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The Criterion Collection presents
"I really have nothing to say... but I want to say it all the same."
DVD ReviewWriting about Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 is a frustrating but oddly attractive challenge. Its surreal, dreamlike, yet naturalistic quality must be seen to be appreciated, and it's nearly impossible to communicate the strange joy engendered by its most memorable sequences using mere words. Its symbolism, its visual poetry and its autobiographical grounding in Fellini's own life have inspired many well-considered analyses in the years since its release, and I doubt I have anything new to add to the discussion. If you've seen the film, feel free to skip to the DVD-specific material below. If you haven't, let me try to tempt you into the folds of the initiated, thusly...
Marcello Mastroianni stars as Guido Anselmi, a film director who cannot decide what to do about his next project. Multi-million lire sets are under construction, his production crew is moving full speed ahead, and Anselmi himself is confused, bewildered and up against artistic and personal barriers he seems powerless to overcome. His relationship with his spoiled, immature mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) assuages his lust but increases his irritation; his muse Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) is too distant to be of help, and both relationships prevent his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) from giving him the stability he craves. As Anselmi struggles with "director's block" and the abundant, conflicting opinions of his colleagues, he seeks refuge in his past and in his dreams, though even here he does not find what he is looking for. Caught in a traffic jam, he imagines himself flying free, floating above the tangled highway, until he is brought back to earth by his producer (Guido Alberti) and screenwriter (Jean Rougeul). Another fantasy casts him as the master of a house where all the women of his past and present life obey his command—until they turn on him, castigating him for his infantilism and carnal greed. Vivid flashbacks to Anselmi's childhood illustrate his formative influences—the witch-whore Saraghina (Eddra Gale) does an obscene rhumba on the beach, and his sister urges him to stay up all night so he can recite the magic words should an ancestral painting move its eyes. But he does not find the solution to his present problems in these daydreams and memories, only clues to the breakthrough gestating in his psyche.
8 1/2 speaks to the adult in all of us by appealing to the child. There's a heady, subversive pleasure in Fellini's most creative and outrageous moments—the director puts our archetypal daydreams on film, and allows us to share in the workings of his vivid imagination. Fellini's moving camera, striking compositions and inventive imagery give us license to indulge ourselves. Nino Rota's score borrows heavily from classical selections and other standards, using familiar music to manipulate our emotions (sometimes to ironic effect, as when Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries accompanies a slow moving line of senior citizens at a mineral spring). Magic and Catholic religion, fakirs and cardinals alike blend and blur in Anselmi's experience, and we find ourselves investing a similarly unquestioning faith in Fellini's storytelling.
And yet... and yet, there's an intellectual/emotional accessibility to Fellini's work here that's not evident in some of his other films. Anselmi may be a thinly-veiled stand-in for Fellini himself, but the specific quality of the director's difficulties makes his experience universal—anyone who has undergone a "life change" of any sort will identify with the character. He is put upon and trusted by people who are more sure of him than he is of himself; he struggles to understand his relationships with the opposite sex, criticizing his own behavior even as he enjoys what he suspects he should not. And the film's joyfully surreal conclusion leaves us optimistic and heartened in a deeply personal way. We are glad for Anselmi's resolution, of course, but moreover we feel that, whatever our difficulties, we too can find the way back to ourselves. 8 1/2 is a rare triumph of style and substance—we can revel in its visceral pleasures, then dissect our reactions in excruciating detail over coffee afterwards. It is this emotional and intellectual richness and universality that has allowed 8 1/2 to stand the test of time so far, and will likely allow it to do so for many years to come.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The Criterion Collection presents 8 1/2 in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio, with a sharp anamorphic transfer drawn from a digital restoration. The black & white DVD image quality is outstanding, a huge improvement over the 16mm film class prints many viewers have had to endure in recent decades. Black level, shadow detail and general contrast are impressive, and the crisp digital transfer brings out details of fabric, hair and design long unseen in this highly visual production. This transfer is a revelation to my jaded reviewer's eyes—excellent work, and a good sign of things to come from Criterion (whose quality reputation has suffered recently due to a spate of nonanamorphic releases).
Image Transfer Grade: A+
Audio Transfer Review: Criterion presents 8 1/2 in its original monaural audio format, encoded in Dolby Digital 2.0 for ProLogic decoding to the center channel. Many scenes were shot M.O.S. and looped in post-production, so lip-synch is sometimes approximate, and dialogue exhibits the "studio" quality common to Italian movies. The limitations of 1963 recording technology are also evidenced by mild clipping, limited dynamic range, and an occasional pop or crackle. But the digital transfer presents Nino Rota's eclectic score and Fellini's rich sound design as accurately as the analog master permits, and fans of the film will find no reason to complain in this department.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film critic and Fellini friend Gideon Bachmann (read by actress Tanya Zaicon) and New York University professor of film Antonio Monda
Layers Switch: 01h:06m:50s
A seven-minute Introduction by Terry Gilliam features the contemporary director (and Monty Python veteran) discussing the significance of 8 1/2 and its considerable influence on his own work. Both of these highly visual directors began their careers as cartoonists, and Gilliam is exactly the right person to introduce Fellini's masterpiece—his comments are intelligent, entertaining, and enthusiastic. A great idea, well executed.
The film's theatrical trailer is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen format, though the anamorphic presentation appears to have been upconverted from an older letterboxed transfer—it has a very soft look, plagued by unusual interlacing artifacts in addition to source print scratches and other damage. It's still an interesting piece of marketing history, focusing on positive critical blurbs even as it plays up the most surreal elements of the movie, making 8 1/2 look rather more bizarre than it actually is.
A running commentary (audio essay) assembles screen-specific comments written by film critic (and friend of Fellini) Gideon Bachmann, with additional remarks by New York University film professor Antonio Monda. Bachmann's text is read by actress Tanya Zaicon, and while the material is informative, her delivery is rather flat and dry. Monda's comments are more lively and natural, but the Bachmann/Zaicon elements make this track a bit of a chore to get through. It's still a valuable supplement to the feature presentation, but not as entertaining or listenable as the best commentary tracks I've heard.
Disc Two contains two substantial documentaries. Fellini—A Director's Notebook is a true gem, a 1969 "documentary" directed by Fellini himself, providing stylized insights into the great director's working methods. Amusing, oddly poignant screen tests (featuring several of Fellini's famous "grotesques"), unfinished sets for his aborted Mastorna project, a simulated silent film scene, and a sequence in which the production crew warps back to Roman times make the director's hand evident. This is not so much a documentary as a meditation on work and work unfinished, with surreal elements and staged sequences that add levels of complexity and meaning to the "Fellini on Fellini" concept. The 51-minute film was made for television using 16mm film, and the 1.33:1 full-frame presentation suffers from faded color, hissy audio, murky imagery, excessive edge enhancement and some damage here and there; also, much of the spoken Italian goes unsubtitled, with narration summarizing the participants' comments. Still, it's a valuable, little-seen Fellini work that provides significant insight into 8 1/2 and prefigures his Satyricon and Roma. Fascinating stuff—there's even a deleted sequence from Nights of Cabiria.
A second documentary, Nino Rota—Between Cinema and Concert, was produced for German television in 1993, presented here with English subtitles. This 48-minute piece examines the life and work of the composer who provided music for most of Fellini's films and many other movies, including Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. The filmmakers adopt an In Search Of... approach for this examination of the "Prince of Film Music," a classical composer, teacher, child prodigy and prolific film scorer who kept himself largely out of the public eye. Interviews with people who knew him and/or studied under him, archival film and audio materials, and a bit of deduction are employed to trace the development of Rota's eclectic, influential, disarmingly transparent style. The full-frame videotape master suffers from some glitches and wobbles, though the sound quality is passable, and it's an interesting, solid documentary.
Criterion has also assembled an hour's worth of substantial new interviews. Actress Sandra Milo, who played Anselmi's mistress Carla in 8 1/2, discusses the making of the film as well as her 17-year, personal relationship with Federico Fellini as his mistress. Her anecdotes and memories are entertaining and quite moving—Milo has an innocent quality, even in her maturity, that allows her feelings to reach the surface without artifice or embarrassment, and her erstwhile love for the man (as well as the artist) is palpable. Director Lina Wertmuller, who worked as an assistant on 8 1/2, discusses Fellini's working style, his internal approach and his psychology as evidenced by his work; his influence on Wertmuller's own work is evidenced by stills from her movies. Finally, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro discusses the technology and artistry of filmmaking, focusing on the contribution of cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo to Fellini's unique visual style.
Two stills collections provide some worthwhile visual material on the making of 8 1/2. A collection of "rare, never-before-seen" photographs by Gideon Bachmann provides a few candid glimpses of the process behind the scenes. An extensive stills gallery (photographed by Paul Ronald and Tazio Secchiaroli) features publicity stills, frame blow-ups, on-set shots and a number of images from the film's original ending (now, unfortunately, lost to the ages). Both galleries include historical notes on many of the images, which are a great help in understanding their significance.
The keepcase also contains a 22-page booklet, which includes a DVD chapter list, a cast list, film and DVD production credits, 5 pages of material from Fellini himself on the creative genesis of the film, notes on the Criterion transfer, and two more 3-page essays by Fellini scholars Tullio Kezich and Alexander Sesonske. It's a small but readable package that compliments the on-disc supplements nicely.
Extras Grade: A
Final Comments8 1/2 remains Fellini's masterpiece, a seemingly effortless combination of substance and surrealism that grows more meaningful with every viewing. The DVD delivers an excellent transfer and substantial supplements in the long standing Criterion tradition. Highly recommended.
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