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.
For the eighth dual-layer disc in their new massive box set, Essential Fellini, The Criterion Collection presents 8½ in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Criterion previously released the film on Blu-ray in its own individual edition, using an older high-definition master. This 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation doesn't use that master and instead makes use of a new one sourced from a brand new 4K restoration, which was scanned from the 35mm original negative.
The previous Blu-ray looked pretty good at the time and still does, though its weaknesses show through a bit more now. Even though details fairly crisp and damage had been cleaned up significantly (even improving over the DVD edition that came before), there were still issues with frame jumps along with a few tram lines, and looking at it now it does have a sharpened look to it, which is probably what lends it a somewhat noisy look. This can all get a bit messier when a scene is smoky, like the sauna sequence.
This new presentation clears up a lot of those issues and the image has a far cleaner, more film-like texture to it. Grain is rendered in a far cleaner manner, looking natural throughout (less managed), and this leads to some sharper details and better rendering of the finer ones. For example, there are some tight patterns throughout the film (the walls of the hotel rooms for example) that could shimmer a bit in the old presentation but don’t do so here, making these details clearer in the process.
More restoration work has gone into the finished product as well: frame shifts, pulsing, and some bits of damage that were still present on the 2010 Blu-ray edition are now all gone, and only a few minor marks remain. Black levels were strong in the old edition and are still solid here, but I felt grayscale was rendered a little bit better here.
The improvements in the end are not significant enough where I’d recommend upgrading based on them alone (even if the title was being released individually outside of the set) but the end results are still impressive and it’s another notable bonus to be found in the set.
The film yet again includes a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. The audio is still surprisingly good, despite the film's age. Outside of a couple of moments that sound a bit distorted and edgy (I assume on purpose) Nino Rota's score sounds especially good, very lively with incredible range. Dialogue also sounds good and does have some solid fidelity behind it, but, like a few other titles in this set, there can be a detached sound because of the fact most (if not all) of the dialogue was looped over in post-production. Because of that it can still have that dubbed sound and lips occasionally don't match what is being said, but that's all inherent to the source. Outside of that the audio sounds really strong for a monaural soundtrack.
Criterion ports most of the material over from the previous Blu-ray edition:
First up is a hit or miss audio commentary by critic and Fellini friend Gideon Bachmann, and NYU professor Antonio Monda, with excerpts from an audio essay by Bachmann (if I understand correctly) read by actress Tanya Zaicon. It’s a decent scholarly track, with all participants recorded separately, but it’s bizarre set up can drag it a bit. The essay Zaicon reads from has some great insights and notes about the film, giving a great analysis of the many layers, but Zaicon’s reading really hampers it. Monda offers some more insight but I never found much of his material altogether that engaging because it also has a too “prepped” feel. Bachmann’s actual contribution may have been my favourite since it’s looser and freer and he also has more to say about Fellini himself, offering actual stories about the man. It has it’s up and downs but I recommend it, especially for newcomers to the film.
In the remaining supplements, under “Supplements” on the fly-out Blu-ray menu, you’ll first come across an introduction by Terry Gilliam, part of a short-lived series Criterion called “The Janus Films Introduction Series” that is found on a few early DVD releases. At 7-and-a-half minutes Gilliam talks about how it captures the art of making films, and even offers some insight into it and specific sequences that have influenced him (like the opening dream sequence and the Saraghina bit.) He’s very energetic as usual but cohesive and is obviously very passionate about the film and Fellini’s work in general.
[Following that] is the 52-minute documentary The Last Sequence. Its intention is to cover an alternate ending involving Guido seeing all the women from his life in the luxurious dining car of a train. It collects together various participants (or children of participants) who try to recall the sequence, though with very little success (Claudia Cardinale, for example, remembers shooting the scene but not much else about it—she doesn’t even remember if she had speaking lines in it). Anouk Aimee recalls the scene being dark with a “sense of death” and that she prefers the ending that was used (which was originally shot to be used for the film’s trailer.). It almost sounds like only one person saw the finished ending; late actress Caterina Boratto (her daughter Marina fills in for her in this documentary) who was devastated when she saw that ending wasn’t used. We hear sound recordings of trains that were intended for the sequence (which were ultimately looped and used to create the wind sound effects at the beginning) and hear recollections of the set and costumes, but unfortunately we don’t get to see the sequence, apparently long lost and destroyed by Fellini (it’s explained it was common for him to destroy things he didn’t want around.) We do get photos, though, tossed about the documentary. It’s a decent doc but it’s presentation can be kind of labourous. It doesn’t completely focus on the ending, gathering audio interviews from Fellini, who talks about like, film, and women, and then Mastroianni, who talks about working with Fellini. The documentary can seem a tad unfocussed at times because of these intercuts, and they play over still images that flash by too quickly. I did like it, though, and found it rather fascinating.
The remaining features have all been ported over from the DVD edition.
Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert is a 47-minute documentary on the life and career of Rota, gathering interviews with those that knew him. It looks at his career in music and film, and focuses on select scores, including ones for The Godfather, The Leopard, and, of course, 8 ½ and Fellini’s other films. Other than ones presented from 8 ½ all film clips are replaced by stills (even for The Leopard despite Criterion having released that film, showing they didn’t come back to correct this.) Certainly worth watching, and filled with some great excerpts from Rota’s music.
Criterion then includes a few interviews. First is a great, rather personal interview with Sandra Milo, who of course not only worked on a couple of Fellini’s films by was also his mistress. She’s quite forthcoming and honest, talking about her personal and working relationship with him, not really holding back. She recalls everything fondly and is quite a lively charmer throughout the interview.
The next interview is with filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, who worked on the set of 8 ½. She recalls the chaos of the experience (Fellini was obviously unsure of what kind of film he was making) and Fellini’s effect on others, further pushing their creativity. Compared to the Milo interview it’s a little dryer (Wertmüller is nowhere near as bubbly of course) but it’s a nice insightful one.
A little different is the interview with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who talks about the lighting and photography in the film, despite having nothing to do with the film. He talks about the look of the film and black and white photography in general, concentrates heavily on the lighting and of course praises cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo, creating yet another insightful addition to the supplements.
The supplements then conclude with a 3-minute American theatrical trailer and two still galleries: One featuring a small selection of photos by Gideon Bachmann, and another lengthier one featuring general production photos (with a good number of interesting notes).
What doesn’t get carried over directly to this disc is the 51-minute documentary Fellini: A Director’s Notebook, made by the director in 1969 for NBC. Thankfully it’s not missing from the set and can instead be found on the disc for Juliet of the Spirits. Outside of that one “missing” feature the supplements still provide a wonderful overview of the film, particularly The Last Sequence.
The new restoration provides a noticeable, if not significant, upgrade over Criterion’s previous Blu-ray edition.