For Criterion Consideration: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

Instead of doing my usual Journey Through the Eclipse Series thing this week, I’m borrowing an idea that James McCormick came up with last year for this site and has expanded on from time to time: take a movie that fits well into the famous definition of “important classic and contemporary films, ” the Criterion Collection’s benchmark for the past couple decades or so, and make the case that the good folks at Criterion ought to do whatever’s necessary to give it a spine number of its own. So far, James has focused on films that fall a bit further off the beaten path to the nearest art house (or critics’ Top 100 Movies of All Time lists) than the title I’m suggesting, but go ahead, call me Captain Obvious. I think the time is ripe, nay, it’s well overdue, for La Dolce Vita to get the home video upgrade it so easily deserves.

My attention was drawn to this classic on account of my recent study of that other huge Italian cinematic game changer of 1960, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, which I blogged about on my Criterion Reflections site a few days ago. Reviewers mention the two films in tandem with each other so frequently that it only made sense to watch them in close proximity. Both deal with similar subject matter – the aimless decadence and amoral drift that had taken root in the Italian upper class at the end of the 1950s, and they each bear the distinctive traits that established their directors’ massive reputations in cineaste circles for years to come.

L’avventura‘s cool, quietly contemplative long takes contrast nicely with the ebullient flow of music, glamor and outsized emotions that fill the world of La Dolce Vita. Both are loaded with exquisitely beautiful images – landscapes, architecture, people – though Fellini’s fascination with the vulgar and grotesque side of life broadens the aesthetic palette wider than Antonioni cares to go. And the uses of music in their respective soundtracks also make for interesting comparisons, with L’avventura punctuating its mostly diagetic soundtrack and lack of instrumental accompaniment with strangely effective but sparse interludes by Giovanni Fusco and La Dolce Vita featuring a classically charming Nino Rota score along with abundant use of familiar pop standards like “Stormy Weather,” Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and vintage rock’n’roll,  Italian style, like this  version of Buddy Holly’s “Ready Teddy.”

As fascinated  as I was digging into both of these films, exploring the qualities that made them so controversial upon their debut and so lastingly popular influential afterward, my purpose here isn’t to draw out their side-by-side similarities or differences. I’m motivated by one simple desire: to see this great film get the Criterion treatment and supplant the mediocre DVD package put out by Koch Lorber in 2004. That two-disc set once retailed for the same price as your standard Criterion upper tier item (around $40), but can now be found for around $15 without too much effort. Maybe for its time it was a good deal, but that time is long past. We can do better.

So here are my bullet points regarding the improvements to be made, in no particular order other than as they come to mind…

First, it’s unconscionable that such a major work of Federico Fellini should be missing from the Criterion line-up. Imagine them releasing Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai but not Rashomon, or Bergman’s The Seventh Seal but not Wild Strawberries. That’s pretty much the situation we have here, with 8 1/2 being one of Criterion’s best-selling titles but its logical companion piece floundering out there in the void. I know that Criterion is not in any way an official “canon” of all the best films, and that distribution rights probably present a major obstacle here, but Fellini is a pillar of the Collection and La Dolce Vita‘s stature in his filmography is indisputable.

Though Koch Lorber’s transfer still holds up comparably well to other quality-crafted DVDs of that era, anyone who’s seen La Dolce Vita knows that its widescreen presentation would benefit enormously from a Blu-ray upgrade, and Criterion’s overhaul of the aforementioned 8 1/2 offers ample proof of their mastery. Really, the audio-video quality of the current edition is not all that bad. It’s  the one saving grace that makes the disc worth owning, at least for now.

But after that, the package falters badly in just about every other area, starting with the cover. Blech. A simple still image, cropped  and pasted atop a black and white background – just plain dull, blocky and unimaginative. Too much text, in a very boring font, and sorry, Roger Ebert, but I really don’t care to read any critic’s quotes on the artwork. A film with as much sumptuous imagery as La Dolce Vita can surely inspire something much more evocative and visually striking than this mess.

Likewise, the 8-page booklet with a few brief essays, while offering some helpful background details, falls far short of the lyric depth and expansive ruminations that Criterion’s editorial department would doubtlessly compile from a few noted Fellini aficionados and maybe even some original source materials, like early reviews or samples of the harsh reactions that La Dolce Vita provoked in its initial release.

The audio commentary, by veteran critic Richard Schickel, suffers from a rather flat-footed delivery. He’s no stranger to doing these things, and I have to respect his long tenure (over four decades) at Time magazine and elsewhere. But  in this job at least he seems to be speaking off the top of his head about a film he knows well and decided to sit down to chat about one day while the tape was rolling. Listen to any five-minute segment of his track and put it up against any five-minute segment of Gene Youngblood’s excellent analysis of L’avventura to see how Schickel’s dawdling observations, where he’s often just re-iterating what is plainly visible on screen, could easily be supplanted for something more definitive and compelling.

The yellow subtitles have to go. End of discussion on that topic.

The supplemental video features are a decidedly mixed bag. The most valuable are a pair having to do with Fellini’s studio, Cinecitta, that showcases some fascinating memorabilia, and a short segment of interviews from the 80s and 90s of La Dolce Vita‘s stars, Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni. An intriguing but ultimately kind of sad and badly displaced compilation of short video clips that Fellini shot around 1985 (outtakes from his late film Ginger and Fred) is tossed into the mix, mainly for the purpose of padding out a second disc, so it seems. We get a smattering of movie stills that are annoyingly presented in low resolution and surrounded by gaudy frames that take up most of the screen. Finally, clunky text-heavy biographies and filmographies that maybe once made sense on DVDs but are much better suited for looking up on Wikipedia or IMDb if one really needs to know that information. Even if it means an overall reduction in the amount of bonus materials on the disc, I’d  rather only  have  footage that pertains to the main film than just a bunch of random Fellini stuff of mediocre quality or worse slapped together to inflate the package. (And the less said about the Koch Lorber promo trailers – terribly interlaced, sappy voice-overs and all – the better…)

So much for the deficiencies of the best currently available edition of this monumental film. La Dolce Vita is one of those much-hyped major statements from a great director that lives up to its reputation and rewards multiple viewings that deepen our familiarity with its characters and the wide panorama of life it encompasses. The roots of today’s celebrity-frenzied media culture are exposed in an early stage of development, a fascinating specimen of social archaeology for future generations (including our own) to study. Fellini’s deft balance of provocative satire that spares neither the priest nor the prostitute, the elites nor the common folk,  and his affirming embrace of human frailty, is managed to perfection throughout. Widely celebrated for its striking visual moments (like the flying Jesus statue that opens the film, Sylvia’s midnight stroll into the Trevi Fountain and Marcello’s saddling up on the “beautiful chubby mountain farm girl” come to Rome  to try her luck,) La Dolce Vita is equally worthy of respect for its depth of insight as it dissects the extent to which we are driven to fulfill our desires, and how elusive that lasting satisfaction remains after we find what we thought we were looking for. It’s a tremendous achievement, and undeniably worthy of a spot on the Criterion Collection’s shelf. I have little doubt that they’d snap up the rights in an instant if they have the chance. But here’s hoping that my little endorsement might somehow tip the scale in their favor.

Postscript: After I finished writing the article, I did a little research just to make sure that no other Blu-ray edition of La Dolce Vita has been issued anywhere else in the world. So far, it looks like that hasn’t happened. However, an article from last year  indicates that a company called E1 Entertainment acquired the rights to La Dolce Vita and several other important Italian films in January 2010. They also announced that 50th Anniversary special edition releases on DVD and Blu-ray, along with a theatrical run of the film, were due by the end of that year. Clearly, as we’re now in the final quarter of 2011 with no imminent release in sight, their plans failed to materialize. While it’s a bit discouraging to see another entity besides Janus Films/Criterion get the rights to the movie, the fact that E1 dropped the ball and didn’t get the promised products out in time for the 50th anniversary may demonstrate a need to re-open the bidding and do it right this time!

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