Fellini Week, Day 1: La Dolce Vita

I trust everyone had a nice holiday?  I hope so, and now we're back and ready to dive into some fantastic home video.  For the next few days, we're going to feature one of film's all-time greatest maestros who truly deserves some more extensive coverage on this site: Federico Fellini.  And yeah, that does mean we're in for a bunch of Criterion discs.  Nothin' wrong with that.

Update 6/4/21: Adding the Essential Fellini boxed set edition.
Now, 1960's La Dolce Vita isn't Fellini's first film.  Far from it; he'd already been directing for a decade and nominated for five Oscars and won a sixth before he came to this point in his career.  But it is the film, at least for me (and I believe this is a fairly commonly held opinion), where he stepped forward from his peers of already clearly talented writer/ directors to a unique and compelling voice in cinema.  It broke box office records in its day and won a ton of awards, but more to the point, Fellini started to allow his sardonic, cartoonist nature to merge with his cinematic work.  He doesn't quite develop into the larger than life surrealism you'd later find in films like City of Women, but he does craft some truly indelible images and unforgettable sequences, like the statue of Christ being helicoptered over the waving bikini girls, or the candlelit tour through the haunted castle.
This is also when Fellini found his perfect avatar in Marcello Mastroianni, who plays a paparazzo struggling to keep up with the idle and decadent rich of the day (including, of course, the ultra-glamorous Anita Ekberg).  Fellini is just sardonic enough to take the air out of our burgeoning celebrity culture, while still telling an affecting human story.  Mastroianni isn't just his generation's fashion horse for being hip and charming, he's sympathetic.  Meanwhile, Fellini is starting to present his distinct portrayal of Roman life: packed vignettes of bustling crowds and life exploding at the seams.  And the larger than life soundtracks of Nino Rota were already a regular staple in his arsenal, so there's really no aspect of Fellini's cinema that isn't firing at 100% in this one.
For such a famous film, it took La Dolce Vita a while to hit DVD in the US.  I think England got it first, but there were multiple foreign editions floating around out there over the years before Koch Lorber finally gave us something to replace our Image laserdiscs with here in the states.  Specifically, they gave us their 2-disc Collector's Edition in 2004.  They quickly followed that up with an improved 3-disc Deluxe Collector's Edition in 2005.  I've got both versions here, so we can get into that interesting little story.  But that's more or less been rendered ancient history since we've moved into the high def era, where Criterion gave us their new and improved blu-ray in 2014.  And in 202, they included it in their Essential Fellini boxed set.
1) 2004 KL DVD; 2) 2005 KL DVD; 3) 2014 Criterion BD; 4) 2020 Criterion BD.

So the two DVDs feature virtually the same transfer.  They're not 100% identical... the 2004 disc features a single pixel's worth of dead space along the right-hand side, which the 2005 disc corrects for.  And by the way, a sliver like that is not so rare, plenty of DVDs and BDs have them for whatever reason - it's so impossible to spot without taking screenshots, I guess most labels just often overlook 'em.  In fact, the Criterion blus (both of 'em, as the new 2020 disc utilizes the exact same transfer) has a similar pixel's worth of dead space on the left-hand side.  But anyway, that means yes, technically the two DVDs aren't identical transfers, but for all intents and purposes, the Deluxe DVD doesn't improve or adjust the transfer from their first edition.  Issues, like the banding you can see in the second set of shots, persist and fine detail looks exactly the same, which is to say, alright for DVD, but pretty a bit smudgy and clumsy compared to Criterion's crisp blus.

The aspect ratio also shifts slightly between Koch and Criterion, going from 2.33 or 2.34 (based on that single pixel-wide sliver) on the DVDs to 2.35:1 on the blu.  But it's not just a very slightly wider frame; you can see the DVDs actually noticeably more image along both sides, while Criterion has extra slivers along the top and bottom.  How does that much difference fit into nearly identical framing, you might ask.  Because the DVD was slightly squished, which the BD corrects.  Without the constraints of standard def compression, Criterion handily removes the aforementioned banding and smudging, too.  Criterion describes this as a "[n]ew 4K digital restoration by the Film Foundation," and it's generally a very sharp and satisfying presentation, but grain is a little patchy and blocky for a 4k scan.  It seems to have gotten rave reviews on other sites, but I'd temper that a little.  Like a B+.  A great scan that could've been more carefully compressed.
1) 2004 KL DVD; 2) 2005 KL DVD; 3) 2014 Criterion BD; 4) 2020 Criterion BD.

Both Koch DVDs give us a surprising variety of audio options, presenting the original Italian track in its original mono, as well as revisionist stereo and 5.1 mixes, with optional English and Spanish subtitles.  On the 2004 DVD, they're yellow, which surprisingly seemed to have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  Forums and online reviews all complained about the "gaudy yellow" subtitles.  I don't know - yellow is a very standard color for subtitles, and if you've ever seen movies where white subtitles disappear against white backgrounds, they're pleasingly easier to read.  But for some reason, people really pounced on this one, and Koch Lorber noticed.  Their 2005 DVD now offers the subtitles in both yellow and white (and yes, that for the Spanish subs, too).  Anyway, Criterion dumps the remixes and just gives us the original uncompressed monaural soundtrack in LPCM, with freshly translated English subtitles and, yes, they're white.
But I mentioned a reason to hold onto your DVDs, right?  And it's not because of yellow subtitles.  Here's what Koch Lorber still has that Criterion doesn't: a huge supply of special features, especially on their Deluxe edition.  But let's start out with their initial 2-disc Collector's Edition, because that's not too shabby even by itself.  Disc 1 starts out with an appreciative introduction by Alexander Payne, and then delivers an audio commentary by film historian Richard Schickel.  It's a little flat, but outlines all the basics anyone would want to know.  Then Disc 2 starts to get really interesting.  First up is "Fellini TV," which is a collection of television commercials and other odds and ends Fellini directed over the years.  There's a whole ton of 'em and his personality and style definitely shine through.  If you've ever wanted to dive really deep into Fellini, this is it.  Then there's a twelve minute featurette of interviews with Ekberg and Mastrionni, taken from Koch's Intervista documentary, a brief vintage TV interview with Fellini, an even briefer look at his offices in Cinecitta, a restoration demonstration (though, unlike the feature on disc 1, it's interlaced, so it's not totally representative), and a photo gallery.  There's also a bunch of bonus trailers, and an insert with notes by Dennis Bartok.
Anita Ekberg, from disc 3
So it's already a great little package, but the Deluxe edition ups the ante with an additional DVD of special features, and not just a tiny bonus; there's some real hefty stuff.  It starts off with an hour long documentary on Nino Rota.  Then there are new on-camera interviews with Ekberg, which is pretty great, screenwriter Tullio Pinelli and Fellini's old and slightly eccentric friend Rinaldo Gelend.  That's rounded off by a couple short, old television interviews with Fellini and Mastrionni, and a very brief (under two minutes) clip of Donald Sutherland talking about Fellini.  At a few points it feels like they're throwing in whatever scraps they can get their hands on, but most of it's pretty interesting and it all adds up to an impressive supplementary package.  The Deluxe Edition also comes in an impressive 12"x8" box, which houses a rolled poster, a glossy 40-page booklet by Peter Bondanella (in addition to the Bartok insert from the original set, which is also included here) and five photo cards.

And Criterion?  Unfortunately, they've carried over absolutely none of that.  But that's not to say they don't have anything.  They've created their own stuff, which is also quite good.  Their 2014 blu has a great little chat with assistant director Lina Wertmüller, and a couple scholarly featurettes by David Forgacs, Antonello Sarno and ::kogonada (that's like his Hip-Hop name, I guess).  Then they've got a vintage interview with Fellini, which is different from any of the Koch ones, and substantially longer and more in-depth, plus an even longer audio-only interview with Mastroianni.  They've also got their own gallery and an insert which folds out into a poster with notes by Gary Giddins.
And the new 2020 blu?  Here's where it starts to distinguish itself.  First, it essentially carries over everything from the 2014... Technically, the audio interview with Mastroianni has been moved over to their Intervista disc; but if you're getting the set, you're getting the interview either way.  And they've added the fourth part of an on-going Belgian TV interview with Fellini that they've spreading across various discs in the collection. Plus, of course, the set includes all the other films and extras, including the two books, that aren't specifically tied to La Dolce Vita.  But crucially, Criterion has also added an hour-long French documentary to this disc that is all about La Dolce Vita, including some exclusive interviews with cast and crew members like Anouk Aimee, Valeria Ciangottini and second unit director Dominique Delouche.  So while there isn't a new transfer, Criterion has improved upon their previous disc.
So, you know, I don't mean to make it sound like Criterion's extras aren't good.  They absolutely are, especially the improved 2020 version (only available in the set; not sold separately as of this writing).  It's just a shame how much Koch Lorber assembled that was dropped (although I believe the Anita Ekberg interview is the same one on the UK blu-ray from Nouveaux Pictures, and Umbrella's blu-ray in Australia seems to feature a lot of the Koch material, including "Fellini TV").  The 4k restoration handily blows away the old DVD transfers though, of course, so you're definitely going to want to double-dip.  Just hang onto your DVDs, too, if you've got 'em.  And if you don't, yeah, it might be worth tracking down the Deluxe box just to compliment your blu, because it's still pretty sweet.

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