Juliet of the Spirits
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.
The ninth disc in Criterion’s box set Essential Fellini presents Julie of the Spirits on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
The presentation here has a significantly different look in comparison to the old Criterion DVD, though I’d say for the better. Admittedly the film’s colours—which do lean warmer—can come off pale, but do come off more vibrant during the fantastical sequences, with sharp looking reds, oranges, and violets. Black levels are a bit iffy throughout: they look inky most of the time but shadow details seem to get lost at times, and the darker sequences can come off a little murky.
This is all a significant improvement over the DVD, though, which has a much heavier yellow tint (skin tones look horribly jaundiced) and crushed blacks. I’m not sure which colour scheme is correct, though I’m going to go with the new Blu-ray’s being closer to correct (at least) because, well, the DVD looks awful.
The encode is nice, looking stable. Some darker scenes look a bit noisy, and detail isn’t as sharp as I guess I would expect, but the image has a nice texture to it, and film grain is rendered well.
The restoration work has been more thorough, cleaning out more of the damage that remained on the DVD, and only a few minor blemishes remain now. What is odd, though, is that the film on this disc runs about 7-or-so-minutes longer than the film on the DVD, despite both restorations being sourced from the negative. I tried to do a comparison, but I’ll be damned if I could spot any significant difference between the two versions.
At any rate, it looks good, much better than the DVD’s old presentation, continuing on this set’s streak of solid presentations.
The film is accompanied by the film’s original Italian monaural soundtrack, presented here in lossless PCM. It sounds (and mostly looks) like everything was dubbed post-production, and there can be a hollowness to the dialogue because of that. But the sound is sharp with decent range, and Nino Rota’s music packs a nice punch.
Criterion ports over both on-disc features from their previous DVD edition: the film’s trailer along with a 1966 interview with Fellini conducted by Ian Dallas for the BBC program New Release in an episode entitled Familiar Spirits. The 21-minute program features Fellini talking about the freedom that La dolce vita’s success has afforded him before talking about the planning that goes into his films, from the atmosphere that will be created to the “faces” that he casts (whether they be professionals or not). He also talks about how he has to look at things a little differently for his first colour film (Juliet of the Spirits) and amusingly recalls his disappointment in his first (only?) LSD experience. Sandra Milo and Guido Alberti (who played the producer in 8½) also show up. Fellini is very open and engaging here, making this one of the better, least cryptic interviews with the filmmaker and it’s well worth watching.
The rest of the material is mostly new, but the biggest addition is the inclusion of Fellini’s 43-minute contribution to the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, Toby Dammit. By far the best segment found in that film (the other segments were directed by Roger Vadim and Louis Malle), Toby Dammit is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” and features Terence Stamp starring as an English actor experiencing a bit of a slump (thanks to his heavy drinking), arriving in Rome to work on what sounds to be a “spaghetti western,” with part of his payment for taking the role being a new Ferrari. Upon first arriving he immediately begins seeing visions (largely a child in white) that only get worse after a television interview that goes off the rails followed by a lot of drinking at an awards ceremony.
The film has all of the visuals and touches you’d expect from Fellini, from the bizarre faces (including Stamp all done-up in pale, white make-up) to fantastical set pieces (the awards show), overbearing media (the interview segment is incredibly surreal on its own), quick close-ups, and an intense use of colour (red is used heavily), but it’s not to create one of the director's usual flights of fancy, but rather a living nightmare. The end result is a rather unnerving little film coated thick in atmosphere and bizarre imagery, further buoyed by Stamp’s rather wild performance and a brilliant last act. I still think it’s one of the best things Fellini did and it single-handedly saved the otherwise mediocre omnibus film it was made for.
Criterion only includes the international soundtrack (in Dolby Digital mono), which is a mix of English and Italian, but it does sound good. The short has also received a new 4K restoration and when compared to Arrow’s UK Blu-ray release for Spirits of the Dead the segment does look sharper and cleaner, with better colours and blacks. Unfortunately, the film has been lousily encoded and it’s laced with all sorts of artifacts, especially macro-blocking and banding, which is clear as day during the darker final act of the film. It’s easier to overlook during the brighter sections, but there’s no getting around that it’s a noisy looking presentation that upends any of the restorations improvements. I'm thrilled this is here but it's a shame that more wasn't put into delivering it in the best possible manner.
Also appearing here is the 51-minute Fellini: A Director’s Notbook, directed by Fellini for NBC television in 1969. In it he reflects on his work (finished, unfinished, upcoming), the nature of filmmaking, what he feels film is, what influences his work, and talks about the people that interest him, all mixed with footage of the director working. The feature is then accompanied by a text feature, Fellini’s Letter to NBC producer Peter Goldfarb covering what he wanted the program to be about.
This program had been included on Criterion’s previous DVD and Blu-ray editions for 8½ and in both cases the presentations were lackluster due to the condition of the materials, despite a newer restoration being used for the Blu-ray edition. It looks as though another restoration has been done for this one but things are still pretty rough: it looks as though the colours have deteriorated a great deal and contrast is way off, making it hard to see the picture a lot of the time.
Finally, the disc finishes off with an episode from the program Reporter’s Diary entitled Zoom on Fellini. Running 33-minutes, it was shot on location during the filming of Juliet of the Spirits, and it features behind-the-scenes footage around a handful of sequences and shows the director working on planning around make-up, costumes, and more.
Altogether, a far more satisfying collection of bonus material compared to the DVD, the inclusion of Toby Dammit being an especially excellent addition.
In comparison to Criterion's original DVD the Blu-ray delivers a far sharper presentation and some great material showing Fellini at work.