Variety Lights (Luci del varietà) [DVD]
Screenplay : Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, & Tullio Pinelli (story by Federico Fellini)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1950
Stars : Peppino De Filippo (Checco Dal Monte), Carla Del Poggio (Liliana Antonelli), Giulietta Masina (Melina Amour), Folco Lulli (Adelmo Conti), John Kitzmiller (Johnny), Dante Maggio (Remo), Carlo Romano (Enzo La Rosa), Gina Mascetti (Valeria del Sole), Checco Durante (Theater Owner)
"Variety Lights" ("Luci del varietá") is a poignant melodrama set against the backdrop of a group of struggling variety performers that travels from town to town entertaining people for not much more than a meal to eat and a bed to sleep in (sometimes not even that much). They are a cast of lovable losers who proclaim great things about their "art" even though they aren't much more than semi-talented dancers, singers, and magicians.
Their unofficial leader is the director, Checco Dal Monte (Peppino De Filippo), whose long-time lover is the "star" of the show, Melina Amour (Giulietta Masina). However, Checco is the unsettled type with wandering eyes who is never satisfied with what he has, and soon he is fixated on the newest member of the troupe, a beautiful and determined young dancer named Liliana (Carla Del Poggio). Liliana ironically gets her first break when her skirt accidentally falls off during a dance number, and the sight of her prancing in her underwear brings the sleepy crowd to life and keeps the troupe in town for three sold-old performances. The other members of the group are bitter that their "art" is under-appreciated while Liliana's physical attributes sell out the theater, but money is money.
Determined that Liliana is the woman for him, Checco drops Melina in favor of the seemingly innocent ingenue. Unfortunately for Checco, Liliana turns out to be a conniving user who works Checco over for all he's worth and then leaves him for something better. In one of the funniest and saddest scenes in the movie, Checco watches helplessly as Liliana orders lobster and champagne that he knows he can't pay for, but he's too infatuated with her to admit it. Liliana wants to be a star, and she will do anything in order to attain that status.
Co-directed by Alberto Lattuada, already an established director, and Federico Fellini, making his debut behind the camera after working several years as a screenwriter (most notably coscripting Roberto Rosselli's neorealist masterpiece "Open City"), "Variety Lights" is a funny, touching film about the foibles of desire and the dreams of stardom shared by both the young and the old. It is testament to both the light touch of the two directors and the great performance by Peppino De Filippo that Checco remains a sympathetic character throughout. After all, he brings all of his misery and heartache on himself and others by chasing something he didn't need, yet we understand that he is only following the strong, albeit misguided, yearnings of his heart.
At the same time, Liliana could have easily become a simplistic villain, a cold-hearted vixen painted in two dimensions. Yet, the performance by Carla Del Poggio leaves just a hint of humanity to her character. She is cruel to Checco, yes, but for the same reasons that Checco is, in turn, cruel to Melina: She is going after what her heart desires. For Checco, his heart desires Liliana. Unfortunately, Liliana's heart desires stardom, which is one thing the down-on-his-luck Checco cannot supply her, even though he tries desperately by forming an entirely new company of entertainers to showcase her talents.
Fellini, of course, would go on to change the world of cinema with such seminal, often autobiographical films as "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "8 1/2" (1963). Some of his recurring themes are evident in "Variety Lights," especially his large cast of rather eccentric characters and the humanist light in which he views them. Fellini and Lattuada do a fine job of creating a bustling atmosphere both on and off stage, and they make it easy to see why these performers persist in their dead-end careers. Simply put, they love the life too much, its poverty as well as its small moments of isolated glory.
|Variety Lights: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The image, which was transferred from the original 35-mm fine-grain master in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, maintains mostly solid, stable black levels and good contrast with a high level of detail. The image is generally sharp, although there was a fair amount of shimmering, especially in one woman's striped dress. It is apparent that little time was spent cleaning up or digitally restoring the image, as there is a large amount of speckling, especially during the first half of the film, as well as a few noticeable tears in the negative. None of the damage is overly distracting, though, but it does point up the difference between good, but not outstanding transfers like this one, and the truly magnificent transfers on which Criterion spends time and restoration (such as "Grand Illusion," "The Passion of Joan of Arc," or "Brief Encounter").|
|The one-channel digital monaural soundtrack is as good as can be expected from the source elements. It is generally free of any hiss or distortion, and some of the music actually sounds pretty good, with decent range and a bit of depth. Dialogue, which is in the original Italian with optional English subtitles, is always clear and audible.|
|No supplements are included.|
©2000 James Kendrick