After his phenomenal success with
La Dolce Vita (1960) Federico Fellini delivered a film with such an astonishing stylistic jump from his previous work that over 35 years later it still seems like one of the most original films ever made – a seamless fusion of dreams, fantasies and reality that ironically make up the cinema’s most cogent and complete essay on confusion and creative block. Originally titled La Bella Confusione before being changed to 8 1/ 2 (Fellini had directed seven features and co-directed one previous to this), the film was such a virtuoso display of modernist film making that it drew extreme reactions in both camps. Its critics saw it as nothing more than empty self-indulgence, an exercise in ego-tripping that had absolutely nothing new to say. Its adherents compared Fellini to James Joyce and heralded the film as a masterpiece. Me? I’m in the second camp: 8 1/ 2 is my favorite film of all time.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Fellini’s alter ego, Guido Anselmi, a middle-aged film director recovering from an illness (nerves, one assumes) at a health spa while he begins to film his anxiously awaited next feature. But Guido has hit a point in his life where inspiration has failed him, resulting in a mammoth creative block. Guido begins to dredge up memories of the past as well as fantasies about his relationships with his wife (Anoiuk Aimee), his voluptuous mistress (Sandra Milo) and his lead actress (Claudia Cardinale) who he sees as a symbol of purity that can create order in his film and his life. He must also deal with a film crew that includes a harried producer and an intellectual writing partner who continually criticizes the “innocent little scenes of childhood” Guido puts in the script as being empty and meaningless. (Actually, most of the criticism leveled by the writer, played by Jean Rougel, was almost exactly the same as levied by the real critics.) Guido is obviously confused and unable to piece together these elements or make sense of them, but Fellini is not, and while we never see any of Guido’s film apart from the screen tests, we are watching 8 1/ 2, a completely lucid examination of chaos.
We see Guido’s happy childhood as well as his sexual awakening as he watches the enormous Saraghina (Edra Gale) rumba for him and his school mates before he feels the stings of Catholic school guilt being piled on him , and we get his dream of sexual wish fulfillment as he watches over a harem that includes his wife, his mistress, his actresses, his mother and his casual sexual conquests. All of this, Guido thinks, is material for a film that can finally put the past behind him, (“In my film,” he says, “everything happens”), and to underscore this, he plans to portray the survivors of a nuclear holocaust taking a space ship to a new safe world. In truth, Guido struggles to come to terms with himself as a man and an artist, finally realizing that one can’t escape the past nor live in it and that one has to embrace things very simply for what they are.
Visually one of the most exciting films ever made, Fellini’s film is full of extraordinary images that stay in the mind: Guido’s dream where he rises above a surreal traffic jam and flies like a kite over the ocean only to be pulled back to Earth; the insane press conference at the space ship, full of journalists demanding answers; the life-is-a-carnival ending where Guido accepts and assembles all the elements that make up his life in a circus ring. It’s all beautiful, funny, and joyously entertaining. The black-and-white camera work by Gianni Di Venanzo, the music by Nino Rota and the script by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flainio and Brunello Rondi are all genius level contributions to this masterpiece.
Granted, a `90s audience may find this rough going. It’s an inverted epic, going inward rather than outward, the film blurs the line between fantasy and reality in a way that may confuse on a first viewing. But this is a film that is impossible to be assessed after a single or cursory viewing. Like a novel by Joyce or Nabokov, Fellini’s film needs to be lived in, absorbed and savored like any great work of art. Miss it at your own loss.