During the 1940s and 50s, the "fumetti" - a comic strip composed of actors in dramatic photos - were very popular in Italy, frequently offering doses of exotica and melodramatic escapades with characters like the enigmatic “White Sheik.”
Based on a scenario by Michelangelo Antonio, Fellini and his writers ultimately created a fast-paced film which mimicked the comics, yet utilized sympathetic characters that modern audiences wouldn't wholly mock. As the director admitted in "Conversations with Fellini" (published in 1995), contemporary audiences and critics "demolished" the film, citing the screening at the Venice Film Festival as "a disaster. I got such a drubbing that I lost the will to go on." The critics apparently loathed Fellini's pokes at the institution of marriage, disliked Alberto Sordi, and in spite of strong praise and support from a select few reviewers, "The film was destroyed, strangled at birth."
In the series of interviews with the surviving stars - Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo played the couple awaiting formal nuptials from the Pope himself - and Moraldo Rossi - one of Fellini's assistant director during the 1950s, and author of a biography on his mentor - Criterion has assembled a nice portrait of the director prepping and making his first solo venture, and the repercussions that ensued after the critics had wiped their poisonous pens clean.
Divided into several segments, the interviews flow from early casting through production, and each actor offers some personal recollections regarding their initial meetings with the director (and a large bird). The late Trieste (who passed away shortly after the November 2002 interviews) is the most amusing, particularly since he never dreamed of becoming a comedic actor. Fellini's directions included exaggerating the actor's facial features, and though Trieste thought the director quite mad, the payoffs are hysterical: wide-eyed with raised eyebrows and episodes of facial catatonia, the approach simultaneously conveys hilarity for the cartoonish imagery, yet the lengthy close-ups reveal the character's wounded pride, as he whimpers over the disappearance of his bride.
Bovo's performance is similarly engaging, and it's rather sad to hear the actress describe her eventual retirement from film, when her starring role failed to ignite a prolific career. Hardly bitter, there's a definite regret, though, as the memories of Fellini no doubt recall a lingering affection for the filmmaking process.
Moraldo places each actor's comments in context to the director's style, personality, and career, and together the three interviews cover acting for Fellini, shooting key scenes - the first seaside filming, and the couple's non-verbal reunion - and the few critics who supported the film.
The attractive booklet includes excerpts by Fellini from "I, Fellini," which gives a delightful history of the film's origins with Antonioni; the casting of Sordi (who was the voice for Oliver Hardy in the Italian-dubbed Laurel & Hardy films); and composer Nino Rota, who began his 27-year association with Fellini via "The White Sheik." Also printed is a brief critical essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, though you might want to read it after seeing the film - there's a few spoilers, and the less you know about the film's twists, the greater the impact on your funny bone.
As with Criterion's transfers, a clean print was found, and though some awkward edits signal possible trimming before general release - Bovo cites the film received some cuts to lessen the controversial impact - it's a crisp transfer, with Rota's jaunty music perfectly underscoring the film's frenetic pace.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan