Essential Fellini, Part 2: The Extravagant Years

And we're back, following Part 1 of our coverage of Criterion's giant-sized Essential Fellini blu-ray boxed set, with the second and final Part.  We're past all the early, 50's, neo-realist adjacent films of Federico Fellini's early career, and are now moving on to his more fanciful later work.  These tend to be the films of his I prefer, not just because they have more exotic, colorful imagery, but they also seem to be be - generally speaking, of course - digging at deeper, more personal issues at heart.  The 50s were a time of more on-the-nose melodrama, and now we move, not just to more expressionistic flourishes, but personalized art.

And because these tend to be my personally preferred films of his, it's no coincidence that this half of the set includes many films I've already covered on this site.  As of this writing, all of those pages, listed below, have been updated to include the new Essential Fellini discs:
Now we're in the realm of glorious color with 1965's Juliet Of the Spirits.  I just started to make a case of Fellini's later works being much more than just an excuse for over-the-top imagery and extravagant set-pieces, but if any film of his falls short of that claim, I think it's this one.  Giulietta Masina feels like she's struggling with little actual character to perform in this story of a jealous wife who gets caught up in the realm of the quasi-supernatural.  It's like this should be a journey of self-discovery, but Fellini and his co-writers don't have a film grasp, or even a strong interest, in Juliet's inner life, so they just distract themselves with wild supporting cast members, costumes and sets.  And they are all great fun to look at.  But ultimately, this feels like a much more hollow experience than the rest of Fellini's catalog.  But at least the surface is a treat.

Criterion first released this on DVD in 2002.  Cult Films released it on BD in the UK a couple years ago, but this set marks its HD debut in the US: a 4k restoration taken from the 35mm original camera negative and the interpositive.
2002 Criterion DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
If any film needs to look good, it's this one, and Criterion's new blu is indeed a beaut.  The DVD, which was quite impressive for its time, now looks downright muddy and over-contrasty, though it might make the BD feel slightly pale in direct comparison.  The AR's been fixed from 1.81:1 to 1.85:1, with the framing also shifting slightly.  Jumping direct from SD to HD is obviously a huge boost in clarity, with a little old school tweaking being removed at the same time.  Grain does seem suspiciously light, though, so I wonder if a little tweaking is still on-hand.  But it's a big leap forward from the DVD in any case.

Both discs include the original Italian mono track with optional English subtitles, but the blu cleans it up and boosts it to LPCM.
Criterion's 2020 BD.
The extras are awfully interesting on this one, too.  To start with, the DVD offered a vintage TV interview with Fellini about the film and the trailer, both of which are happily ported to the blu.  The blu also adds a great, made-for-television behind-the-scenes documentary, which is the real gem.  That's about it for Juliet extras, but since this disc had some free space, they stuck some other nice odds and ends on here.  First, pictured above, is Fellini: A Director's Notebook, a great autobiographical little project Fellini made for Italian TV.  It was previously included on Criterion's 8 1/2 blu, and I've matched the screenshot from there so that you can see it's the same grubby transfer.  Still, it's a must-have for this collection.
Arrow's 2010 BD top; Criterion's 2020 BD bottom.
They've also included a new 4k restoration of Toby Dammit, which is both exciting and frustrating.  Toby, of course, is Fellini's segment from the anthology film Spirits Of the Dead.  It's exciting because: yay - new 4k scan of Fellini's loosely adapted Edgar Allen Poe story!  But it's frustrating because it doesn't include the rest of the film and they also give it a low 3GB encode, since I guess they're treating it like an extra.  Anyway, the encode's not really that bad; it's more just the fact that this is only a portion of a complete film.  It would've made more sense if Fellini's segments from Boccaccio '70 and Love In the City were also included in this set.  But hey, I'll take it.

As you can see, it adjusts the 1.85:1 framing to reveal a little more picture compared to Arrow's 2010 BD, and reworks the colors.  Grain might actually still be a bit stronger on the old BD, thanks to the encoding, which looks pretty digitized in parts on the Criterion.  So, you know, it's a nice extra on the surface; but you still need Arrow's blu, which then kinda renders it pointless.
And now we come to one of the reasons I was most excited to get this set, And the Ship Sailed On.  It's such a pure and complete cinematic experience, one of those you can watch over and over again.  Freddie Jones leads an ensemble cast as a journalist accompanying the most privileged elite of society on a romantic ocean liner trip where they almost manage to escape the harsh realities of their world.  Criterion put it out on DVD so long ago (1999) that it's not even anamorphic, rendering it virtually unwatchable in today's era.  The only BD available was a French disc from Gaumont, and a Brazilian boxed set of Fellini films, but neither offer English language options.  So we were badly in need of this Criterion 4k restoration, taken from the 35mm OCN.  One of my most desperate double-dips in a long time.
1999 Criterion DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
There's no comparison, and yet here we go.  The framing was pretty close, at 1.84:1, as opposed to the blu's 1.85:1.  But the story is obviously the resolution, which is crushed even further on a non-anamorphic DVD to something like 533x291p.  It's just a mess of artifacts, jagged edges and extreme edge enhancement.  The colors are crushed and the blacks are frequently milky.  This blu is like a whole new movie.  The Italian mono is restored to LPCM with optional English subtitles; it's like a whole new movie.

The DVD was also barebones.  Fun fact: Catherine Breillat worked on the French translation for this film.  It would've been neat if Criterion got her on camera to talk about that, since they have a relationship with her.  But oh well.  They did come up with one sweet extra; a vintage-hour long 'making of' documentary.  It has a distracting RAI watermark bouncing around the screen the entire time, and the picture quality in general is pretty low; but otherwise it's terrific.
Finally, we have another one of the titles I was most excited for, 1987's Intervista, a fantastical portrait of Cinecitta Studios and Fellini's personal history with it.  This film just oozes charm, from Sergio Rubini as a young Fellini fascinated by the wonders of their epic film productions to the reunion of Marcello Mastroianni (in full Mandrake regalia!) and Anita Ekberg, all under the guise of filming Kafka's Amerika.  Few films, if any, have ever managed to exude the magic of cinema so perfectly.

Intervista's only been available on DVD up 'till now.  In 2005, Koch Lorber put out an okay disc, but it hasn't aged well.  So Criterion's new 2020 BD, restored in 4k from the original 35mm camera negative, is another revelation.
2005 Koch DVD top; 2020 Criterion BD bottom.
Koch's DVD is widescreen at 1.84:1, which is tempting to call the wrong aspect ratio.  But apart from being shy of 1.85, it should be noted that the film did play theatrically in some regions in that ratio, it's more of an "alternative" ratio than the wrong one.  Still, this was made for Italian TV, and Criterion's 1.37:1 is probably the way the film really should be seen.  But a case could be made for the widescreen, as opposed to the terrible interlacing of Koch's disc, which is indefensible.  So thank goodness for Criterion finally bringing this adventure to HD.  Artifacts are gone and in there place is a natural film grain that had been smoothed away in SD.  The colors have been adjusted, too.  Is the woman in the center wearing a pink or orange skirt (based on other shots, I'd say Criterion has it right).

There might be some question about the audio.  The DVD has the original Italian in stereo and an obviously revisionist 5.1 mix.  The blu has mono.  I believe the stereo mix was created for the film theatrically, and the mono is the original television mix.  Either way, both have optional English subs and the BD has lossless LPCM.
only on the DVD
Extras-wise, both disc came pretty well equipped.  Koch had a great, hour-long documentary on the making of the film, including exclusive interviews with the cast and crew, plus the trailer and a stills gallery.  Unfortunately, Criterion lost that doc.  They have a different hour-long doc, which is more on Fellini in general, plus another interview with him, an audio interview with Mastroianni that used to be on their La Dolce Vita blu, and a collection of ads and stuff Fellini created for Fred & Ginger (one of multiple great films conspicuously and disappointingly absent from this set).  So, some decent stuff, but nothing Intervista-specific.  Hang onto your DVDs for that.
But that's not all!  This set includes a bonus BD disc with an over 3-hour long documentary about Marcello Mastroianni called I Remember from 1997, a film that had been previously released on DVD by Fox Lorber back in 2000.  It's directed by his girlfriend at the time, documentary filmmaker Anna Maria Tatò, which allowed the film to get very intimate with Marcello, giving this film a unique, personal and slightly eccentric feel to it.  Interestingly, after his death in 1996, Catherine Deneuve, their daughter and his ex-wife united in trying to prevent the film from being released, but they didn't succeed.  Anyway, there's a brief tag at the opening referring to this film's restoration, but it doesn't divulge any details.  The film's presented in 1.66:1 and looks attractive in HD, though the English 5.1 mix is lossy.

Essential Fellini comes in a large, flat laserdisc-sized box that includes a 156-page book of essays on each film (i.e. what you'd get in your traditional Criterion booklets but all bound together) and another 84-page guide to his films, which is where the more practical descriptions, lists of extras and "About the Transfer"s can be found.  It's a fantastic set, and with so many films being made available in HD - or with these latest restorations - for the first time, they've surely got every serious film lover drooling over it.  It's just a shame that, like with their Bergman box, it still leaves you needing to collect so many other great films by the director that've been left out.  I hate to think of how many people will buy this and think they've got the complete collection.  But they will have more than a great start; they'll be more than halfway there with an amazing set of films and features to dig into.

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