An examination of Fellini’s “8 1/2”

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Director Federico Fellini has long been one of Italy’s most important gifts to the world of cinema. A daring and proficient filmmaker, Fellini had a career that featured various stages of evolution. Most notably was his turn from popular Italian neorealism to an almost surreal fantasy mode of cinematic storytelling. There are some who have viewed Fellini’s shift in style and approach as a turn in the wrong direction and a small handful of his later films may support that view. But I can’t go along with that, especially when said style shift gave us treasures like “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2”.

“8 1/2” is a semi-autobiographical film that gets its name from the eight and a half feature films and shorts Fellini had made up to that point. For the first time in his life Fellini was experiencing a creative stall. His struggles with director’s block inspired him to start over and make a film about a prominent Italian director laboring through the same creative pains. Trusted actor and friend Marcello Mastroianni would play the lead role of Guido Anselmi who is an undeniable reflection of Fellini with a few added dramatic twists.

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At first glance it may be easy to dismiss “8 1/2” as a malaise of off-beat dream sequences and surreal imagery. But as with every great cinematic work, there are layers of creativity and ambition that one can’t appreciate with a single viewing. There is no doubting that at that point in his career Fellini was a visual storyteller and his images play a pivotal part in “8 1/2”. But they aren’t images just for the sake of images. Fellini has specific things in mind and it takes some digging to find their meaning.

Take his dream sequences as an example. Each of the film’s dream sequences serve as an escape for Guido – a refuge from the anxiety and stresses of his real life. But each dream also feeds us information about who Guido really is. Some are simply memories taken from his past. Some are past memories heightened with hyperbolic flare. Others are full blown dreams emphasizing Guido’s perspectives, his fantasies, or his different states of mind. In other words the dream sequences in “8 1/2” aren’t simply indulgences or vain attempts at masking Fellini’s uncertainties.

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While the movie isn’t thick with plot, it paints a mesmerizing portrait. Its story resides within the Guido character and the absorbing performance from Mastroianni. We get an idea of who Guido is through the film’s unforgettable opening scene. While caught up in a massive traffic jam smoke filters from the vents of his car filling the cab. Desperate for help he pounds the windows, but everyone around him simply stares. He manages to escape and makes an angelic-like ascension. But while in the air and getting a small taste of freedom, he feels the tug from a rope that is tied around his leg. On the other end of the rope is a member of his production team who represents the maddening life he can’t seem to escape.

Guido is surrounded by chaos. He is a respected director working on a big budget science fiction picture, but his deadline to begin filming has come and gone. A huge hunk of “8 1/2” takes place at a fancy Italian resort where his cast and crew have gathered to begin working on the film. The problem is Guido has hit a creative wall and his apathy is frustrating everyone involved. He is bombarded with pressure from his short-tempered producer, his misanthropic lead writer, a high-maintenance French actress, and several others from his production crew. Guido has no defined plan for his movie and we slowly witness the emotional toll it is taking on him.

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There is another contributor to Guido’s melancholy. It’s his messy, complicated web of relationships which includes his wife and mistress. The alluring Anouk Aimée plays Guido’s wife Luisa, a smart and elegant woman frustrated by her husband’s indifference. Carla (Sandra Milo), his mistress, is a chintzy, nagging starlet who irritates as much as excites. It appears as if Guido juggles these relationships without an ounce of thought. At one point in the film he has both women at the resort at the same time. But is this simply a mismanagement of his mangled love life or is it an intentional move by a man desperate for some form of resolution? As with most of “8 1/2” there is more to it than what we see on the surface.

Guido’s perception of women, love, and romance is skewed. We see this in the film’s famous harem dream sequence which features all of the women in Guido’s life embodying various fulfillments of his imagination. While it does reveal his warped perspectives, the dream also visualizes the internal conflict that’s fueling Guido’s deteriorating state of mind. In essence Guido can’t escape the turmoil in his dreams or his reality. To combat this mental and emotional back-and-forth Guido loses himself in reoccurring visions of the “perfect” woman. The stunning Claudia Cardinale represents his ultimate fantasy. She is his symbol of purity, spontaneity, and innocence. She is always dressed in white and she appears with a ghostly elegance and grace. She is his dream girl.

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But as with everything else in Guido’s life, reality offers a much different perspective than his fantasies. That gets to the greater point of “8 1/2” – dealing with reality instead of fleeing from it and finding genuine inner happiness. At the same time and more directly Fellini examines the pains and pressures that accompany creativity – the inspirations and expectations filmmakers struggle with during the creative process. Roger Ebert called this the best film ever made about filmmaking. It’s hard to argue with him.

“8 1/2” is a movie that marches to its own beat and it doesn’t follow any established formula or convention. It is free of any and all caution and hesitation. It is a film that will undoubtedly still have detractors who won’t completely respond to its unbridled vision. But it could be said that the true beauty of “8 1/2” is found in its confusion. It’s found in the physical and psychological mayhem. It’s found in Fellini’s unique film language and audacious visual approach. And the most amazing thing about “8 1/2”? It found its genesis and inspiration in the mind of a struggling, burdened auteur. It just goes to show that true cinematic art, much like the life we choose to live, originates within us and not in some polished and meticulously detailed script.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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23 thoughts on “An examination of Fellini’s “8 1/2”

    • Thanks so much! Appreciate you reading and taking time to comment. I had so much fun putting this together and hope more people will give it a look.

  1. Great write-up. I need to revisit this; first saw it at a young age expecting something much more surreal and was disappointed. Now I’m more mature in my tastes, I suspect I’ll get more out of it.

    • Hey thanks so much. I appreciate the comments. It’s a movie that has really come alive to me during my recent revisits. I think I now have a greater appreciation for what Fellini was going for.

    • Wow. Thanks for the kind words. I’ve been wanting to write about 8 1/2 for a while but it always left so many things swirling in my head. I rewatched it twice recently and decided to tackle it. Lots of fun.

    • I think it may be that a dream sequence or two did seem to drag a bit. In fact the famous harem scene had a lot of meaning but it did tend to go on and on. And there a few little quirks that Fellini intentionally includes and I have no clue what they mean. Not major issues nor are they disruptive. And in the end I think I simply compared it in my mind to the very, very favorites of mine. It was just a minuscule hair behind them.

      Thanks for reading. Great movie to get deep into and dissect. More Fellini in a couple of weeks as I do my second BlindSpot post of the year.

  2. Good read! It has been a long time since I watched this, so I should probably watch it again. I did watch La Dolce Vita and Roma for the first time a couple of years ago. There are some obvious connections between those two and 8 1/2, but some not-so-obvious ones that I’ve only just realised because you’ve mentioned them as themes here.

    • Thanks so much for taking time to read. Really enjoyed revisiting this one and finally being able to put my thoughts together about it. So much going on on the surface and under the surface. As for La Dolce Vita, look for more on it in a week or so. It’s the next film in my 2015 BlindSpot series!

  3. Hey Keith, thanks for such a fantastic write-up! I forgot to put this one on my Blindspot, so it’ll be on my next year’s list. Fellini sounds like a visual maestro!

    • He truly was Ruth and it was interesting to see the evolution of his career. I have another Fellini movie coming up in a few days. It’s part of my 2015 BlindSpot.

      8 1/2 is so unique. If you were to just watch a few scenes from it you would think it was a convoluted mess. But once the movie is over and you really start digging into what you saw, you quickly realize that Fellini has so much going on both visually and narratively. It’s truly a remarkable movie.

  4. Oh, give me Fellini any day. His astute romanticism, his superb etherealism, his prodigious visual flow and that mastery of character. I haven’t watched this movie along with La Dolce Vita in a very long while. Superb essay and breakdown, Keith. Very well done. I need to track this down from my collection. I do think I may have a copy on dvd. Incredible work here, man!

    • Thanks so much. this was a lot of fun to write. As you probably know there is so much in this film. Fellini was a creative genius and the history alone behind this is incredible. Not sure if this post resonated with many people but I really felt it’s a movie worthy of examination and hopefully more people who haven’t seen it will give it a look.

    • Thanks so much Cindy. I don’t rightly feel my words do it justice. It’s simply astounding. Really wanted to right about it and hopefully open it up to more people.

  5. Good analysis, Keith, as always. Have you watched ”La Grande Bellezza”? Here in Italy it’s considered by many somewhat of modern spiritual heir of ”8 1/2”.

      • Yeah, Paolo Sorrentino is one of the modern Italian film-makers that seem to be very interesting. He directed an amazing movie Youth with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, maybe you have heard of it. Really loved it! 🙂 It received a whole bunch of awards that year.

      • I do remember Youth. Also I just realized that the previous film you recommended is also “The Great Beauty”. I do remember it. It won the Best Foreign Language Oscar a couple of years ago. I still need to see it.

      • Ah yes! I wrote the name in Italian, pardon. Since I moved in Italy I start to behave more similar to the Italians haha. Yes, he got some good recognition… How did you find Youth? The Paul Dano scene -when he was ‘punished’ by the girl – was INCREDIBLE.

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