by Roderick Heath
Note: This review of “8 1/2” originally appeared at ‘Ferdy-on-Films’ on September 13, 2009.
Federico Fellini’s signature opus is a film that, nearly a half-century ago, was the height of demanding modernism in the cinema. 8½ shook the landscape by challenging filmmakers to match its new, innately personal cinema spun purely out of its creator’s perspective and psyche and thereby establishing a new argot for exploring creative endeavour in movies. More loudly, too, if not necessarily more artfully, than any other director of the ground-breaking generation to create and work within Italian Neorealism, Fellini abandoned mere reportage and circumstantial study, and pushed deeply into metaphor, associative epiphany, psychology, and personal mystery, rather than analysis, explication, and the traditional demarcations of the social conscience film. He did not abandon such a conscience or method, but radically altered the way that he organised his responses to it, hunting for a way to dovetail the inner crisis with a common sense of anxiety and malaise.
An irony of this was that 8½ established its own personality cult, allowing student and commercial filmmakers, and other artists, to pinch its effects, images, and methods of realising intellectual autobiography. 8½’s inherent individuality was alchemised into public code, its pictorial quirks converted into pop art, for Fellini had a way of generating imagery that lodged in the minds of his contemporaries, as rockers like Bob Dylan and The Doors referenced his films in their songs and record covers, and Woody Allen quoted it endlessly in films like Annie Hall (1977). It’s hard to imagine other, key works by such diverse brethren as Scorsese and Coppola, Nanni Morretti, Charlie Kaufman, Bob Fosse, or Emir Kusturica without its example. 8½ was also a dividing point in Fellini’s career, after which he took up a kind of free-form fresco filmmaking, which bugged the hell out of many.
It is curious then, considering that it was a creative fount built by one of its era’s most iconic artists, that 8½ takes as its concern the theme of creative crisis—the precise loss of clear inspiration and artistic purpose. Fellini kept a sign taped to the camera during production reminding him that the film was supposed to be a comedy, and, indeed, it is a woozily funny film. But it often is underscored with an air of frantic desperation and suffocating intensity, its fumbling search for meaning and metaphor that hasn’t already been beaten to death or prostituted out to any gimmick-merchant around. Underneath its comedic surfaces, 8½ has an often grim message to communicate about the state of modern marriage, manhood, and art.
Fellini presents his troubled alter ego Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) as a director who’s in a state of artistic, intellectual, and moral inertia even as everyone around works themselves into a frenzy. He’s given his draft screenplay to Carini (Jean Rougeul), a pompous, relentlessly critical intellectual, precisely so he will do exactly what he does with it—tear it to pieces—despite the fact that sets are being built, cast members assembled, and diplomatic paths being smoothed for proposed sequences involving the church. Guido hasn’t shown anyone else the script; the truth is he’s abandoned the project, but can’t tell anyone.
Throughout the film, Guido dips into moments of reverie, fantasy, and memory that reflect why he’s in such a state, and creep around the edges of his root anxieties. In the immortal, surreal opening, Guido dreams of being trapped in a traffic jam, dying of asphyxiation, then suddenly rising free as a kite, only to find himself still tethered to the earth, to which he falls abruptly like a stone into the sea. Later, he has a conversation with his dead father (Annibale Ninchi) and recalls a childhood filled with moments of communal joy, as when he and other kids pressed grapes in a gigantic barrel, of erotic discovery, as when he and his pals go to watch the gyrations of Seraghina (Eddra Gale), a big old beefy tart, and of forceful punishment after being caught in this act by the guardians of church morality.
These episodes are more than navel-gazing. Guido is engaged in a kind of private, psychological mystery, trying to understand his inability to unite his loving and carnal sides. He has drifted away from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), whose highbrow glasses, short hair, and air of exhausted acquiescence identify her as the frazzled exemplar of the intelligent modern woman, to have an ongoing affair with a foolish but sensual married bourgeois, Carla (Sandra Milo). Several of his male friends are cheerfully hooking up with girls far younger, like his producer with his tag-along teenaged concubine, and Mario (Mario Pisu), who’s happily romping with his daughter’s school friend, the loopy Gloria (Barbara Steele).
Around Guido swirls the madhouse that is the ordinary world. He has retreated to a health spa outside Rome to try to get his wits together, but he’s been followed by the whole apparatus of the film production, including the producer Pace (Guido Alberti), whom he greets with salaams and bows. At the spa, hordes of doughy dowagers and leathery brahmins queue to blaring classical music and display humanity at its most vain, gross, and vulnerable. Guido hangs on to the most singular vision in his proposed film, of a stunningly beautiful and innocent girl (Caterina Boratto), who he wants to be played by star Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), conjuring her in moments of oppression and sadness. Carini dismisses her as an obvious symbol, but this doesn’t dispel the yearning she embodies for Guido.
The only person who withholds herself from Guido’s gravitational force, and thus remains his equal, is his wife’s sly, critical, amused friend Rossella (Rossella Falk). Guido indulges in moments of pure fantasy, as when he imagines himself casually ordering the writer’s hanging, and when he draws all the women in his life together into a dreamland harem, exiling those who have become too old “upstairs” and putting down momentary feminist revolutions with a few good cracks of his whip. It’s a particularly crucial sequence because of its bluntly funny look at the masculine sexual psyche, as Guido accuses himself of childish egotism in his inability to commit, but also relaxes within that childishness, for the harem is in the rural villa of his childhood. He bathes in the same colossal barrel as the grapes were pressed, and the place has the same atmosphere of freedom and rampant indulgence—sexual overlordship imbued with a playtime vivacity. He imagines Rossella hanging about to enjoy the spectacle (she takes the place of a tomboy girl who was his friend in the childhood memory); Gloria shivers in masochistic ecstasy and declares at the lash of his whip, “delizioso!”; and Luisa plays the domestic drudge with cheery acceptance. But out in the real world, when Guido invites Luisa to join him at the spa, she brings Rossella and a young male friend who sparks Guido’s jealousy. And of course, the sight of Carla hanging about the town drives Luisa to a fuming fit. Despite Guido’s real delight in bringing Luisa back into his life, they soon collide in a spiteful bust-up in their hotel room, as Guido is forced to contend with Luisa’s buried anger mixed into a poisonous potion with love.
The artier European filmmakers of the era were experimenting with consciously erasing the edges of the familiar grammar of narrative cinema, and Fellini’s frames, beautifully shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, teem with inky black recesses and hazy, overbright spaces into and out of which characters leap and tumble away in reeling rows, shoving weird faces into view and whipping them away again, or becoming lost in indistinctly defined, maze-like structures and abodes, full of murk and mystery, dropping in half-heard snatches of conversations, jostling and provoking the eye and the mind. Whilst far from abstract, Fellini successfully generates a giddy world dusted with the lightest frost of surrealism. The greatness of 8½ was precisely in being conceived and executed as a comedy despite its painful dramatic concerns; it’s precisely in this way that it avoids pretentiousness and self-importance. Guido is both central to and yet also entirely unimportant to the people whirling about him, who need his inventions to justify their animation but who will become animated without justification.
Fellini’s cast is impeccable, and the whole ensemble, from the brilliant Mastroianni to the underused but ever-intoxicatingly weird Steele, rise to deliver; Aimee is particularly splendid. As the lore around the movie attests, 8½ was originally intended to be a pseudo-sequel to La Dolce Vita (1960), which Fellini had announced would concern itself with the young sprite whose call to renewal went unheeded by the last Mastroianni-embodied Fellini stand-in. And yet 8½ is still more or less that sequel, presenting variations on scenes from the predecessor, but with certain twists on their meaning. An outdoor, nighttime party scene in Vita, with its air of racy self-indulgence, is mirrored here in a goofy, try-hard replica, riddled through with tedious intellections and dopey dancing. A flight into the city night with a movie star resolves not in pagan fountain-bathing, but soulful confession. The monstrous intimation of the future that was the sea beast is here the clapboard rocket ship that is finally demolished without a second thought once the production is scrapped.
La Dolce Vita’s Dickensian wit, sourced like Dickens’ writing in a gift for a feral skit vital to the good journalist (both men were reporters in their youth; and, just as Mastroianni was followed around by “Paparazz” in Vita, Mario calls Guido “Old Snaporazz” here) described its society superlatively well but retained a slippery façade of moral and intellectual finger-wagging. La Dolce Vita strained to use elements of symbolism, expressionism, and old-fashioned bawdiness to expand the scope of the Neorealist tradition, whilst maintaining a critical stance, attempting to effectively analyse, in however fumbling a fashion, social lapses and the failing efforts of European intelligentsia to redefine the modern world, with its pagan impulses, pop culture, and apocalyptic underpinnings. 8½ is angry with the previous film’s pat caricatures and reductive pessimism, seeking instead to venture inward and celebrate the capacity of creativity, if truly let loose, to repaint the world in new colours—it is art’s riposte and response at last to the stifling dictates of politics, academia and journalism.
The film, for all its moments of illness and fractiousness, is generous, even allowing its irritating critic a lucid and sympathetic soliloquy that encapsulates the nature of an artist’s role. “I wanted to make an honest film,” Guido himself eventually defines his aim, “No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves.” The irony is that 8½ did offer such a freedom, a spiritual gateway into counterculture.”
How 8 1/2 made the Top 100:
Frank Aida No. 8
Ed Howard No. 13
Samuel Wilson No. 14
Bill Riley No. 41