Blu-ray
Worth A Look
3 stars
Amazon
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Overall Grade
3 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
2.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
3 Stars
Supplements
0 Stars
High-Def Extras
1 Stars
Bottom Line
Worth A Look

Discovery Atlas: Italy Revealed

Street Date:
January 30th, 2007
Reviewed by:
High-Def Digest staff
Review Date: 1
April 11th, 2007
Movie Release Year:
2006
Studio:
Discovery Channel
Length:
90 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Non format-specific portions of this review also appear in our HD DVD review of 'Discovery Atlas: Australia Revealed'.

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

'Discovery Atlas: Italy Revealed' is one of four episodes of the shot-on-HD "Discovery Atlas" television series that have recently been released on Blu-ray, HD DVD and standard-def DVD. These first four installments (Australia, Brazil, China and Italy) kick off a planned twenty episode series designed to highlight various countries around the world in stunning high-def. While most of the destinations are places frequented by tourists, this series has proven itself to be no mere commercialized travel brochure. Instead, the show prides itself on focusing on the natives of each country -- their stories, their lives, their unique struggles and accomplishments, and their pride as it relates to their homeland. 'Italy Revealed' is the slowest of this initial group of episodes, taking its time exploring the homeland of the Caesars, the Roman Empire, Leonardo da Vinci, and the early foundations of the Catholic church.

Like other episodes in the series, 'Italy Revealed' focuses on average workers and citizens of the country. The idea is to show the reality of the country and the people who keep it going, and it works well. The most interesting of these vignettes is the one that focuses on a man living in Venice who is desperate to become a "gondolier." Surprisingly (to me), this career is an honor only bestowed on three new people each year. Not only is this a fascinating look at a sympathetic individual, but Venice has never felt more real to me. Without the usual storybook romanticism that's usually applied to it, this was a genuine city full of small, interesting stories. Other (more average) sequences profile other folks such as the Sicilian diver trying to connect with his ancestors, the Roman teenager who wants to be the first female Formula 1 racing champion, a rescue worker in the Alps, a clothing designer, a deep sea diver, and a horse rider who tackles an unpredictably dangerous breed. While this bunch isn't nearly as interesting as the group in 'Australia Revealed,' these natives of Italy kept me mildly entertained over the course of the documentary.

Unfortunately, unlike the engaging narration provided by Russell Crowe on the 'Australia Revealed' episode, the vocal clumsiness of Isabella Rossellini is something of ear-sore in 'Italy Revealed.' As an actress, she commands the screen, but stripped down to her voice, she comes across with surprisingly little passion -- I felt as if I was in the middle of a high school English class listening to someone read the passage of a book aloud. Worse still, when she finds something she is more familiar with, her voice suddenly sounds boastful and pompous rather than nostalgic and proud. As they have with other installments of this series, the Discovery Channel obviously wanted to impress with a native celebrity from Italy, but in this case, I think a no-name narrator could have been more effective.

Luckily, no matter how disengaging the narration was, the Italian views are gorgeous and I could always rely on the scenery. This episode focuses on Italy's architecture and historical monuments as much as its citizenry and it's a wonderful look at the ancient and the modern living in a strange harmony. A few scenes even sent me to the pause button - the water and the gondolas in Venice, the snow capped Alps, the dirt kicking up from horses in Tuscany, and the faded architecture of the Roman Empire. Only the murkier underwater segments with the deep sea diver hinder the overall visual spectacle.

After watching the hour and forty minute 'Australia' episode and wanting more, I was expecting this 90 minute tour of Italy to feel similarly short. Instead, as the episode ended I was happy to escape the narration and some of the less-than-fascinating Italian participants. While 'Italy Revealed' boasts some stunning photography and some reference-level video (see below), as an introduction to Italy and its people, this one's only a mediocre shell compared to the superior 'Australia Revealed' episode.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

One area where 'Italy Revealed' slightly outshines 'Australia Revealed' is in its picture quality. While the Australia episode had infrequent issues with compression artifacts, the Italian episode clicks along without a hitch. Presented in 1080i utilizing the AVC MPEG-4 codec, 'Italy Revealed' showcases an astounding level of fine object detail, color vibrance, and contrast stability.

The show already looked good when it was aired in its original HD broadcast, but here the bitrate is much higher and the image is crisp and clean. Wrinkled skin, horse hair, blades of grass, and other natural elements are all extraordinarily three dimensional. The architecture on display is as detailed as I've ever seen, with even the tiniest windows, blocks, and stone perfectly defined. There's also no discernable difference in picture quality between the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions -- they're both wonderful. If you're looking for a vibrant demo disc that will bring your friends to a standstill, 'Italy Revealed' is nothing short of amazing.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

As with most documentaries, the audio package on 'Italy Revealed' isn't a particularly impressive technical monster, simply because the narration and conversation heavy track relegates a majority of the sound design to the front of your home theater. Having said that, there is nothing technically wrong with this 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. In fact, there are some nice moments when the Italian cities buzz with life, voices, and traffic, but they're gone as quickly as they appear. Narration and the voices of the participants exhibit a nice clarity and there isn't any environmental noise or volume discrepancies to distract audiophiles during the documentary (a small problem in the Australia episode).

Overall, while this one's certainly technically solid, I can't rate the audio package in any review without factoring in the soundscape itself. In the case of 'Italy Revealed,' it just doesn't have the power, resonance, or memorability of the film's amazing visuals.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

While these four episodes of the 'Discovery Atlas' series have been released on standard-def DVD as well, apparently those releases (which we've been unable to get ahold of for comparison purposes) include no extras. Which means that all included supplements on the HD DVD and Blu-ray releases of this disc are exclusive to high-def disc (see the section below).

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

Considering that each of the "Discovery Atlas" epsiodes were limited by airtime as a television show, I was expecting a lot of additional footage and interview pieces to appear as bonuses on these discs, but alas, as with the other four initial installments of the series, there really isn't much here in the way of supplemental features.

There are however, a few little crumbs for us to nibble on (and since it's more than standard-def DVD gets, I suppose I should be thankful. Included are: a short promotional spot for 'Italy Revealed,' a quick Q&A with the documentary's director Mike Lynch, a photo gallery, and a promotional featurette (that appears on each high-def release in the "Discover Atlas" series) that explores the directors, the purpose of the worldwide project, and the HD filming of the series.

Again, each of these supplements are pretty slight, but on the bright side, they're all presented in full 1080i resolution.

Final Thoughts

What is there to say about a disc that boasts jaw dropping visuals, but fails to impress on just about every other level? A boring audio package, a slim set of supplements, amateur narration, and a middle-of-the-road group of participants all hamper 'Italy Revealed' a bit too much for me to heartily recommend it. If you're simply looking for some reference-level video, this one's certainly worth considering, but for a more cohesive package, the far more superior 'Australia Revealed' episode is a better bet.

Technical Specs

  • Blu-ray
  • BD-25 Single-Layer Disc

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080i/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.78:1

Audio Formats

  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps)

Subtitles/Captions

  • English Subtitles

Exclusive HD Content

  • Featurettes
  • Still Gallery

Review Components:
- 52" Sony Bravia XBR3 1080p Flat-Panel LCD
- Sony Blu-ray (BDP-S1) Player
- Yamaha 7.1 (840w) with Klipsch Synergy series 7.1 speakers
- HDMI and optical audio connections

Puzzled by the technical jargon in our reviews, or wondering how we assess and rate HD DVD and Blu-ray discs? Learn about our review methodology.

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