Tag Archive for: Blu-ray

Blu-ray diary: I, Geoffrey Chaucer (Pasolini 10: The Canterbury Tales)

17 Nov
November 17, 2015

Canterbury Tales BFI Blu-ray cover imageI’m feeling a bit silly and regretful. If I had my Pasolini watch-through to do over again, I never would have let myself get knocked off course by the impenetrability of his Medea, which made me back up, read the play, and then watch the movie a second time. Based on that experience, I decided to read each of the source texts for the Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights), and then at least part of the multiple sources of Salò, before attempting the films.

Reading The Decameron was pure enjoyment but it took a long time, and although I got a start on re-reading The Canterbury Tales, which I hadn’t touched since painfully, slowly making my way through portions of the original text as an undergraduate, I fell off the wagon, and so did my Pasolini viewing project.

This week I decided to just take the plunge and watch Canterbury, Arabian Nights, and Salò, and I now realize that my fretting and delay was all for naught. The films are all, like Decameron, perfectly comprehensible without knowledge of their sources. It’s now clear to me that Medea is an outlier in the Pasolini oeuvre. Yes his films are intellectual rigorous, yes they display a supreme cinematic intelligence, but Pasolini never talks down to the viewer, and is never willfully obscure. Knowing what I know now about his films, my advice to the first-time viewer is this—with that one exception, you really don’t need to know the sources to enjoy and grasp any of his literary adaptations, so just go ahead and watch them already.

That advice goes double for The Canterbury Tales, which moves with a breezy delight that belies its rigorously-conceived underpinnings. If Pasolini’s was a painterly approach to filmmaking, then the middle film of the trilogy represents his quickest, tightest, and surest strokes.

That extends to his self-casting as Geoffrey Chaucer, on which he commented: “As an actor, I had decidedly more fun in this role than as Boccaccio’s Giotto, who’s always so worried about his work… Here I joke and mock my own human ‘inventions.'” In fact early reviews were not favourable to this portrayal, which was seen as not representative of the range of tone of the original works. But his choice to shape the character and the work to his own purpose has been largely validated by critical consensus over time.

With the whole Trilogy, and especially with this film, Pasolini was creating images of sexuality that were simultaneously daring in their explicitness, polymorphous in their content, and innocent and playful in tone. Thus it was extremely disappointing for him when the success of the films led to a whole new exploitation subgenre that was predicated on the perception of his films as being lurid and transgressive—as detailed in the excellent 36-minute documentary Pasolini and the Italian Genre Film, included with the BFI Blu-ray release of this film.

Pasolini Six Films Blu-ray box set BFI coverI’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the release, a couple of weeks ago, of the new British Film Institute box set of six Pasolini films on Blu-ray. I can recommend it without reservation even though I won’t be purchasing it myself—it simply collects the six of his films that the BFI has already released on Blu-ray disc, five of which I own already (the sixth, Salò, I have in its Criterion release, but will likely double-dip for at some point just to lay my hands on the additional special features). If you love cinema, and you don’t own these already, and you can play Region B Blu-ray discs, you need this, it’s as simple as that.

Blu-ray diary: the BFI’s tasty answer to Criterion’s Rossellini/Bergman box

29 Aug
August 29, 2015

For the 100th anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth—my 100th blog post. Thanks to all my readers and for all the positive feedback I’ve received in the past three years. I just re-upped with my hosting service so I guess you’re in for another year of this…

Rossellini & Bergman Collection (Limited Edition Numbered Blu-ray Box Set)The Roberto Rossellini/Ingrid Bergman Collection
(BFI 3x BD)

This is the second three-disc Blu-ray set of Rossellini films from the British Film Institute this year, following on their excellent War Trilogy release. Criterion was of course the first to release a box set of Roberto Rossellini’s films starring Ingrid Bergman, and that release was so brilliant that I proposed it as the best of 2013. That Criterion set is built around three features: Stromboli, Journey to Italy, and Europe ’51, whereas this new BFI box offers Stromboli, Journey to Italy, and Fear.

About Fear. My first impression was that it’s rather fascinating to see Rossellini essentially doing a Hitchcock-style film (if slightly German-expressionism-inflected) starring Ingrid Bergman. But I have to admit that my interest flagged a bit in the second half hour. I’m so attached to Rossellini’s rough-sketch approach to filmmaking that the smoother Hitchcockian feel began to make me sense something missing—until the Big Twist happens an hour in, one that is so emotionally brutal that it feels genuinely dark in a way that the more aestheticized Hitchcock rarely manages to touch. However—hopefully I’m not giving too much away—as with Journey to Italy, the closing scene turns away from that darkness in a way that will feel overly abrupt to viewers not used to Rossellini’s rhythm. My single reservation: with its German cast and aesthetic touches, I would really like to see the German cut of this film, and I imagine I would prefer it to the English. But this restoration is flawless, and the film is unique in the Rossellini oeuvre, so once again, props to the BFI for making it available.

Rossellini directed five feature films starring Bergman—the fifth, Giovanna d’Arco al rogo / Joan of Arc at the Stake, is really a filmed stage play performance and is not included on either box, and in fact was not included in the ten-film “Projetto Rossellini” restoration project that was recently undertaken by the Cineteca di Bologna. You have to concede that Criterion went the extra mile by including Europe ’51 (my personal favourite of the four Rossellini-Bergman feature films I’ve seen) in two restored versions, whereas the BFI has simply included the three films that were restored as part of the Projetto.

So, to double-dip, or not? Does the BFI’s box offer enough additional value to justify a second, overlapping purchase? Apart from Fear, here’s what it offers that the Criterion set does not:

  • The Machine That Kills Bad People (La Macchina ammazzacattivi, 1952). From Rossellini’s Bergman period, but not featuring Bergman, this is, as the box notes promise, a fascinating film. It’s a pleasing special feature for completists—the “Projetto Rossellini” restorations included eight fiction features, and with this inclusion all eight are now available in English-friendly editions—four in each of the two BFI sets.
  • Viaggio in Italia (1954). The alternative, Italian cut of Journey to Italy. Criterion’s box included the Italian cuts of Stromboli and Europe ’51, but, for some reason, not the Italian cut of Journey—though its differences with the English version are perhaps not as substantial as in the other two cases, it is a welcome addition here, and I enjoyed seeing the tighter cut with its mostly-Italian supporting cast speaking in Italian.
  • Bergman & Magnani: The War of the Volcanoes (La guerra dei vulcani, 2012). An entertaining documentary (in Italian, subtitled in English) “charting the scandal of the Magnani-Rossellini-Bergman love triangle” that cleverly tells its story partly by deploying scenes from Rossellini’s and Magnani’s films that mirror, sometimes uncomfortably so, episodes in their real-life relationships.
  • Ingrid Bergman at the National Film Theatre (1981), an interview before an audience, with a Q&A session, that doesn’t perhaps have much to add on the Rossellini years, but is entertaining for other reasons and worth a look for Ingmar Bergman fans (she is hilarious when talking about Casablanca). This was an event organized by The Guardian and hosted at what is now the BFI Southbank.
  • Adrian Martin 2007 commentary on Journey to Italy. The BFI release also brings over the Laura Mulvey commentary (2003) included in the Criterion release. Both are insightful and worth the time.

Bottom line: If you’re even half as much into Rossellini’s films as I am, you want this—an essential purchase for any serious collection.

 

Blu-ray diary: The Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection (BFI box set)

09 Jun
June 9, 2015

The Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection - BFI box set coverThe BFI’s new box set, released April 20 of this year, was a blind buy for me—I hadn’t seen any of the four Dreyer masterworks featured. I came to these films via the same route that I suppose most do: blown away by The Passion of Joan of Arc every time I see it, and wanting to see more of the Danish director’s unique vision.

Master of the House was released on Blu-ray by Criterion in March, but this set is the only high-def video presentation of the other three—Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud—so if you live in North America, here is one more great reason to invest in a multi-region player, if you haven’t already.

The latter three are 2008 restorations, and Master of the House was restored in 2010. It’s taken a while for these film to see an HD release but I’m happy that it has finally happened.

I’m now convinced that Dreyer is one of the greatest yet least showy directors of psychological cinema. He’s Buñuel without the surrealism, Bergman without the archness, Bresson without the obliqueness, Von Trier without the excess of sadism, and he’s cast a long shadow of influence for which he perhaps still doesn’t get proper credit.

If there was one specific expectation I brought to my first look, it was that Ordet might at last give me some kind of context or explanation for the WTF ending of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, which it famously inspired. I can now report that Ordet‘s ending is equally WTF-inducing, so I’m not sure that I’m any further ahead there (I learned from the booklet notes, though, that Dreyer saw his ending as explicable by non-miraculous means).

For me the most revelatory of the four films was his final opus, Gertrud, which has long been a divider not than a uniter of viewer opinions. With its long takes (the longest of any of Dreyer’s films), it has been criticized as “stagey,” which I guess is the sort of thing that people say about films that remind them of being bored at the theatre—when they don’t understand the differences between the way that stage drama scenes and film scenes are blocked out and shot. For me it’s about as perfectly directed as a film can be, and still carries incredible emotional power in its methodical way. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Godard considered it one of the two best films of 1964.

  • Master of the House (1925) — This silent film is presented here in two versions, one with Danish intertitles optionally subtitled in English, and one with English intertitles. The Criterion edition, by contrast, comes with its own newly translated English intertitles, and no Danish option.
  • Day of Wrath (1943) — This film comes with alternate opening and closing sequences in English and Danish, seamlessly branched—I recommend selecting the English option as essentially all of the film’s action remains intact while the sequences in question scan vertically through vintage-type hymn lyrics in the respective languages—subtitling is more of an annoyance than anything else.
  • Ordet (1955) — My dream Dreyer box would include a widescreen framing of this film, which was shot for Academy standard but also meticulously planned so that it would crop for widescreen presentation (which you can see for yourself by paying attention to the framing). We only get the full-image 4:3 presentation here, but, OK, that’s a nitpick. Ordet is included on the same Blu-ray disc as Day of Wrath, so I suppose that a widescreen version would have required an additional disc.
  • Gertrud (1964) — The third BD comes with, in addition to the feature, a half-hour making-of doc about Gertrud, an 8-minute interview with Dreyer, and seven of his short films.

In addition to the three BDs, there is a DVD that contains My Métier, a 1995 doc about Dreyer’s life and career, along with 80 minutes of outtakes and even a trailer for the doc. Included as well are 21 minutes of interview and other archival footage, and two audio/slide presentations totally 26 minutes. This is a surprisingly deluxe set considering its unfussy, straightforward packaging. The BFI has really been delivering with excellent box releases in 2015 and this is no exception.

 

 

Blu-ray diary: Roberto Rossellini—The War Trilogy (BFI limited-edition Blu-ray box set)

26 Apr
April 26, 2015

rossellini_the_war_trilogy_coverFilm disc collectors often talk guiltily, or regretfully, or occasionally scornfully, about “double-dipping”—buying a new Blu-ray edition of a film previously purchased on DVD or on an inferior Blu-ray. But if there was ever a case for it (as well as for owning a multi-region player), it’s this brilliant new Region “B” numbered edition of 3000 from the British Film Institute.

The restoration work for the films transferred here was performed, as one might expect, by the nonpareil Cineteca di Bologna, in 2013, and the image is a substantial upgrade, as you can see in the comparison screenshots in DVD Beaver’s review. What you can’t see is the even more remarkable improvement in sound. I did a little toggling between this edition and the Criterion DVD set from 2010, and the audio restoration is a massive step up in fidelity and clarity.

Because Rome, Open City is important not just to film history, but to history in general, and likely because it is more conventional than Paisan or Germany Year Zero in its construction, it has tended to overshadow the other two films. And yet the latter two are more representative of Rossellini’s particular genius. So the presentation on these discs perhaps levels the playing field, allowing all three films to be better appreciated as the masterpieces they are.

What makes the 2010 Criterion DVDs still worth having is the incredible forest of extras, several hours’ worth, which really help to illuminate the films and their context.

The BFI Blu-ray set brings forward perhaps the best of these—a half-hour visual essay about the entire trilogy by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher called “Into the Future.” It also has two features that the Criterion box lacks: a 2005 documentary Children of Open City in which Roma: Città Aperta lead kid actor Vito Annicchiarico, nearly six decades on from the film, goes on a surprising journey of reminiscence, and, remarkably, a freshly restored transfer of Rossellini’s Amore (1948), a two-part anthology film that showcases the incredible acting talents of the great Anna Magnani. The first part is from a play by Jean Cocteau, and the second is scripted by, and features an appearance by, Federico Fellini, complete with a remarkable blond dye-job.

While the 2010 DVD box is being target-marketed to me via Facebook for “only” $69 at amazon.ca (before tax&shipping), the new BFI box came from Amazon UK for $56 all in, thanks to the continuing relative strength of the Canadian dollar against the UK pound. (Canadian collectors note: Amazon UK is a fantastic source of Blu-ray deals, especially, but not only, if you invest in a multi-region player.)

So, the Criterion box may be the winner on extras, but if you want the most pristine presentation of these historic films, the new BFI box is a slam dunk. The time may come when Criterion releases a set that combines the best of both, but in the meantime, this is the Blu-ray release of 2015 so far.

unplanned Sergio Leone deep dive (Duck, You Sucker & Once Upon a Time in America)

27 Oct
October 27, 2014

I’m used to thinking of the category “spaghetti westerns” as a fairly inexhaustible pool of films, so I was rather surprised when it clicked with me recently that the entire Sergio Leone oeuvre is comprised of just six mature films. Long ones, to be sure, and rather more chock-a-block with filmic references than I ever knew until I found myself on a Leone bender this month.

Once Upon a Time in America - Blu-rayMy head was originally turned a few months ago by the fall 2014 release announcement for the “Extended Director’s Cut” of Once Upon A Time in America (itself not a western, of course), which thanks to funding from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, and from Gucci, runs 251 minutes, 22 minutes longer than the previous 229-minute cut. As someone who continues to be interested in film restoration in general, and the work of the Cineteca di Bologna in particular, I blind-bought the new Blu-ray edition on its September 30 release, taking the opportunity to finally watch this film and to have a first experience of it that much closer to the director’s original vision.

This summer had already seen MGM re-release The Man With No Name Trilogy, in an edition that replaces their 2011 release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with a new Cineteca di Bologna restoration. With the fresh flurry of interest in Leone the 2011 Blu-ray release of Once Upon a Time in the West could be had cheaply so I picked that up too. MGM followed up Warner’s release of America a week later (October 7) with a low-priced ($9.97 on Amazon.ca at this moment) Blu-ray disc of Duck, You Sucker, which means that all six Leone masterpieces are now available in high def.

Duck, You Sucker - Blu-ray - amazon.caAs it comes to us on this budget disc, Duck, You Sucker is sort of a hot mess. It has undeniable allure: it is Grade A Leone, it is all the more enjoyable for being rarely seen and hard to find, it is an evolutionary missing link between the two “Once Upon” films (and in fact it it was called Once Upon a Time… the Revolution in some European releases and that is probably the best title it had, certain much better than, for example, A Fistful of Dynamite). However it is a sub-par release of a damaged film. No further cleanup has been done since the 2007 DVD release, and thus the image contains plenty of visible noise and artifacts. The disc has no main menu, thus the film auto-starts on load, and has no new special features. However it carries with it the special features from the DVD release, including the excellent “Sorting out the Versions” doc, which at least makes it clear why certain transitions in the film really make little sense. The upshot is that the best that could be done with the elements at hand was done, in terms of restoring the film to its theatrical cut. But even the theatrical cut didn’t completely make sense, so in order to create a fully-realized artistically-integral cut of the film it seems unavoidable that someone would have to do what the Film Foundation just did with America and find additional elements and bring them back in.

Does all of that sound like a recommendation? It probably doesn’t. Therefore it’s incumbent on me to say, if you have ever enjoyed any of Leone’s films, you owe it to yourself to see all six of his masterpieces, the flawed ones. Duck, You Sucker, awkward title and all, is a compelling, intense film, and this Blu-ray release at least allows you to see the best-available cut in high definition. Now if you’ll excuse me, watching all six different commentary tracks on five different films hasn’t exhausted my interest in Sergio Leone, so I have to go read Christopher Frayling’s fascinating-looking book about him now.

 

Blu-ray diary: Canon nearing (Pasolini 9: The Decameron)

26 Mar
March 26, 2014

In the Decameron I filmed the way I know how: more than ever in my own style. But while in Porcile and Medea my game was atrocity, now strangely it’s happiness. A happy work (made with great seriousness, of course) seems to me to contradict all expectations. It’s complete disobedience. (But maybe I’m lying.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini, interviewed November 24, 1970

Making the decision to read Pasolini’s source texts before viewing each of his last four feature films, all of which are literary adaptations, rather derailed, for a while, my plan to watch all 13 features in the space of a year or less. Rather than charging straight ahead from Medea to The Decameron, I took the time to read all 800 pages of the McWilliam translation/Penguin edition (and posted a brief review). I probably could have prepared just by reading the 10 stories of Boccaccio’s 100 that made it into the movie (helpfully listed by Wikipedia) but it’s a work I’ve long been wanting to read and I wanted to soak up the flavour of the entire text.

Finishing the book, and the timing of this ensuing Blu-ray screening (I viewed the BFI’s UK release—I’ll get around to the Criterion edition as well at some point), delightfully coincided with the opening of the Dalhousie University Theatre Department production of Patrick Baliani’s stage adaptation, which I took in last night.

Baliani’s play is almost the direct opposite of Pasolini’s film in theme and, to some degree, in tone—fascinating to see the degree to which readings of Boccaccio’s text can vary. Let it be said that the current crop of Dal Theatre students are a game, talented crew of performers who gave Baliani’s version a energetic workout, to say the least. But in the Baliani play, the background of the bubonic plague weighs heavily on the proceedings. Where the book is mostly diversion and escape, the play is weighed down with constant reminders of doom.

The play makes much of the tale of the scholar’s revenge—the perhaps-autobiographical revenge fantasy that others might suggest is both ethically problematic and a poor fit with much of the rest of the work. The ethical problem is countered partly by finding an improbable ray of hope at the end—a twist which diverges from the source text completely. For his part Pasolini didn’t include it amongst the nine tales that he chose, and in fact, there are only two tales that show up both in the Baliani play and the Pasolini film.

The Decameron itself is, needless to say, a challenging text for adaptation to any visual medium. As a lengthy collection of a hundred stories, most without overlapping characters, the main decisions are which small fraction of the stories to include, and what to do with the narrative framing device.

In the book, 10 young Florentines try, in the summer of 1348, to escape from the Black Death that is sweeping their city. They take turns each day in their country estate retreat MC’ing a round of story-telling, so that each of 10 days, each of the 10 plague-refugees tells one story. The Baliani play uses the group of young people to both tell and enact the stories, blurring the lines deliberately between those roles, while Pasolini’s film jettisons the framing altogether, relying on 10 original linking scenes that include dream sequence animations of paintings and a kind of framing story involving a painter (played by Pasolini himself), and an overall consistency of tone and visual expression to create something that feels more unified than the the typical anthology film.

In reality I was not just having fun with this film. I understood something very simple that it had taken me ten films to understand: namely, that cinema is a game… I’ve discovered play.

Even when Pasolini is playing he is doing so with rigour—in this film it is his way of insisting on what seems to me an essential quality of the source text. Boccaccio’s stories, for the most part, have a very un-fraught and down-to-earth way of presenting sexuality, and Pasolini insists on being cinematically true to that. In the story of the young man who pretends to be a mute in order to secure work and residence at a convent for the purpose of regular intercourse with the nuns, we get a scene with a young, sex-curious nun pulling up her skirt and giving him the wave-in, as we say, cutting to a head-on shot of his nude, tumescent member—yep, Pasolini sees no reason to flinch from the nun’s-eye-view of a naked boner (1971 seems like another world, now, doesn’t it?). But at the same time the film has really very little in common with porn as it is produced now—what the sexual scenes all have in common is a kind of innocent glee. They are well-lit to establish a joyful, carefree tone rather than to provide pornographic inspections of anatomy and sexual mechanics.

Pasolini, in this film, provides some flashes of mortality and doom around the edges, here and there, without reversing the overall direction and tone of his source text. It must have seemed a very daring film in 1971, and in some respects still seems today—but other than by its choice of stories it doesn’t seem to have the least bit of interest in correcting Boccaccio, or reading him against the grain. It is a cinematic argument that Boccaccio is forever contemporary, and in its own way I feel, on first viewing, that this film earns its own lasting relevance.

Notes:

  • The film has an intermission near the 57-minute mark.
  • Quotes from Pasolini in this post can be found in this fantastic book.

Blu-ray diary: Amarcord

13 Jan
January 13, 2014

amarcord-coverI’m not really sure why it took me so long to get around to Fellini’s 1973 classic—his 4th and final winner of the best foreign language film Oscar—but I’m glad I finally did. Amarcord feels like a film that everyone ought to be able to agree on… film snob and casual moviegoer alike. It moves with a kind of effortless joyous bouyancy, anchored by a melancholy for the irretrievable past, which is only magnified when one considers its status as both the fulsome culmination and the doom-harbinger of the arthouse cinema tradition.

It features an outstanding script from Tonino Guerra (L’AvventuraLa notte, L’eclisseNostalghiaNight of the Shooting Stars, Eternity and a Day) and one of the best scores by Nino Rota (yes, I think it’s even better than the Godfather soundtrack).

Amarcord is convincingly personal even though it is only glancingly and intermittently autobiographical. The hyperreal world of 1930s small-town Italy that it re/creates is absurdly fantastical and convincingly real by turns, yet it unfolds seamlessly.

I’m increasingly convinced that I never gave Fellini his proper due, even though I’ve always been moved and impressed by the films of his that I’ve seen (Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8-1/2, Juliet of the Spirits). Ever since my visit last year to Teatro 5 at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where he made many of his films (including Amarcord), I’ve been infected with curiosity about his life and work. On my viewing agenda for this year, then: recent Blu-ray releases of Il Bidone and City of Women, and the forthcoming release of Roma.

Blu-ray diary: A Man Escaped

30 Dec
December 30, 2013

A Man EscapedAs a result of my recent, intense encounter with the films of Roberto Rossellini, I’m thinking a lot lately about the possibilities entailed in breaking style conventions not simply for innovation’s sake but in the name of moving past the limits of style itself. Such formal attempts to get at something more substantial than “mere” form, seem to be, perhaps inevitably so, inseparable from spirituality itself. In other words, I seem to have found the right moment to start exploring the films of Robert Bresson.

As  the blurb for Paul Schrader’s noted book puts it: “Unlike the style of psychological realism, which dominates film, the transcendental style expresses a spiritual state with austere camerawork, acting devoid of self-consciousness, and editing that avoids editorial comment.”

My first and only previous Bresson viewing experience was a small-screen (CRT I think) viewing of Au Hasard Balthazar some seven or eight years ago. It was an emotional bombshell of a film but I don’t remember doing much thinking about how it achieved its effect, other than the obvious scrupulous/rigorous follow-through entailed in taking an animal’s point of view through an entire feature film narrative arc. I probably couldn’t have told you anything very specific about how Bresson accomplished what he did.

Having now watched through the various special features on the Criterion release of A Man Escaped (detailed in this review) I feel I have a much better grasp of Bresson’s methodology and vision. So let me here put in a plug for The Essence of Forms, a 2010 doc (46 min.) that appeared originally on the Gaumont French Blu-ray release of the film and offers a series of insights into Bresson’s filmmaking approach, from collaborators and critics. Unlike the other docs about him included here, it includes only clips from A Man Escaped even though it considers his whole career—so it is both fascinating and free of spoilers for his other films.  With the other, older docs included I found myself fast-forwarding through some clips from other films that I haven’t yet seen. So if you are going to pick just one of the special features to watch after a first viewing of this film I recommend this one.

Criterion issued their meticulously-restored edition of A Man Escaped back in March, so I am about 9 months late to this party—the first Bresson film to be released in high-def video.  Region B releases of Au hazard Balthazar and Mouchette from Artificial Eye were originally due early this year but have been repeatedly delayed and are now due to drop in March 2014. Can’t wait.

Blu-ray diary: Il Generale Della Rovere

09 Dec
December 9, 2013

Il Generale Della Rovere - Blu-rayIn case it wasn’t obvious from my last post, I seem to have a new addiction and it’s the films of Roberto Rossellini.  At the moment the more formalist auteurs seem like weaksauce to me compared to the way that Rossellini challenges and reconsiders formal considerations at every step of his filmic development, or so it seems to me now that I’m about six films into his filmography.  But what’s interesting to me about Il Generale Della Rovere, which was released for the first time on Blu-ray just last week (in a fine package by Raro Video), is that it seems as likely to be misunderstood now as it seemingly was on first release in 1959.

A condition laid down by the film’s producer was that it should be ready for the Venice Film Festival in the fall of that year. This led to the film being shot in studio—Cinecittà in Rome, as it happened (on the legendary soundstage Teatro 5, where Fellini made several of his films). Rossellini, starting with Rome: Open City in 1945, had been associated more than any previous filmmaker with the use of location shooting to bring a feel of verité to his films. For Il Generale he decided to embrace the artificiality of the studio environment and, in fact, play it up.  His approach seems, however, to have been too subtle for reviewers at the time, who wrote of his “return to realism” in response to this film.  His deliberately contrasting of newsreel footage and studio shots with (obvious to later viewers) painted and matted-in backdrops seems to have not had the intended effect.

I tend to think that today’s viewers might watch this film and see those abrupt shifts as poor workmanship rather than deliberate aesthetic.  We have had so many subsequent generations of filmmakers that have embraced conscious artificiality and refined it in various ways such that what was once a bold cinematic experiment might play more like a clumsy misfire. But understood in context it is another fascinating chapter in Rossellini’s development.

I continue to find compelling the complex edition history of Rossellini’s films, and this package offers another chance to explore that aspect of his filmography.  The disc contains both the director’s cut that was presented at Venice 1959 and the later theatrical release that was edited in various ways. Once again it is worthwhile viewing both versions as well as the visual essay by leading Rossellini interpreter Adriano Aprà that meticulously glosses the various changes. To summarize: most of the nips and tucks of the theatrical version constitute indisputable narrative improvements, but one of the most significant cuts in that version is baffling unless you’ve seen the director’s cut.  For this reason that earlier festival version is the default version presented from the main menu of the disc. The theatrical version is available in the bonus-feature submenu.

One more note: Raro have decided to present this in an archival framing—exposing the rounded corners of all of the exposed filmic image,  rather than matted/cropped presentation that filmgoers would normally see (and which we most often see in video transfers). I’m fine with this presentation—considered in Blu-ray.com’s detailed review—but others may find it a bit strange. Otherwise, Raro Video clearly have been influenced by Criterion in their production of the special features on the disc as well as the accompanying booklet (with excellent Aprà essay)—the resulting package is not quite as slick as the current Criterion standard, but more than worthwhile nonetheless.  We’re indeed lucky that 2013 has seen not one but two excellent Rossellini high def releases.

Blu-ray diary: Criterion’s Rossellini+Bergman package might be the best box set of 2013

23 Nov
November 23, 2013

Criterion Rossellini Bergman box coverA ball started rolling for me when I saw that restored print of Rome, Open City at TIFF in September. It was the first Rossellini film that I’d ever seen and I found it simply devastating —a much more harrowing, yet illuminating, emotional experience than I’d expected.  In October, on the strength of that film alone, when Criterion had a brief 50% off sale, I decided to blind-order the 4-disc Blu-ray set 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman. I started with Stromboli (the English-language version), which I found to be a raw emotional experience in a much different sense, and I didn’t really know, at first viewing, what to make of the abrupt turn to God in the closing sequence. But then I started to watch Europe ’51, and that was went I fell off some kind of cinematic cliff. The film immediately turned me into an Rossellini obsessive.

Both of these films come in this set in alternate English-language and Italian-language versions. As the English-language versions are in better visual condition, and seem to be generally preferred, I started off watching the English cut of Europe ’51. But I quit that cut an hour in, impatient with the way that English dialects and accents were matched to various characters (British accent for the intellectual journalist, Brooklyn for the peasant mother of 6 children). I started watching the Italian version from the beginning and quickly realized the profound changes that had been made. “Are you a communist?” had become, in the English version for the US market, “are you a member of a political party?” The public, social schism in post-war Italian society between West and East, Catholicism and Communism, had been censored nearly out of visibility in the film.

There is a fantastic 37-minute interview with film historian Elena Dagrada on this disc, that explicates very well the changes that were made, and the reasons for them (as well as a written piece by her in the accompanying booklet that talks about the changes between versions of Stromboli). I watched this, but not before going back to watch the rest of the English language version after completing my viewing of the Italian version. Though in the case of Stromboli I will readily concede the superiority of the English version, I think I find myself against the grain of common opinion on Europe ’51—I greatly prefer the Italian version.

Other highlights of the special features:

  • The interviews with film critic Adriano Aprà about all three films. Aprà has clearly thought deeply about all of these films and he opens up multiple meanings and significances to a first-time viewer.
  • Surprised by Death, “a new visual essay by film critic James Quandt on the historical and artistic themes of the trilogy”—first-time viewers of the films will be impressed by the many differences between the three films of this retrospectively-classified trilogy, but Quandt’s striking insights consist in all of the commonalities that he finds between the films.
  • Living and Departed, “a new visual essay by Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher on the evolution of the director’s style in the trilogy”—excellent on the themes of estrangement and communication (but don’t watch it if you don’t want to spoil Rossellini’s earlier Germany Year Zero).
  • The interview with Martin Scorsese, very interesting on the spiritual aspects of the films.
  • Possibly my favourite—a fantastic interview with daughters Ingrid and Isabella Rossellini; informative, insightful, touching.

At this point I have now watched all five film cuts (the English and Italian versions of Stromboli and Europe ’51, as well as the English language Journey to Italy), as well as the film scholar Laura Mulvey’s commentary on Journey to Italy. So I have watched each film twice as well as the roughly seven hours of special features, for a total of 17 hours of viewing. I don’t regret a minute of that time spent.

I think I was somehow aware of the deep influence of these films on subsequent films and directors—especially Antonioni and Godard. But now this incredibly important point in film history has been crystallized and explicated for me. My film horizons have been expanded—Criterion has bottled lightning with this release.