8 1⁄2 (1963)
A harried movie director retreats into his memories and fantasies.
Back in the 1980s, I took an A-level in Film Studies and the genres we looked at were American Westerns—mainly John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956)—and Italian Neo-Realism, like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Vittori De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948). That’s when I first came across the name Federico Fellini, who collaborated with Rossellini to adapt Sergio Amidei’s story for Rome Open City. The screenplay earned an Academy Award nomination. Fellini was also the assistant director and went on to work with Rossellini on a further four films.
Around the same time, Amarcord (1973), Fellini’s multi-award-winning memoir about growing up in a small Italian village during the 1930s Fascist regime, was broadcast on British TV. It was an overlong, colourful, irreverent, brash, and bawdy period drama hiding behind a pretence of comedy, depending on one’s sense of humour. I didn’t enjoy it but ended up writing an essay comparing its treatment of nostalgia, memory, and imagination with Fanny and Alexander (1982), Ingmar Bergman’s similar film set in Sweden. Critics continue to compare and contrast the work of these two important directors.
Jump forward a few years to the writing of my degree thesis about the many correlations of films, dreams, and ritual practices. My tutor told me that, for my arguments to be taken seriously, I must include commentary on Fellini’s 8½. Easier said than done, in the days before the heyday of video rental stores and with only one art cinema in Stoke-on-Trent. I resigned myself to spending hours in the college library looking at stills in film histories and reading what others had to say. It sure looked and sounded like a wonderful film.
In 1987, a survey of 30 leading intellectuals, critics, and filmmakers voted 8½ as “the most important European film ever made”. In the 1990s, the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine named Fellini as the most significant film director—of all time—and listed two of his movies, La Strada (1954) and 8½, as among the 10 most influential! Both films had already been recognised with swathes of international accolades including Oscars for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’.
In this way, mystique and mythos grew around Fellini’s 8½ and yet it remained the greatest film I’d never seen for all those decades. Now, to celebrate the centenary of the director’s birth, there’s a new 2K restoration on Blu-ray from CultFilms, released alongside three other Fellini classics: I Vitelloni (1953), La Dolce Vita (1960), and Juliet of the Spirits (1965). So what better time to take my chance to finally give this legendary movie a long over-due viewing. Surely, it could never live up to such great expectations…
Okay, so at this point, you may well be thinking “gosh, this film reviewer’s ever so self-indulgent! About a thousand words in and he’s only really talking about himself so far!” Well, dear reader, if another’s self-indulgence bothers you, I suggest you steer clear of Fellini’s 8½ … and, no, it doesn’t come anywhere close to those (admittedly too high) expectations.
After a fantastic opening that had me engrossed, I only lasted about 45-minutes before feeling bored and vaguely ill… but I’d read so much about how awesome it was I had to stick with it and hope for a revelation. Unfortunately, nothing particularly profound ever revealed itself, but perseverance paid off with a few positives and I eventually achieved ambivalence.
Strange thing is, however, if I’d spent the runtime at an exhibition of stills lifted from the movie, I think I would’ve been impressed. For me, the cinematography is the movie’s saving grace, which is to be expected in the hands of Gianni Di Venanzo who already had more than 40 features to his name, working with other great directors including Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Joseph Losey and giallo-stylist, Elio Petri.
Under the direction of Fellini, he made 8½ a sumptuous visual feast full of tonal variations, from bleached-out otherworldly brightness to more sinister silhouettes and shadows. These variations in exposure serve to indicate transitions between the central character’s flights of fancy, his memories and the present. There are plenty of unusual and inventive camera angles and shots that look like they were mind-bogglingly complex to plan and choreograph.
Because it’s a film about filmmaking, he makes the medium’s language self-evident throughout, often including lamps and camera towers as mise-en-scène and altering lighting during a single shot. There’s also innovative use of freeze-frame to subtly extend a few moments and some under-cranking to speed up some scenes, most noticeably a priest chasing a young boy along a beach, like something from the Benny Hill show.
That young boy was Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), as a child, whom we first meet suffocating in a dream… trapped in a traffic jam on a hot day. Exhaust fumes fill the cab and he struggles to open a window as people in other cars look on, unmoved by his plight. Eventually, he manages to escape asphyxiation by scrambling out the window to stand on the roof of the stationary car before he lifts into the sky and soars among the clouds. This flight of freedom doesn’t last too long before a man on a beach, way below, tugs him down with the lasso caught about his ankle. The first line of dialogue is, “Doctor, I’ve got him!”
Turns out that Guido is a famous film director who seems to be feigning illness to escape the pressures of his current contract. His dream of being trapped in a vehicle that’s going nowhere is a heavy-handed metaphor for feelings of, well, being trapped by a situation and of having his creativity stifled.
His treatment is a stay at a holy spa where he’s prescribed to take the waters and have regular mud baths. It’s pretty clear early on that it’s going to be autobiographical, though the protagonist is not Fellini per se, but an avatar that shares his memories, obsessions, fears, and inadequacies. Literally a projection of himself. Apparently, the film grew out of a time when Fellini was contracted to deliver a film but found himself mired in a creative block and didn’t know what to make the film about. So he decided to make a film about that.
Guido’s first visitor at the spa is Daumier (Jean Rougeul) a French film critic who fancies himself as co-author of the film. His first comments criticise it for its “ambiguous realism” and for simply being a “series of gratuitous episodes…” Later he remonstrates Guido for proving “that cinema is irremediably behind all other arts by 50 years.”
This sets the pattern for the rest of the movie as it becomes increasingly self-referential and points out its flaws as it goes. Is this intended to ‘cleverly’ absolve those shortcomings? Even the title is simply referring to the number of films Fellini had directed at that point in his career—the ‘half’ being a segment, Marriage Agency, in the portmanteau Love in the City (1953), which included episodes directed by six other notable Italian directors of the day including Michelangelo Antonioni.
Another aspect of his life, that Guido flees from, is his marriage to the cool and intelligent Lousia (Anouk Aimée). So he ships in his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), by train, like a piece of pretty freight, and puts her up at a hotel near to his own. In contrast to his wife, Carla is lusty and sensual, and Milo was actually Fellini’s long-term extramarital ‘companion’ off-screen. One of the many elements in the film that reflect Fellini’s real life.
Claudia Cardinale plays the third woman, a beautiful innocent who appears at the spa to hand Guido a glass of holy water and clearly only exists in Guido’s imagination. His vision of the perfect woman. She’s called Claudia and is just one of several actors referred to by their ‘real’ names to suggest the merging of reality and fiction, further blurring those boundaries.
She later tells Guido, “I’ve come to stay and never leave, I want to bring order, I want to clean,” but one of my favourite scenes is a poetically gentle one in which Claudia appears in his hotel room and spends the night flicking through his notes. It seems that, unlike either his wife or his mistress, she’s genuinely interested in his creative life and his work… plus Claudia is beautiful and beautifully lit in each of her scenes—the film’s main attraction. Although not too challenging, her performance is perfect and, interestingly, this is the first role where her voice was not over-dubbed by another actress.
Fellini’s obsession with women is a trait that colours all of his films. He even went on to make a film called City of Women (1980), which again starred Marcello Mastroianni as an ageing businessman besieged by a bevvy of beautiful women he can’t escape. Fellini celebrated women whilst remaining honest about being a macho middle-class sexist. Perhaps typical of a successful Italian male matured in the mid-20th-century.
He excused his objectification, obsession, and fear of women as a response to his strict Catholic upbringing. Much of his art can be interpreted as working-though the Catholic guilt that stained him from an early age. One of the flashback sequences in 8½ deals directly with this, when the boy Guido and his friends pay an apparently homeless woman, La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), who lives in an abandoned bunker on the beach, to dance the rumba for them. They are caught by the priests from their school and, later, when Guido has to confess, the priest tells him that La Saraghina is the Devil.
Probably due to this ever-present spiritual angst, Fellini became interested in psychoanalysis and was fascinated by the writings of Carl Jung—who put forward the theory that the mind had a sort of anatomy, just like the body. Jung proposed that our minds are made up of a collection of what he termed, ‘archaetypes’[sic], including Persona, Self, Shadow-Self, Anima, Animus and the Ego. Even partially understanding what these are will give the viewer an easy way into 8½.
The Persona is the aspect that we share with others, it’s a construct that we create in order to interact and we have different personae for different situations. The way you talk to your parents may well differ from how you interact with professional colleagues, peers, children, lovers, and so on. We select the appropriate ‘mask’ for each occasion.
The Self designates the whole psychological range of an individual. It’s the part that makes and selects the right Personae for the job and expresses the unity of the person. However, the Self has an unconscious Shadow made up from those impulses, instincts, and fears that exist within… but are reluctantly, if ever, acknowledged.
The Anima is the primordial idea of a woman that resides in the minds of men and represents a biological expectation of women, as well as being a symbol of a man’s feminine or contrasexual tendencies. The Animus is the analogous image of the male that occurs in the female. Interestingly, every individual is said to have a version of each within their psyche, regardless of gender.
Which brings us to the Ego, the central ‘seat’ of consciousness. When we say, “I,” that’s our Ego talking. The Ego mediates between all our conscious aspects, considering our desires, whilst checking their social acceptability, selecting which thoughts to share and the language to use to do this…
Central to Jung’s approach is the idea that our archaetypal aspects can express themselves, unfettered, in dreams and in dreams we are often ‘accidentally’ more honest. He wrote that “art expression and images found in dreams could be helpful in recovering from trauma and emotional distress.” He was the father of dream analysis and art therapy!
It’s telling that Jung’s final book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, an autobiography published in 1961 was available in translation by 1963. Once you have a vague grasp of Jungian psychoanalysis, it becomes obvious that 8½ is Fellini working through these theories in relation to himself and casting those archaetypes as characters to play out their archaetypal scenarios.
The other key theory of Jung’s was that both real-life and stories are made up of archetypal motifs such as creation, apocalypse, the abyss, self-sacrifice, and resurrection. These are typified by common life-events including birth, death, our separation from parents, forms of initiation, marriage, and the union of opposites. Our lives, dreams and stories are populated with archetypal figures of the mother, father, child, devil, god, the wise old one, the maiden, the hag, a trickster, and the hero.
It seems that Fellini deliberately applied that checklist whilst making 8½, just as George Lucas did when structuring his Star Wars saga. Of course, if Jung is right, then all creatives apply them to some extent, just they’re usually more subtle and poetic about it. Fellini embraced this psychological, dreamy approach to filmmaking, proclaiming that he intended to “free movies from the slavery of reality”—a brave statement considering his formative years as a Neo-Realist.
It’s this deliberate application of psychoanalysis that aligns 8½ with surrealism and its roots can be seen in works such as Un Chien Andalou (1929) and particularly L’Age D’Or (1930) both collaborations between artist, Salvador Dali and director, Luis Buñuel that were also inspired by the writings of Jung and dealt with psycho-sexual angst and Catholic guilt. There are strong parallels in most of Buñuel’s films and Fellini cited him as a major influence.
It’s also worth noting that Jean Cocteau made dreamlike films that blurred the boundaries of dreams, fantasy, and reality—particularly Orpheus/Orphée (1950) and its sequel Testament of Orpheus, or Don’t Ask Me Why/Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me Demandez pas Pourquoi (1960), in which a poet reminisces about his life and work, examining the inspirations and obsessions that made him. The correlation with 8½ in its structure, themes and imagery is striking. Sadly, and rather ironically, Cocteau died the same year as Fellini made 8½. Personally, I’d vote for Cocteau over Fellini in any survey.
8½ may not be the worst film I’ve sat through, but it certainly isn’t the greatest! For me, its major strengths are its visual flair and the super-stylish Italian aesthetic of the early-’60s, along with its ability to elicit profound thoughts specific to an individual’s life experience and not necessarily linked to the film’s content. I also appreciate its considerable influence on many of my favourite films such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1979), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989), which has often been described as ‘Fellini-esque’. And even music, like many songs by Leonard Cohen and, of course, the 2001 Fish album Fellini Days!
I didn’t relish the watching of Fellini’s 8½, but I am enjoying having seen it finally… and I did appreciate its attempt at an overall positive and life-affirming final message, which is something like “rather than becoming frustrated at never finding the answers you’re looking for, simply enjoy the search…”
After contemplating suicide, Guido eventually finds closure with a kind of ambivalence. Or is it acceptance? In the surreal finale, he declares “life’s a party let’s live it together,” and takes his wife by the hand, then welcomes his many ‘other women’, his parents or at least his memories of them, those priests who had so terrified him as a boy, his professional colleagues who have hounded him for results, and most pertinently, he lets his child-self take centre stage. (Don’t worry, that’s not really a spoiler as there’s no story or strict narrative to spoil.)
Then he joins in the dance. There are clowns, a small dog, and a huge seemingly useless structure resembling a rocket launch tower. Everyone goes up the tall structure before everyone comes back down from it again… I think that’s a metaphor for life. Y’know, the only things to enjoy are the company of those around you and the views of the world from where you stand.
Oh, and whatever you carry with you, inside your own head… that’s your life, baby!
director: Federico Fellini.
writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli & Brunello Rondi (story by Federico Fellini & Ennio Flaiano).
starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk & Barbara Steele.