The White Sheik
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 second dual-layer disc in Criterion’s latest Blu-ray box set, Essential Fellini, presents his first solo outing as director, The White Sheik. The film has received an all-new 4K restoration and is presented here with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1.
Though a significant improvement over Criterion’s previous DVD edition for the film (which used an older standard-definition restoration that was, at the very least, progressive) it’s clear the materials were pretty rough to begin with. The restoration notes that open the film point out that the 4K restoration was sourced primarily from the negative, but later generation prints were used to repair damaged sections of said negative. That shows through clearly at times, with stains, tram lines, mold residue, and frame jumps popping up, combined with a slightly dupier look. Thankfully these issues are more the exception than the rule, usually only showing up around scene transitions or cuts. Much of the film, for long stretches, is clean and free of any sort of damage, so I can only assume that what remains was just beyond repair.
Despite whatever issues remain with the source materials this area still offers a large improvement over the DVD, which was laced with all sorts of damage. On top of that, the digital presentation, as one would hope, also improves considerably over the DVD. This image is far cleaner and more film-like here, delivering far more detail than the DVD could ever hope to do; it’s kind of insane how much sharper the picture is here in comparison to the blurrier DVD presentation. I also forgot how dark and flat the DVD image was. The Blu-ray has better contrast levels and more distinct gray tones. Whites also don’t bloom and blacks don’t crush out details.
Overall it’s one of the “weaker” presentations in the set because it appears the source materials were rough to begin with, but despite that this is still a stunner of an upgrade.
The restoration notes mention a soundtrack positive created from the original negative in 1993 was the source for lossless PCM soundtrack on this disc, and I would have to venture a guess that the same source was used for the DVD’s soundtrack as well since they don’t sound all that different. While the soundtrack here is a bit cleaner and free of any severe damage, the audio is still incredibly flat and edgy, music sounding especially distorted. It ends up only being a minor upgrade over the audio found on the problematic DVD.
This disc only sports a couple features, first carrying over the only on-disc supplement found on the previous DVD edition of The White Sheik, the 31-minute Remembrances featuring interviews with the film’s married couple Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo, along with Fellini friend Moraldo Rossi. The two actors recount how they first met Fellini (Trieste’s story details are particularly funny) and how the filmmaker would work with his actors. There is also conversation around the film’s story and how it was satirizing popular fiction (referred to as “simple literature” here) and comics of the time.
Criterion also includes audio interviews recorded by Gideon Bachmann, divided into two sections: a 30-minute portion featuring interviews with Fellini and a 59-minute portion featuring interviews with family and friends. This isn’t a new feature as Criterion had previously included it on their 2006 DVD reissue for Amarcord as well as the subsequent Blu-ray edition, and in the exact same format with the interviews playing over a series of photos. The interview excerpts featuring Fellini has the director talking about his filmmaking style, life, influences, and the like, but it’s the portion with his family that proves especially enlightening since they don’t feel the need to spice things up as Fellini seems to naturally do. I had only sampled the family/friends interviews when I previously covered it for the Blu-ray edition of Amarcord, feeling it was something that only hardcore Fellini aficionados would care about (a label I don’t apply to myself) but I had a real change of heart going through it in its entirety this time around. It’s actually a very delightful collection of material, featuring the filmmaker’s mother and sister, Ida Barbiani and Maddalena Fellini, along with friends Luigi “Titta” Benzi and Mario Montanari, and a woman I assume to be his first “girlfriend,” Bianca Mercatalli (at the beginning of the interview she insists, at the behest of her husband, not to have her full name used in the interview, though the provided subtitle gives it away here). Her contribution is interesting as she might have the most wide-ranging view of the man, suggesting she knew they weren't really good for each other (or at least he wasn't what she needed in a relationship). But everyone talks about his creative spirit, whether it be with puppets, through his writing, or his drawing, and recount stories around all of this. It’s also kind of funny to hear most everyone repeat the same things about him, like how a few participants recalling his love for adventure films. They all give a good portrait of a man and offer insights into what developed him as a filmmaker, Mercatalli probably stating it best with “[he] gathers impressions and makes a film.” I’m not sure why I was originally averse to this feature when I came across it on the Amarcord disc, but it’s actually a wonderful collection of material.
And that wraps up the disc. Not packed by any means, and the one “new” feature has actually been recycled from another title, but it’s all quite good.
A couple of source issues remain but the new presentation is a significant upgrade over the previous DVD’s dated one, and the features (the couple that are on here) are all quite good.