episode focuses on Fellini’s early years, including his work as a cartoonist at “The Funny Face Shop.” The program’s highlight, though, is probably when they get Fellini’s former colleague—simply introduced as Mr. Guasta—to talk about his work and personality.
The format of that previous interview is admittedly a little dry, but Fellini feels a bit loose and the introduction of his former colleague helps, but I still preferred the other feature on this disc, the 101-minute documentary Fellini: I’m a Born Liar, directed by Damian Pettigrew in 2002. The format of this documentary can be a bit stale at times as well, admittedly, as its comprised primarily of interviews conducted with the director over the years, talking about his craft, his thought process and so much more, including his thoughts on how “total creative freedom” is actually crippling and why he needs some sort of opposition to motivate him. What makes this documentary more engaging is that it has plenty of behind-the-scenes footage mixed in, taken from a lot of his films—including from Amarcord, Casanova, 8 ½, And the Ship Sails On, and more—as well as interviews with plenty of those that have worked with him. Some of the more fascinating interviews come from actors who worked with him, all with differing thoughts on the man, with Roberto Benigni loving how Fellini actually treated him like an actor, Terence Stamp more amused by his personality and way of directing (his impersonation of Fellini can be priceless as well), and Donald Sutherland sounding to have been beyond frustrated with him, which probably came down to Fellini being more interested in the look of things (including his actors) rather than their performances. Sometimes intense, it's an incredibly engaging documentary on the man.
Unfortunately there isn’t anything around Variety Lights itself, which would have been nice, with it unfortunately seeming, upon a cursory initial examination of the set, that Criterion didn’t want to produce much in the way of new material for it, just digging up pre-existing things instead. At the very least the two features they did include here are substantial and entertaining.
A great way to open the set, getting a wonderful new presentation for a film that looked awful in Criterion’s previous release, accompanied by a couple of solid supplements featuring interviews with the director and those that worked with him and knew him.