Fellini's Casanova: Why You Should Import and Avoid the US Version (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

It used to be, the best DVD edition of Frederico Fellini's Casanova was from the UK: a nice 2-disc set from Freemantle, which I've still got. But that was twelve years ago, and now we're in the age of HD remasters. And now? Well, it's a bit of a tie between the French and UK blu-rays, but one is out of print and only available used at inflated prices. So Mr. Bongo's new blu keeps the the trophy in the UK. But is it an essential upgrade, or just another a minor improvement in compression? Let's have a look!

Update 1/25/16 - 10/24/17: Between the Freemantle DVD and Mr Bongo blu-ray, Universal did manage the bare minimum of squeezing out an MOD DVD-R release for the US market as part of their "Vault Series."  It's obviously not in HD, but what's its transfer like compared to the others? Aren't you curious?  I was, and looking at it was somewhat enlightening, if not exactly pleasing.
I don't love all Fellini films. They all certainly have their virtues, typically visually, but they don't call grab you the way his masterpieces do. Juliet Of the Spirits, for example, seems like an excuse to play around with his colorful set-pieces more than tell an engaging story.  Satyricon would probably make a better coffee table book than a film. And his pre-La Dolce Vita work largely strikes me overwrought yet dull at the same time.  But Casanova has the power of its source material. Not that Casanova's a favorite story of mine, but coupled with the right adapter - see Dennis Potter's excellent mini series - it can be quite effective.
And I think Giacomo Casanova has found the perfect director in Fellini, someone able to exceed the excess of Casanova's bawdy tale with crazy, ribald imagery and dreamlike set pieces. Fellini takes it farther over the top than any previous version, with Sutherland seducing a mechanical woman or making his lover's bed literally spin and fly up into the air. Meanwhile, the original writing, coupled with a terrific leading performance by Donald Sutherland, are able to repay the compliment of Fellini's vivaciousness with intelligent commentary on human nature and crafting the unenviable downfall of a man you wind up genuinely caring about. The garish absurdity of the comedy is played so strong, it winds up contributing to the tragedy.
Freemantle's 2005 DVD top; Universal's 2011 DVD-R mid; Mr Bongo's 2015 blu bottom.
Freemantle's DVD is at least anamorphic, which sets it apart from some of its contemporaries, but it's still a far cry from the new HD transfer. It just looks so digital and unreal in comparison. The UK DVD is slightly pillar-boxed at 1.73:1, whereas the blu-ray is slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1.  The result being: the blu gains a little extra picture along the bottom, and the DVD is actually slightly horizontally compressed. There's really no competition between the old DVD and blu, it's a big upgrade. And the Universal release, perhaps predictably, falls somewhere in the middle.  It might actually have the best colors of the bunch.  Look at the singers' white costumes in the first comparison, or the more natural skin tones in the second; the blu by comparison has a bit of an undesirable yellow/ green push to it.  But Universal's still in SD - in fact, as a DVR, it's even further compressed, and looks it.  And despite being the same aspect ratio as the blu, it actually crops the image tighter and loses more image information than either of the other discs.

So Mr. Bongo's is still the way to go.  I could see a fresh 4k scan uncovering a little more detail and clarity, to be honest, but it's unquestionably the transfer to go with given what's available. I do sort of miss the extreme bold colors of the old DVD in a way, though, and the Universal shows they could've at least tweaked them a little further.
Both the UK DVD and blu give you the option of the English or Italian audio tracks, with optional English subtitles, which is great.  Oh, and the Freemantle DVD also has a third, French dub.  You'll surely wind up opting for the English in any case, as that's the one where Sutherland dubs his own voice.  Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange) even wrote the English language dialogue.  And that just makes it all the more disappointing, then, that the Universal's Vault Series disc only has the Italian track, with burnt-in, unremovable subtitles.  Boo!
A far more compelling reason to hang onto your DVDs, though, is the second disc of extras. Mr Bongo's blu-ray is completely barebones, as is Universal's MOD release (which doesn't even have a menu). The DVD however, has that whole second disc.

The main extra is a documentary called The Magic of Fellini. It's about an hour-long and pretty good, but as its an overview of his whole career, it's maybe a bit superficial, breezing by without stopping anyplace for too long. Plus, it barely touches on Casanova.  Still, it's full of good interviews and film clips, and worth the watch for any Fellini fan.  It's also worth pointing out that this documentary is also on several Australian Fellini DVD and blu-ray releases, however, and released as its own DVD by Image in the US; so there's a chance you'll already have this.
Of more interest to me personally was the interview with Donald Sutherland. This is also just a little under an hour, and as such comes off as quite thoughtful and in-depth. He talks about his whole career, but focuses a lot on Fellini and Casanova. This isn't one of those frustrating interviews that covers his entire body of work and ignores the film they're making the DVD of.

The only other extra is a stills gallery.
So, that answers that: definitely a worthwhile upgrade! Still, you'll want to hold onto your Freemantle DVD for the extras, or even double-dip for them if you haven't already got it, because they're good. And it helps that Mr Bongo's blu is nice and cheap. You might be tempted to save yourself the hassle of importing and just grab the Vault Series disc; but don't - it's a trap without even the English audio track.  Of course, if you do come across the French blu you could get that instead. It has some exclusive extras, but they don't have English language options, so it wouldn't net you much more than Mr Bongo's. But definitely one blu-ray and the UK DVD for the extras is the way to go.

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