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VARIETY LIGHTS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peppino De Filippo, Giulietta Masina, Carla Del Poggio
Directors:  Alberto Lattuada and Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  None
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  August 29, 2000

Film ***1/2

At the heart of Variety Lights, perhaps even more significant than the storyline itself, is Federico Fellini’s love and admiration for performers—a theme that would resurface in his later works, but figures here in his first film in a way that is both funny and touching.  The variety show troupe in this picture is about as bottom-rung as you can get.  The acts are amateurish.  The singers can’t really sing, nor the dancers dance.  Other performers just kind of leave you scratching your head, wondering how they got into show business in the first place.  Their life is not glamorous.  They play in small, leaky theatres in front of sparse and unenthusiastic crowds.  They have very little money, even suffering the indignity of a promoter skipping out on them mid-show with their earnings.  They generally walk from place to place, even over great distances.  They quibble.  But, darn it all, when those lights come down and that curtain goes up, they put their heart and soul into their little part of the show and forget everything else.  In a strange way, there really IS something kind of noble about it all.

The troupe is led by the impresario Checco (De Filippo), a man so misguided and full of his own self-importance, we don’t know at first whether to laugh at him, loathe him, or pity him (by the end of the picture, we’ve done all three).  With his long suffering fiancée Melina (Masina), he boldly leads the group from show to show, with everybody mostly sustaining themselves only on as much pride as they can muster.  It is not a glamorous existence, but for him, a decidedly wonderful one.  The theatre is, and has always been, his life, and he loves it with a passion, even when things are going badly.

But his entire world begins to change when Liliana (Del Poggio) enters the picture.  She is pretty, ambitious, and as we later learn, rather ruthlessly aggressive when it comes to getting what she wants.  She watched Checco and his troupe during a meager-at-best performance and decides this is the life she was born for, and he’s the man to help her.

She ends up getting cast quite by accident for a show, much to the dismay of the rest of the group, who complain that profit sharing is already too thin.  It’s a rather mundane seafaring dance number, which she performs quite badly, until an accident occurs:  her pants tear and fall, leaving her in just her underwear, which immediately draws enthusiasm from the small (and mostly male) audience, who had been almost asleep previously.  Backstage, she claims humiliation…but we remember an earlier scene when she boasted to Checco about her beautiful legs.  Was it really an accident? 

No matter.  The promoter of the show actually pulls Checco and Melina off the stage during their act to bring back the girl in panties.  And in a few nicely compiled cuts, we see that the show gets several repeat performances with an ever increasing audience, thanks to Liliana and her limbs. 

She also begins to affect Checco in two distinct ways.  One, she fuels his dreams of running a major show, since he now has for the first time a bona fide ‘star’.  Two, he begins to fall in love with her, an element the ambitious Liliana is all too willing to exploit.  Without looking back, Checco abandons Melina and devotes himself to his and Liliana’s new partnership.  In one of the film’s most quietly heartbreaking scenes, we see Checco walking with both ladies on his arms.  Liliana puts her head on his shoulder; he rests his against the top of hers.  A saddened Melina slowly withdraws her hand, unnoticed, and walks slower behind them until she’s out of the picture, literally and figuratively.

But Liliana is more than Checco can handle, especially with his deliberate blindness towards the way she latches on to anyone who will help her.  It’s clear she has no real love for him, and no understanding, either.  Two scenes illustrate this succinctly.  One is when he takes her to a ritzy dinner club in hopes of introducing her to a major producer.  Though she knows he’s broke, she won’t stop living the star’s life for a moment, ordering lobster and champagne.  We see her eating, enjoying the show and having a good time, while Checco nervously sweats.  A later scene shows Checco coming on to her angrily, demanding that she “owes” him something for his efforts—only to be brutally stunned to find that she’s more than willing to lead him up to her room for an unemotional bit of payoff!  Like Frankenstein, he’s created a monster, and like the mad doctor, his creation is destined to destroy him.

Both Del Poggio and De Filippo are excellent in their respective roles, and provide the movie with much of its core and conflict.  But especially noteworthy is Masina, Fellini’s wife and frequent star, who brings an honest pathos to a small role, and captures the hearts of the audience for the long run.  These three lead a terrific, spirit cast of players who bring the laughter and heartbreak of theatre life to vivid realization.

I must confess, I have no real knowledge of one of the film’s co-directors, Alberto Lattuada, nor how much credit should be given him for Variety Lights.  I can say, however, that this film is filled with distinct Fellini touches, from the eccentricity of some of the comic characters to the way he sometimes just lets the story come to a brief rest to let a scene like a dance or a party simply flow in a celebration of life.  I also think the film’s attitude toward sex comes from Fellini, who was never afraid to incorporate a little bit into his pictures, but often did so with the partially innocent attitude of a naughty little boy sharing a Victoria’s Secret catalog with his school mates.  Notice, for instance, the indignity the other cast members show towards Liliana’s impromptu underwear act.  But much later, we notice the SAME troupe performing that SAME uninspired dance number—and this time, ALL the women are in their underwear.  Art may be art, but sex sells.

But no matter which artist did what, the resulting film is a terrific and memorable one—similar in theme to another excellent 1950 release, All About Eve, but decidedly less glamorous, a bit grittier, and all the better for it.  The black and white photography is stellar, with plenty of near-expressionistic uses of long, lingering shadows and suppressed lighting, which serve to remind us that this is not really a joyous film with sad moments, but rather, a sad film with joyous ones.

Video **1/2

In a sentence, this disc represents a great transfer of not-so-great source material.  As far as DVD mastering goes, Criterion is one of the best in the business, and here, they’ve created a beautiful replication of a classic film.  The black and white photography renders beautifully, crisply, and sharply throughout, with deep, true blacks, clean whites, and a full and detailed range of grayscale in between.  There’s not a hint of grain, chroma noise, or any other compression artifact.  The only visual problem is the print itself, which varies in quality as the film goes along.  There’s an inordinate amount of dirt, speckles and vertical scratches evident, along with some occasional splotches and bad splice cuts.  Ironically, these are moments you’d normally see in a Criterion restoration demonstration, showing off how well they can digitally clean up older prints.  Perhaps they felt this print wasn’t quite as bad as others they’ve restored., and to be honest, there are probably more clean stretches of film here than spotty ones.  It’s certainly watchable, and overall a decent enough experience, but just not quite up to Criterion’s usual standards.  

Audio **

This disc boasts a digital 1-channel mono soundtrack, which is perfectly adequate, if not spectacular.  Dynamic range is fairly good, though the audio shows a bit of its age from time to time in the form of some minor noise and distortions.  Dialogue is in Italian, so clarity of spoken words is a non-issue.  I did notice, however, in a couple of musical numbers that the soundtrack was severely out of sync.  These are fairly brief moments, and I doubt it’s any fault of Criterion, but still, a point worth mentioning.

Features (zero stars)

Only a very small number of Criterion titles are featureless, but sadly, this is one of them.  A film historian’s commentary would have been nice, like they offered for Brief Encounter, but we can’t win them all.

Summary:

Criterion continues their proud and unparalleled tradition of bringing the best and most important cinema classics to disc, and Federico Fellini’s funny and touching debut movie Variety Lights is one that’s sure to delight film fans everywhere.  Though not as top-notch a DVD as we’ve come to expect from this company, the film is more than enough to please, and I thank Criterion for recognizing its significance and making this title available.