Essential Fellini, Part 1: The Early Years

So as you could've probably guessed, this one's been in the works for a while.  Yes, today I'm finally covering the entirety of Criterion's massive 15-disc box of Federico Fellini films, Essential Fellini.  Like their previous, massive boxed set collection, Ingmar Bergman's Cinema, it's important to note that this is not a complete "all you need" collection of the director's work.  Many of his films, including some of his best, are not included here.  But it's still an extremely impressive set, and we're about to dig through every inch of  it.
So let's just dive on in! This post's going to be long enough without a lot of preamble.  Film #1 is Fellini's first film as a director, though not as a writer or other capacities: 1950's Variety Lights.  And it sure feels like Fellini-Lite, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Carla Del Poggio is a naive young beauty in love with the theater who decides she wants to join a traveling troupe of rag-tag performers.  So you've got the themes of class division and knowing portrayals of poverty, the romantic depictions of public entertainment and its circus-like atmosphere, and Giulietta Masina in a supporting role.  It doesn't have the big, expressionistic City Of Women-like imagery, but it hints at what Fellini would eventually become.  And it's at least as enjoyable as many of his later works.

Criterion first released Variety Lights on DVD in 2000 (reissued in 2009), taken from "the original 35mm fine grain master."  The film makes its HD debut in this set, restored in 4k from a combination of both the 35mm OCN and (presumably the same) fine-grain master positive.
2000 Criterion DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
Even if Criterion didn't have an impressive, new 4k restoration on their hands, this blu-ray (and others in this set for the same reason) would be a huge upgrade just because they're only coming up against such old DVDs.  The DVD is interlaced and heavily edge enhanced, turning the picture into a noisy mess.  We're only lucky the film is full-frame or I'm sure it would've been non-anamorphic, too.  Although, speaking of the AR, the framing has shifted a bit (I'd like to say "for the better," but it's hard to call; in most shots the difference seems arbitrary) and widened slightly from 1.34:1 to 1.37:1.  The new 4k scan obviously gives the film a much more filmic look, as opposed to the dupey, digitized DVD, and the compression's nice and consistent - about as good as you could get outside of a UHD.

Both discs provide the original Italian mono track with optional English subtitles, but the blu is lossless LPCM.  More than that, the audio restoration gives the whole movie a more robust feel with easier to discern dialogue.

Criterion's DVD was barebones, without even a trailer; although it did include a booklet with notes by Andrew Sarris.  And the new blu?  Well, it's open to interpretation with this set whether many of these films have extras or just happen to have some non-film-specific Fellini features on the same disc.  For example, the previous releases of 8 1/2 have a made-for-TV documentary by Fellini called Fellini: A Director's Notebook.  Now it's no longer on that disc; it's been moved to Juliet Of the Spirits.  But it's not about either film, so it's a pretty immaterial shift, presumably just made as a question of convenient disc space.  So no, Variety Lights doesn't have any specific Variety Lights-related extras.  But it has some stuff on its disc, so we might as well tackle it now.
2003 First Look DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
The main feature is a biographical Fellini documentary called I'm a Born Liar.  It's a pretty great, comprehensive overview that includes interviews with everybody from his childhood friends to Terance Stamp, which was released on DVD in 2003 by First Look Entertainment.  Criterion hasn't given this any kind of "restoration" (both discs are interlaced, for a start), but the DVD was non-anamorphic with burnt-in subtitles, whereas now the image is at least full-sized and less compressed with removable subs; so it's still a substantially superior viewing experience.

Also on this disc is the first section of a Belgian television interview with Fellini, broken up into four parts across this set.  Each part is about half an hour long with burnt-in French subtitles and optional English ones.  It was recorded in 1960 and acted as a sort-of career overview for its time.  It's a lot on his background and not nearly as compelling as I'm a Born Liar; but it's a nice inclusion for serious fans who just want as much as they can get.
Next up is The White Sheik.  In some ways it's my favorite of his early works, with some obvious similarities to his previous feature.  This time Brunella Bovo is the naive young beauty enraptured with the entertainment industry who winds up tagging along and becoming a de facto member of the team.  But this time she's a newlywed, so the film is split between her exploits and budding romance with Alberto Sordi as the titular Sheik (actually a rather thick and insincere movie star without an Arabic bone in his body), and her husband's (Leopoldo Trieste), who has to hide her disappearance from his in-laws who've come to visit them on their honeymoon.  It's less ambitious with far less dramatic undercurrent than the rest of Fellini's catalog; you can certainly see why this isn't one of his Oscar winners.  But it's just a sweet and funny comedy that effectively makes you laugh and keeps you thoroughly entertained from beginning to end.

Criterion first released The White Sheik on DVD in 2003 - the only DVD I don't have for a comparison, sorry.  It's also making its blu-ray debut in this set (well, more or less... Studio Canal put it out overseas around the same time), again in 4k from both the 35mm OCN and a 35 positive print.
2020 Criterion BD.
Again presented in 1.37:1, this is another beautiful 4k restoration.  Criterion's had a few bumpy instances in terms of compression even with their 4k scans (for example, see: Mulholland Drive), but they're really doing a nice job here.  Brightness and contrast levels are rich and attractive with deep levels of detail throughout the highlights and shadows.  The Italian mono track is presented in LPCM with optional English subtitles.

And extras?  Yes, even their old DVD had a nice 30-minute retrospective featurette full of fun anecdotes from the film's good-natured stars, and thankfully it's preserved on the blu.  Also included are two lengthy audio-only interviews (one with Fellini himself, the other actually several interviews with his family and friends strung together) that are non-Sheik specific and recommended only to the hardcore fans.
I Vitelloni
used to be my least favorite Fellini film, despite it being his first break-out success, but it's grown on me somewhat recently.  It's about idle young men, based heavily on the people Fellini grew up with, and it always felt self-indulgently nostalgic to me, where he could take his real life friends to pick their characters out of the ensemble and spot all the authentic memories and locations, but leaving the rest of the world somewhat outside of the fun.  But I've come to appreciate how he doesn't shy away from their honest human character flaws, in particular the indifferent way our main character treats his marriage.  And some of the sequences, like the stealing of the statue and their meeting with the lascivious actor are memorable for a reason.  Plus the cast, including several returning White Sheik stars and his own brother, bring more character to their roles than most post-synced Italian film stars could ever manage.

Criterion first put out I Vitelloni out on DVD in 2004.  There was also an Image disc in 2008.  Cult Films released it on blu in 2018, but it makes its US BD debut here in this set, apparently composited from several 35mm film elements.
2004 Criterion DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
Criterion's DVD is a higher quality release compared to their Variety Lights (they came a long way in four years), so the improvements here aren't quite as dramatic; but of course they're there, as we're going from SD to 4k in 1080p.  Contrast levels that were sometimes a little over the top on the DVD have been brought down to more natural, detailed levels on the blu.  And the framing, adjusting from a slightly tall 1.31:1 to 1.37:1 draws in more information along the sides.  The HD of course also sharpens and clarifies the image nicely.  Both discs provide the original Italian mono track with optional English subtitles, with the blu in lossless LPCM.

The DVD had one, fun half-hour retrospective with a bunch of the cast and crew, plus the trailer and some stills galleries.  All of that's been carried over to the blu, and they've added part two of that Belgian interview.
Now we come to La Strada, one of the *Super Famous* movies.  How you feel about it will probably depend on how schmaltzy you like your dramas, but even the most cynical amongst us will find it hard to deny all of this movies' qualities.  Giulietta Masina finally takes on a leading role and gives a performance based more in clown work than traditional screen acting, even when her character isn't literally performing the job of clown.  She plays a young woman sold by her family to be an assistant and wife (in that order) to Anthony Quinn, a traveling strong man.  Her pure spirit proves able to overcome every possible tragedy life can throw at her until they cross paths with Richard Basehart who manages to perhaps be a little too successful at opening her eyes to cruelties of the world around her.  So it's like an Italian Neo-realist tear jerker mixed with a Charlie Chaplin film, fastened together by one of Nina Rota's most famous scores.  It's not a personal favorite, but it's certainly one of those movies you any serious student of cinema should see.

Criterion first released it on DVD in 2003 (and reissued it on 2009), as a 2-disc set no less.  This one's been on BD in various parts of the world before, but this box marks its HD debut in the US.  Here, it's been restored in 4k from the 35mm duplicate negative.
2003 Criterion DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
The framing is adjusted from 1.31:1 to 1.37, though how much additional picture that reveals seems to vary from shot to shot.  But every shot has edge enhancement, which the blu handily cleans up.  The blu is also noticeably darker, which is a change for the good, as the DVD's always looked a little overexposed.  Grain seems a little smoothed out at times, but I don't know if it's actually some kind of light DNR or just a consequence of compressing 4k to 1080p.  At any rate, it's barely noticeable most of the time, especially in motion.

The audio story is almost the same as all the rest, with the Italian mono being on both discs, restored to LPCM on the blu, with optional English subtitles.  But this time both discs also feature an English mono track.  And on both discs it's lossy - clearly not a high priority for this set.
As this one started in a 2-disc set, you can expect a nice selection of extras.  It's all the same stuff on both.  We start out with an "introduction," that's actually full of spoilers, including the very final reveals, so I'd seriously suggest not watching it until after the film.  But then you definitely should, because it's a 14-minute (pretty long for an intro) chat with Martin Scorsese, who makes a pretty compelling case for the qualities of this film.  Unfortunately, even on the blu, he's non-anamorphic; but what the heck.  There's a pretty decent audio commentary by expert Peter Bondanella who's naturally able to delve deeper with all the extra runtime.  Then there's an hour long doc about Fellini called Federico Fellini's Autobiography, which, despite its title, was not made by Fellini himself.  It's a decent little feature, though somewhat redundant with other extras in the set, and the PQ's pretty low, so casual viewers might want to skip it.  Also included is the theatrical trailer.
Satellite of Love residents will be excited to hear that Richard Basehart is back in Fellini's next film, Il Bidone (The Swindle).  This time he's partnered with Broderick Crawford (who you may remember as Hoover from Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover) as a couple of con men who travel the countryside performing elaborate schemes on the desperately poor.  As you might imagine, their luck can't hold out forever, and Basehart's wife, Giulietta Masina, figures out that he's lying to her.  Fellini does a masterful job making you identify with the protagonists while hating them for what they're doing, and Crawford is downright haunting in his personal tragedy.

Criterion actually didn't release Il Bidone on DVD.  Image Entertainment did in 2000.  As far as BD, it's already been released around the world, including by Eureka in the UK, but this collection marks its US debut.  I guess we're a little slow, but ours is a 4k restoration from the 35mm OCN and a 35mm master-positive; so suck on that, early adapters!
2000 Image DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
Criterion's 4k is great, but literally any BD would be essential after living with this Image disc all these years.  Surprisingly, it's not interlaced, but otherwise it looks like it's ripped from a tape or broadcast source, and all the blown out fuzziness that entails.  It's also covered in scratches and damage that have been whisked away on the new Criterion.  It also fixes the AR from 1.31:1 to 1.37, unstretching the image and tweaking the framing.  But most importantly, it's just an infinitely better scan with rich contrast and brights that aren't flared way the Hell out.  The Italian mono track is also much clearer and bolder in its new LPCM, and unlike the DVD, Criterion's subtitles aren't burnt it.

Image had bupkiss for extras, but Criterion came through.  They added a pretty nice, but a little dry, audio commentary by expert Frank Burke.  Even better, though, they recorded a lengthy on-camera interview with Fellini's former assistant, Dominique Delouche, who is full of great history and stories.  This is on the short list of features in this set you should definitely not skip.
And we say goodbye to the 50's with our last film (for Part 1), Nights of Cabiria, Masina's second biggest starring role.  I've always preferred this to La Strada because it holds onto more of an honest cynicism (at least until the ending).  This time Giulietta is a prostitute, fully aware and the resentful of the injustices inherent in the lives of herself and everyone around her.  Any time she dares to trust and have hope in love or other people, she's immediately punished for it - by attempted murder!  It's an episodic tale as she goes on a series of misadventures, mostly serving to show just how terribly the lower classes are living in post-war Italy.  Many of them are literally living in giant holes in the ground.  But Masina's personality is big enough to shine a light through all of it.

Criterion released Nights on DVD all the way back in 1999.  And they've more or less given it its BD debut in this collection (like The White Sheik, Studio Canal released it in various other parts of the world the same year), restored in 4k from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.  Oh, I should also point out that both Criterion's feature the extended cut.  Some older DVDs run a few minutes shorter, missing a scene where Masina encounters a priest.
1999 Criterion DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
For a 1999 DVD, I guess it ain't too bad.  It's not interlaced and was scanned off (the same?) fine grain master taken from the OCN.  Still, the new 4k is worlds better, with much more natural contrast and dynamic range that no longer blows out the brights.  It also changes the AR from 1.31 to 1.37, shifting the framing in the process.  Grain is natural and the picture is consistently sharp and strong.  One small step backwards, though: the original DVD featured both English and Italian audio (with optional subs).  The blu bumps the Italian up to LPCM (and of course keeps the subs), but ditches the English track.  It's not the track I'd choose to watch the film with, but since they already had it, I'm surprised Criterion didn't hang on it, if only for the sake of history.
from the restoration demonstration.
Extras-wise, Criterion's DVD was pretty nice, and their blu is virtually unchanged.  They did drop two little things.  The first is a short, low quality excerpt from The White Sheik, which nobody who has this set needs now, and a restoration demonstration.  It's interesting, but obviously out of date now; and apart from that, everything's been carried over.  That includes an engaging but all-too-brief audio interview with producer Dino de Laurentiis who explains why he wanted the scene cut that's since been restored in this extended version.  Better still, there's another interview with Dominique Delouche that's just as good as the last one.  There are also two trailers.

And the blu has added even more.  There's part 3 of that Belgian TV interview.  And best of all, there's an hour-long documentary about Giulietta Masina.  After all these pieces making the same observations about Fellini, it's great to see this set finally focus on someone else who's almost equally deserving and previously had been greatly under-served.  It's another Can't Miss.

And that's it for now.  Check back soon for Part 2, where we cover the more modern and wild Fellini films in this set.

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