8 1/2 (1963)

Federico Fellini | 2hr 18min

Common wisdom says that 8 ½ is titled after the number of films Federico Fellini had directed at this point in his career, the total consisting of six previous features, two shorts, one co-directing effort, and this, his most autobiographical, self-reflexive piece of cinema yet. Had none of those fallen into place, it would have been represented as an entirely different numeral, but instead we get this incomplete fraction, stuck between integers as if waiting to be filled in. The same could be said of the two Italian directors connected to this film, with both the fictional Guido and real-life Fellini reflecting on the pressures of fame, religion, art, and relationships tugging them in multiple directions without a clear, unifying principle which they can follow through on. Thanks to their professional careers, they are familiar with the unique suffering that comes with overactive imaginations trying to sort through fragmented lives of excess, but there is also an irony that this profession is one of the few that can manifest a catharsis for the issues it is responsible for. It is not so simple as projecting one’s crippling insecurities up on large, flickering canvases, but it rather arrives through humbling self-examination, opening one’s mind up to a world that may either praise the genius it sees or eviscerate it for a lack of inspiration.

For Guido, there are few nightmares worse than this claustrophobic social anxiety. Caught in the middle of a traffic jam, he bangs on the windows of his car as if suffocating from the stagnation, while the silent witnesses of neighbouring vehicles passively watch his struggle with cold, bored expressions. Quite eerily, there are no engines to be heard on this busy stretch of road, and neither do we see any close-ups of Guido’s panicked face, which might have otherwise oriented us more clearly in the scene. Even his escape and liberating ascent into the sky are eventually spoiled by a man looping a rope around his ankle, tethering him to the earth like a kite that can only soar so far before crashing back down. When he awakes, the surrealism dissipates, and yet Fellini still holds back from revealing the face of his surrogate, multi-tasking his medical examinations and creative consultations. It is not until he is able to get some time to himself in a bathroom that he is revealed in full, and that Marcello Mastroianni’s perturbed, restless performance finally starts to lift off.

One of the greatest opening scenes of cinema history, with Fellini dipping us right into the film’s remarkable surrealism. A suffocating traffic jam, a liberating flight, and a rope pulling us back to the ground, all without revealing Guido’s face.

Even at the spa retreat where Guido hopes to compose himself before embarking on the production of his next film, there is little hope that he will find the peace that he desires. Journalists, casting directors, crew members, sycophants, agents, and fans turn up to the resort with questions ranging from the trivial to the overly invasive, and none of them are particularly helpful in curing his director’s block. It is not an issue of funding or resourcing, but he is simply not mentally prepared to offer up anything of value to his audiences. In Fellini’s own career, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ mark the point where he begins to veer further away from his roots in neorealism, and so it is not difficult to imagine himself in Guido’s position facing a culture of excessive fame and materialism, trying to create something grounded in real world issues. The result is a psychological dive into his own self-critical mind, picking apart this exact struggle in lavishly designed sets that don’t even bother trying to conceal his own abundant wealth and privilege.

Far from his neorealist roots, Fellini indulges in his ravishing Italian architecture and decor, building Guido up as a man of great wealth and privilege.

Out on the resort’s blanched white terrace, patrons gather beneath umbrellas and in lines for mineral water, though Fellini rarely hangs on wide shots long enough for us to adjust to the almost blinding environment. Apparently reality is just as disorientating as Guido’s dreams, as while strangers and associates gaze right down the lens, Fellini’s camera couldn’t get away from them sooner, disengaging and drifting through the surroundings so that their lines of dialogue essentially become voiceovers. Then every so often, a new character steps into the frame, manifesting like a phantom and suddenly readjusting long shots into close-ups. Guido is used to being behind the camera as the observer, not the observed, and Fellini keeps up this persistent anxiety in his jarring visual whiplash, snapping us between characters, priorities, and dreams that can’t quite congeal into anything productive.

Fellini’s highly-exposed photography in the spa terrace set is almost blinding, pulling us abruptly into this daunting social setting.

Criticisms that Guido’s screenplay lacks any “central issue or philosophical stance” haunt him deeply. If art reflects one’s mind, then this director’s block necessarily calls his value as a filmmaker into question. Disappearing into his own fantasies might at times feel like the single most effective way he can run from these feelings, as we observe in one dream where a harem of women fall at his feet, offering him a power over those in his life he feels threatened by, and yet an unfiltered, self-critical imagination can be an unwieldy thing. Just as it is an endless source of creativity, so too can it spiral off in egotistic directions or turn against the dreamer themselves, as these women do when they catch onto Guido’s misogynistic attitudes.

Fellini’s camera pans across scenes without gaining a firm sense of geography, instead crowding his foreground with extras looking right down the lens.
Sharp distinctions between foreground and background, as faces suddenly move into the frame.

Another layer of Guido’s psyche offers portals into his past, though they are rarely so straightforward as to be direct representations. While his deceased parents make frequent appearances, in his mind they are slippery, malleable figures, with his mother manifesting after he makes love to his paramour, weeping over his sexual vices. This shame seems to be tied to his sexual development as an adolescent, when he and his schoolmates paid La Saraghina, a prostitute who lived in a shack down at the local beach, to dance for them. The Catholic guilt beaten into him by the school priests is instrumental in shaping his awkward relationship with religion, as in the modern day he is still trying to appease a Monsignor imposing Christian morality upon his film, but his mother’s dramatic sobbing also binds every sexual experience of his life from here on to this Freudian angst.

Daunting religious imagery as we slip back into Guido’s childhood, with these Catholic priests asserting their dominance and setting him on a path of guilt.
The spa sauna becomes a confessional for Guido, with this white sheet hung up like the divider between the priest and penitent. Fellini’s creativity with his symbolism is endlessly impressive.

Even above his desire to create art is his need to be loved and affirmed, not just by a select few, but by everyone – the religious, the secular, the fans looking for entertainment, the critics looking for intellectualism, and even his deceased parents, who continue withholding their affection in death. The arrival of an actress he believes is ideal for a role paradoxically described as “young and ancient, a child yet already a woman” does little to assuage his insecurities, as even while he venerates her as some abstract concept, she cuts him down in recognising the character he has based on himself as being incapable of love. Placating even one person is an impossible task, let alone the hundreds of people begging for answers, and therein lies the source of his creative block. “Everything happens in my film. I’m going to put everything in,” he proclaims, but in catering to the desires of so many others, there is nothing truly authentic or honest about his artistic expression. In his impossible endeavour, he has become a walking paradox: a director with no direction.

Finally, the day of shooting arrives for Guido, and he has to practically be dragged on set against his will. Once again, the crowds of journalists, critics, and crew are present, blasting him with questions of political, tabloid, and spiritual natures. “Can you admit you have nothing to say?” one man cruelly jabs, as Fellini’s frenetic editing and score keeps trying to build to a climax. “Just say anything,” he is advised, but still, there is nothing that comes from his mouth. Within the crowd, his wife, Luisa, is present in her wedding dress, taunting him with memories of happier days, and above them all is the giant rocket launchpad set piece, standing like a hulking steel monument to his own meaningless ambition and restricted imagination, offering empty promises of space-bound adventures.

A giant set piece promising great narrative catharsis for both 8 1/2 and Guido’s own film.
Fellini deliberately dismantles the continuity in his editing, breaking eye lines and the 180-degree camera rule to completely disorientate us.

Beneath its menacing shadow, the only feasible solution seems to be a clean, sharp gunshot to the head. At first, this suicide seems to be nothing but another dramatic diversion from reality, adding one more drop to the sea of memory and dreams that Fellini traverses with such elusive grace, and which keeps obscuring the boundaries between Guido’s inner and outer lives. Symbolically though, it is a perfect merging of the two. What is missing here is the explicit reveal that he has aborted production on the film, which we are left to surmise in the following scene when we return to reality. In killing his failed project, he kills the part of himself that simultaneously strives to live to impossible expectations and scorns the people setting those standards.

It is perfectly fitting to 8 ½’s cinematic form that Guido’s monologue announcing his fresh perspective is not the focus of these final minutes, but instead simply underscores a grand, visual sequence that could only ever be rendered through this artistic medium. Out on this open plain, those people who make up his identity and history begin to congregate, for the first time uniting in a single location. “How right it is to accept you, to love you. And how simple,” he ponders, as men in tuxedos shout to crew members standing up on lighting rigs, who turn their beams towards the launchpad.

“Life is a party, let’s live it together. I can’t say anything else, to you or others. Take me as I am, if you can. It’s the only way we can try to find each other.”

Though his lips are not moving with his voiceover, Luisa can hear him perfectly, and between the two estranged spouses, there finally seems to be some sincere attempt at understanding. It is only in shaking off his constant need for approval that he is able to connect with others in any meaningful way, accepting them as they are and, in turn, allowing him to present his honest self to the world without shame.

Dreams and reality blend in conversations like these, with Guido’s dialogue playing out in voiceover to what may be an imaginary Luisa.

Not far away from the site of this epiphany, a small, ragtag marching band of carnival performers parade towards the set’s scaffolding, and then all of a sudden, a set of makeshift white curtains are pulled back. Behind them, every single character we have met throughout 8 ½, major or minor, pours down the steps of this magnificent launch pad as if attending some grand carnival directed by Guido, who conducts them all in a single, unifying fantasy. As the fragments of his lives piece together in a giant circle and spin around the set, Fellini’s avant-garde visuals become expressions of communal delight, rather than unsettling isolation. Creativity and creation are two different concepts that are not always in sync, but in lining these up through the filter of Fellini’s own wildly surreal stylings, 8 ½ stands as history’s most brilliantly compelling piece of self-reflexive cinema, seeking to examine the arduous processes of its own construction.

Fragments of Guido’s life finally piecing together in this magnificent crescendo of carnival music, with him finally taking the role of director.
Guido’s past, present, faith, secularity, artistry, ambition, insecurities, and relationships finally reconciled in a single joyful display of unity.

8 1/2 is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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