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 fourth dual-layer disc in Criterion’s Essential Fellini box set upgrades their DVD edition of La strada to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The new 4K restoration comes from a scan of a 35mm duplicate negative.
Though it may not be the best new presentation to be found in the set I found the upgrade for La strada to be the most impressive. The original Criterion DVD manages to hold up surprising well: though more than likely a standard-definition restoration, it was apparently sourced from the original negative and detail could be very impressive for the format. It also had gone through a vigorous restoration, and despite some heavier damage that remained, it was in great shape. Contrast was maybe a little off, and I felt blacks could be a bit heavy, plus it’s in standard-definition with all the short-comings that come with that, but it otherwise looked pretty good. Some of the other titles in this set—Variety Lights, The White Sheik, and ESPECIALLY And the Ship Goes On—offer upgrades over what are, at best, borderline disasters, so it’s expected that the improvements offered for this presentation would be substantial, even if the resulting high-def presentation was mediocre.
I didn’t think the original DVD for La strada was in as dire need of an upgrade like some other titles in the set, so when I saw just how good this turned out I couldn’t help but be just astounded by it. It looks unbelievably good, very film-like and sharp, rendering grain gorgeously, and delivering the fine details with ease. The DVD’s presentation is sharp, and detail is impressive, but the finer details and textures of the costumes, the greasiness of Masina’s clown make-up, the facial stubble on Quinn, all of it just so much clearer in this new high-definition picture. You can also just about make out every granule of sand found in several beach scenes. Grayscale is far better as well, with smoother blending, and black levels aren’t as “thick” or heavy here, meaning the nighttime sequences are easier to see.
Some damage does remain, from a few lines to some other minor marks and mild fluctuations, and there are a couple of dupier looking scenes: they’re scattered about but a longer sequence at the wedding party, just before Masina’s character goes up to see the child hiding out in bedroom, looks a little blown out and blurry. But outside of those issues, this is an incredible looking upgrade and I doubt I could be more pleased.
Like the DVD, Criterion offers two audio options: the original Italian soundtrack in lossless PCM 1.0 monaural, and the English-dub, featuring the original voices of Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart, and presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono.
The Italian soundtrack has been cleaned up a bit more, presenting no obvious issues, but it is fairly weak and low, probably filtered a bit. Dialogue is still easy to hear, and music sounds fine, but there’s no punch to it.
The English track replicates what was on the DVD: I’m pretty sure they just ported that exact track over. But it doesn’t sound too bad in the end. It can be a bit edgy, and noise is more evident, but voices sound more powerful as does the music. Interestingly the English track has more sound effects in the background, whether it be birds or crickets, or a crackling fire. The Italian track is either missing these things or they sound slightly different. This is also how it is on the original DVD, so I don’t think anything has been messed up during the restoration, and each track was just mixed differently at the time.
Ultimately it will come down to personal preference, but I actually didn’t have much of a problem with the English-dub.
All on-disc content from the DVD gets ported over to this edition. Though that DVD was a 2-disc edition it actually didn't have all that much on it, and I assume they used the second disc to help with the bitrate on the main feature, which did pay off.
Criterion first includes the same 13-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese, recorded for that DVD, featuring the filmmaker recalling how he first saw the film as a child and the impression it left on him. He explains how he was recognizing Italian neorealism at the time and how the film fit into that, before talking about how the film has influenced his work—mentioning how Quinn’s Zampanò came to mind when working on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—and then discussions he had with Fellini through the years.
It's a great little overview of the film, which is then expanded upon in the 2003 audio commentary featuring author Peter Bondanella. Author of Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to Present, he does talk about the how film fits under neorealism and Fellini’s relationship with it, while also pointing out the elements that hint at the path that Fellini’s films would eventually take. He also talks about Italian cinema in general from the period, explaining why American actors were often cast, how the language differences could be handled, and the reliance on dubbing during post-production. While most of the focus is on this film and its success both critically and at the box office (even Nino Rota’s soundtrack was a hit seller), he does get into Fellini’s work prior to and following La strada, mentioning how he worked, even how he handled adaptations, and addresses criticisms that have been lobbed at him. It’s a well packed track that has a nice flow, and only screen-specific when it needs to be so Bondanella isn’t simply just regurgitating what’s happening on screen.
Outside of the film’s original trailer, the only other feature is the 55-minute Italian television documentary Federico Fellini’s Autobiography. The documentary, by Paquito del Bosco, is assembled from archival production and interview footage featuring Fellini just musing about filmmaking, his life, and philosophies. Unfortunately, I could always find Fellini a bit much when he gets philosophical, and despite some humorous moments along with some better insights into how he sees the world and how that translates to the films he makes, I do find this one a bit of a chore. That could simply just come down to its structure, though, which is literally just all of these archival pieces stitched together, a good chunk of it from material around the making of La dolce vita. There are some interesting moments and surprises (there’s a part where Fellini and Bergman announce they were going to do a movie together that I had no idea about before I saw this documentary initially), but otherwise there is better material to be found on the director, particularly in this set.
Still not packed, and I can do with or without the documentary, but the commentary and Scorsese intro manage to cover the film wonderfully.
For me this new presentation offers the most impressive upgrade found in the set.