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.
Disc five in Criterion’s latest box set, Essential Fellini, presents Il bidone on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a new 4K restoration of the full 113-minute version of the film that was shown at the original premiere. The 35mm original negative was the primary basis for the restoration, with a 35mm fine-grain master positive filling in where need be, usually for the sequences cut after the original premiere.
Though it hasn’t received much love on home video in the past (the only notable English-friendly editions I’m aware of are a North American Image Entertainment DVD and a UK Masters of Cinema dual-format edition, neither of which I’ve seen), but that is all remedied here with this new presentation that ends up being an incredible knock-out in the end. The level of detail is just staggering at times, where you can make out just about every individual blade of grass in a field during the film’s early scenes and every individual pebble during the film’s closing shots. Long shots look so sharp and crisp, the patterns and textures on walls and clothing just popping off the screen. Film grain is rendered solidly enough (occasionally there’s some minor noise) and the final image looks very much like a projected film. The grays look absolutely incredible as well, rendering and blending smoothly, further lending to that photographic look, and black levels are deep and inky without crushing out detail. Whites can be bright, but they never bloom.
The restoration work comes off exceptional as well, with only a few minor marks remaining, all of which are barely noticeable. There are a couple of occasions where the general quality can drop a little bit, details not looking as clear with contrast boosting a bit, and this is probably a side effect of the alternate source—the fine-grain master positive—coming into play. The digital presentation is pretty solid most of the time but there are moments where some very fine patterns or details, like cross-hatching on a jacket, have a slight shimmer. Outside of that the digital presentation is otherwise solid, and the presentation is a pleasant surprise.
Criterion delivers the film’s monaural soundtrack with a single-channel, lossless PCM presentation. There’s a bit of an edge to the music and dialogue at times but the soundtrack is clean outside of that. There can be some background noise (as expected) but it rarely sticks out and there are no serious issues. Fidelity isn’t too shabby in the end as well.
Il bidone was dismissed upon its initial release, Fellini even cutting around 23-minutes or so out of the film after its premiere in the hopes that it would help its box office.
[Narrator Voice]: It didn’t.
Amazingly, even now, it’s not hard to see why it didn’t go over well with just about everyone in the audience: the central characters are incredibly unpleasant, conning those least able to afford it, and then the film’s presentation of the more-in-destitute is not all that flattering itself, leading to the film being incredibly cruel. Over the years since, the film has (deservedly) received a bit of a reevaluation and the newly recorded audio commentary by scholar Frank Burke gets into all of this to a fair degree, explaining exactly what upset audiences and critics based on writings of the time (a couple, including André Bazin, had more positive things to say) and offering his own defenses and thoughts. He also talks about the background of the film, Fellini inspired by con artists he had met. Interestingly the director was eventually turned off by the project once he saw how awful these people were (a sign how people would react to the film), but seeing actor Broderick Crawford on a poster made him think how perfect he would be in the role of Augusto, and that pushed him to make the film anyways. Burke also takes time to look at Fellini’s compositions, the editing of a number of sequences (including a breakdown of the finale) and go into how some of his flourishes make it into the film that can otherwise be considered neorealist. Burke manages to pack in a lot and he talks throughout most of the track (he goes silent for about a minute late in the film), rarely just reiterating what we can see on screen, unless he’s talking about how a sequence has been assembled. Unfortunately, his delivery is a bit dry, as though he’s reading from a script, but I enjoyed the content and it was a nice surprise to get some new material made exclusively for this release.
Sadly, the disc only has one other feature: a discussion between assistant director Dominque Delouche and professor Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, recorded for the 2013 Masters of Cinema edition and running around 39-minutes. Though the focus is primarily on Il bidone the two do discuss a number of topics around Fellini, from how he guarded his projects to the frustration of many (he brings up Donald Sutherland in particular) to his desire to break completely from neorealism, which he took in steps with each film before La dolce vita, where he broke completely free. Around the topic of Il bidone itself, Delouche talks about the inspiration for the film, specifically the character of Augusto, and the production problems Fellini ran into, including the mad rush to edit the film in time for film festivals after the film went over-schedule. He also talks about how Fellini worked, which conflicted with everything he had learned in relation to filmmaking before.
The lengthy and insightful interview pairs nicely with the commentary, and the two do manage to cover the film to a fairly satisfying degree, though something more specific around the shorter version of the film would have been a welcome addition.
Another stunner of a presentation in the set, with a couple of engaging features (including a new commentary) that work to reassess the film as an underappreciated gem in Fellini’s filmography.