Review by Michael Jacobson
Peppino De Filippo, Giulietta Masina, Carla Del Poggio
Directors: Alberto Lattuada and Federico Fellini
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Length: 97 Minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2000
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.