Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Variety Lights: Criterion Collection (1950)
Studio Line: Criterion

A beautiful ingenue joins a tawdry music hall troupe and quickly becomes its feature attraction in Fellini's stunning debut film (directed in collaboration with neorealist filmmaker Alberto Lattuada). Featuring Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife and frequent leading lady, Variety Lights introduces the director's affection for the carnivalesque characters that frequent the cinematic landscape of such classics as Nights of Cabiria, La Strada, and La Dolce Vita. Criterion is proud to present Variety Lights in a beautiful digital transfer.

Director: Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada
Cast: Peppino De Filippo, Carla Del Poggio, Giulietta Masina, Folco Lulli, John Kitzmiller, Dante Maggio, Carlo Romano, Gina Mascetti
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio Italian Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - single layered; 22 chapters; rated NR; 97 min.; $29.98; street date 8/22/00.
Supplements: Essay Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | Fellini on Fellini - Book | The Cinema of Federico Fellini - Peter E. Bondanella

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C-/D-

Like many other foreign filmmakers of the era, Federico Fellini is one of those directors of whom I'm very aware but of whose works I remain almost totally ignorant. While I'm open to the possibility of screening some of their titles, I must admit the prospect doesn't excite me, although I've enjoyed the few Bergman films I watched.

In regard to Fellini, I had a vague notion of his broad and eccentric style but wasn't well aware of how specifically he executed his material. Due to the luck of the draw, it turned out that my education would begin with his first film, 1950's Variety Lights, which he co-directed with Alberto Lattuada.

From the little I know of Fellini, I get the impression that VL isn't very typical of his later work, and if I ever attempt to watch another one of his movies, I hope that's true, for this is a very unimpressive piece. As with another film from 1950 - the Oscar-winning All About Eve - VL tells a tale of Liliana (Carla Del Poggio), a young woman who seeks to be a star. She hooks onto a fairly unsuccessful vaudeville troupe and quickly becomes the main attraction through her talent and some not-so-subtle maneuvering. Of course, she gets too big for her britches, and leaves those who helped her in the lurch, especially Checco (Peppino De Filippo), a would-be impresario who ditches his faithful and supportive lover Melina (Giuletta Masina) to become a big-shot and also to score with Liliana.

While the story has potential for development, I thought it meandered and displayed an erratic and weak pace. Events jumped about too quickly and much of the growth made little sense. It frequently felt unclear who was going where and doing what to whom, though I suppose the fact I didn't really care may have affected my judgment; since I felt so little interest in the activities depicted, I felt less involved in the story.

The characters seemed thin and uncompelling. There's no depth to them, and they don't appear to learn anything from what they do. By the end of the movie, all looks back to normal, but we quickly learn that things don't really change. That may be a realistic - though cynical - point of view in many ways, but it didn't make the tale very stimulating.

I felt the different participants lacked even any modest charm. The film is populated with a slew of ostensibly charming and engaging personalities, but not a single one made an impression on me. They all felt flat and contrived, and none of the actors add any spice or spark to the parts.

Frankly, Variety Lights felt almost-completely pointless to me. It wasn't entertaining, and it offered no great "truth" or insights to provoke my interest. I thought it was nothing more than a dull tale of some bland characters and I was happy when it ended.

The DVD:

Variety Lights appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the film looks pretty good at times, it definitely shows its age through a variety of flaws.

Sharpness seems consistently very strong, with almost all of the movie appearing crisp and well-delineated; slight haziness interferes with a few shots, but it's infrequent. Unfortunately, the sharpness is accompanied by an awful lot of moiré effects; I saw much more shimmering than usual, and I also witnessed quite a few jagged edges as well.

Print flaws cause frequent concerns. Speckling is quite heavy at times; though some scenes present almost none of these white spots, most of the film shows evidence of them. The other dominant defect is a thin vertical line the runs down the center of the screen during most of the movie. Less frequent are scratches and some significant tears. Grain seems light, at least, and other flaws are not much of a concern. The level of defects isn't out of line for such an old movie, but it seems pretty heavy nonetheless and was the most substantial reason for my relatively low grade.

Black levels generally look quite good, with some strong contrast and dark tones. Sometimes I thought blacks seemed a little too heavy, as nuances could be lost in clothing, but they usually appeared rich. Shadow detail also was good, with few concerns related to excessive heaviness in the low-light scenes. Ultimately, Variety Lights presents a watchable but erratic image.

The film's monaural audio is more consistent but it lacks the "peaks" shown by aspects of the picture; instead, it earns a "C-" due to generally mediocre sound. Dialogue appears rather tinny and harsh, with decided sibilance at times and an edgy tone to it. (I can't judge the intelligibility since I don't speak Italian.) Music seems relatively crisp but also shows some excessive treble to it, while effects come across as thin and brittle. A light layer of background noise appears during the film, and I also detected a buzzing sound at times. For the era, the soundtrack is within the range of acceptability, but it seems pretty weak nonetheless.

One odd aspect of the film: during chapter seven when Liliana becomes the featured attraction and sings, there's some terribly out of synch audio. Although I don't understand the language, it was clear that her mouth didn't replicate the words. Nothing else in the picture seemed mis-timed, so I don't know what the deal was with this bit. I thought perhaps someone off-stage was supposed to sing for her, and this was to show her inability to mime along, but I could find no evidence of that theory. As such, I can't explain the bizarre lip-synch problem, but I thought I'd mention it.

In the supplements department we find almost nothing. The disc itself contains no extras and all we get is a fairly informative essay from film critic Andrew Sarris in the DVD's booklet. An audio commentary from Sarris or another film historian would have been very welcome, especially for someone like me who knows so little about Fellini.

Unfortunately, Variety Lights doesn't spur me to want to learn more about his work. I thought it was a tedious and flat affair that never entertained or enlightened me; it's a dud. The DVD presents fairly mediocre picture and sound plus almost no extras. Leave this one for the obsessive film students.

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