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  • Manny Labram

Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, 1963 - Review

Updated: Jan 31

“You wonder, what is the director really trying to do? Make us think? Scare us? That ploy betrays a basic lack of poetic inspiration.”

A beautifully honest portrayal of the trials and tribulations of a film director, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is a classic Italian avant-garde, surrealist-comedy drama film. Directed and co-written (with Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano and Brunello Rondi) by Federico Fellini, 8 ½ centres around an acclaimed director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), as he attempts to complete his sci-fi epic. Shot in black and white, Guido struggles to find balance between his work and personal life. In the chaos, he retreats into his memories and fantasies of all the women in his life.

8 ½ excellently blurs the lines between reality and fantasy to deliver a powerful and complex character study of the famed film director, Guido. For a film that is so multilayered, the plot is rather straightforward. Guido is a successful film director. We find out that his new project is a high budget sci-fi drama. Guido wants his film to be honest and to have no lies. However, the esteemed director is suffering from a creative block. Struggling to push through his creative crisis, Guido sinks deeper and deeper into profound memories and fantasies, mostly of various women in his life.

The reasoning behind Guido’s turmoil to create his passion project is made more clear as we take a look into his personal life. His marriage is failing. After renowned film critic Carini Daurnier (Jean Rougeul) gives Guido a damning critique of his film ideas so far, Guido, with his head sunk into his hands and eyes hidden by his shades, calls upon his mistress to visit him onset. The curvaceous and flamboyant Carla (Sandra Milo) is Guido’s not so secret lover. She is also the cause of Guido’s rocky marriage to his estranged wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée). Unlike her giddy rival, Luisa is an intellectual and is much more grounded. She too visits Guido whilst he prepares for his film. She quickly sees through Guido’s lies about his apparent termination of his relationship with his mistress after Claudia boldly makes her presence known.

Why piece together the tatters of your life - the vague memories, the faces... the people you never knew how to love?

Early on we see Guido fantasise about a beautiful mystery woman bringing him a glass of water amidst a crowd of his film entourage. This dream sequence is short in comparison to others. It’s a subtle but clear nod to Guido’s fixation with the opposite sex.

More of Guido’s female centred fantasies give us a deeper insight to his complex character. He dreams of his mother and father. His relationship with them feels somewhat distant despite their traditional parental behaviour. Guido wishes he could have spent more time with his father, as there are many things he wished he could have asked him. He greets his mother with two kisses on the cheek, he then goes in for a kiss on the lips. As he does, she suddenly turns into his wife. In line with the psychiatric theory that many men are attracted to their mothers, it would seem Guido has found a maternal replacement in his wife. The dream also shows just how Guido felt distant towards his mother, so too has that distance manifested in his relationship with Luisa.

Guido also reminisces about a childhood encounter with La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), a prostitute Guido and his friends visit on a beach. The voluptuous prostitute dances in the sand for Guido and his friends, leading to Guido being reprimanded by the church. It’s interesting to note that La Saraghina is more similar to Carla as she is curvy, energetic, and naughty. Earlier in the film Guido even dresses Carla in whorish makeup and clothes. Perhaps his experience with La Saraghina is the reason he neglects the strong, intelligent, nurturing Luisa, for the playful, titillating Carla.

“Down with Guido!”

The film is most lively when Guido falls into another fantasy where he reigns over a harem of beautiful women from his past. They dote on Guido, pampering him at every turn. The scene is a manifestation of Guido’s mistreatment of the women in his life and is an introspective look into how he perceives them. The women soon rebel against the tyrant and reveal harsh truths about his character. They curse his mistreatment of women above a certain age. Guido’s position of power is crumbling. The scene is made even more epic as Richard Wagner’s famous The Ride of Valkyries plays. In the scene’s crescendo, it's none other than Luisa who assures the other women “This is how things are meant to be.” whilst returning to traditional housewife duties.

Throughout 8 ½ Guido’s afflictions are made worse by his film entourage. Writers, producers, and actresses hound him as they try to unravel the mystery of the film. But Guido’s once adored artistry remains suppressed as he still cannot find the inspiration to complete the film. The star director is by no means a timid character, however, we do empathise with him over his torment by those around him. We can all relate to the pressure of work responsibilities and approaching deadlines causing much stress.

Guido’s character and lust for women is summarised when he finally meets his ideal woman, Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), who he had previously daydreamed about. Guido unloads the plot of his film onto her, illuminating Claudia that in the end it is she who becomes the lost protagonist's salvation. We come to understand that the film’s protagonist is a reflection of Guido. We see dreamlike glimpses of Claudia in the scene Guido describes to her. Then, to Guido’s unapproval, Claudia shares her thoughts. She says the protagonist isn’t someone an audience can sympathise due to his incapacity to love properly. Defeated, Guido calls off the film.

“This life is so full of confusion already, that there's no need to add chaos to chaos.”

As for my favourite scene, I was torn between Guido’s fantasy of all the women in his life rebelling against him, or the film’s ending. I believe the ending takes the win due to its more positive symbolism. The producers call a press conference though Guido had called off the film. Succumbed by the relentless journalist’s questions about the film, Guido wallows beneath a table and imagines shooting himself in the head as an escape. Though a somewhat clichéd moment, it felt genuine given its pretence. We see Guido walk away from his failed film set, ready to throw in the towel, whilst Carini, the film critic, delivers a powerful monologue. He soundly rationalises that giving up on the film was for the best. In perfect poetism, he tells Guido “Destroying is better than creating when we’re not creating truly necessary things.” But before Guido can finally lay his film to rest, all the people in his life, past and present, appear before him on set. Inspired, Guido finally accepts himself and his true feelings. In a touching finale, himself and Luisa join the parading group, hands held together.

It is no wonder 8 ½ is amongst so many film directors’, even Fellini’s himself, favourite movies. Its excellent exploration into the difficulties endured during the creative process is accurate and of profound quality. If creativity is to be able to express something in an imaginative way, then fumbling to find that in which you wish to express is surely a travesty to a creative’s self-esteem. Guido is at odds with himself as he suffers from a creative block. Marcello Mastroianni is able to masterfully portray the character’s vulnerability as he searches for inspiration. As someone working in the creative industry, though not quite a filmmaker, I can relate to the hardships of not being able to conjure true emotions into my work. It makes you second guess yourself, and there’s a self-loathing that comes with it. Mastroianni does well to capture Guido’s flatness. Wanting to say something, but not knowing what, is a truly difficult dilemma.

“I've figured out what you're trying to get at: a man's inner confusion. But you must be clear and get your point across. If what you have to say is interesting, it must be so for everybody.”

In both Fellini and Guido’s case, their personal life has spilled into their work. A fun piece of film trivia is that Fellini attached a note onto his camera that read “Remember, this is a comedy.” Just as the director was so beautifully able to blend fantasy and reality in 8 ½, so too were the lines blurred between personal commentary and drama. As is often the case, in creative instances at least, the use of personal experiences helps elevate the project, which is definitely the case here.

“Forgive me for making all these references, but we critics do what we can.”

The dynamic characters of 8 ½ will captivate viewers throughout. Guido’s character reminds me of a quote from Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop motion film, Fantastic Mr. Fox - “I think I have this thing where I need everybody to think I'm the greatest, the quote-unquote Fantastic Mr. Fox. And if people aren't knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don't feel good about myself.” Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anseli, with his good looks, slicked back silver fox hair, and playful but authoritative demeanour, demands admiration from his counterparts and viewers. Mastroianni is perfectly able to play the character Guido. He superbly shows the character in his most vulnerable moments with a dash of whim and grace, helping us sympathise with him.

The supporting cast help elevate the drama and chaos. I particularly liked (perhaps due to personal aspirations) Jean Rougeul as the well-spoken film critic Carini Daumier. I enjoyed his poetic monologues at the beginning and end of the film. He is also like a devil on Guido’s shoulder, at times pushing him to give up. Anouk Aimée as Luisa Anselmi, and Sandra Milo as Carla, were exceptional in playing the two opposite lovers of Guido.

“He acts like a little boy, but he's really very complex.”

The incredible writing in 8 ½ stands as a timeless testament to Fellini's genius. The film Guido wishes to create is the film we watch. Fellini incorporates scenes from 8 ½ into Guido’s vision for the movie. Many of the actors and actresses share the same name as the characters they play. Guido even at times sings to himself snippets of 8 ½’s soundtrack, which even by 21st century standards is pretty meta. Coupled with the mesmerising black and white cinematography, and epic but delicate soundtrack composed by Nina Rota, the film maintains its dreamlike essence throughout.

There are not a lot of negatives I can say about 8 ½. Some criticise its complexity and note the film needs more than one viewing to fully understand. Whilst I do think it is a film that benefits from multiple viewings, I think on first watch most viewers won’t be left confused. I think the entertaining surrealism of the dream sequences and the pithy dialogue helps carry its otherwise slow and intimate plot. My only caution is you very much need to be in the mood for a compelling film otherwise there is potential to find it pretentious.

“I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film to help bury forever all the dead things we carry around inside. Instead, it's me who lacks the courage to bury anything at all.”

Fellini’s 8 ½ is a bold cinematic masterpiece. It’s not often that you get films that are both challenging and entertaining, but 8 ½ succeeds quite effortlessly. Past all its interesting film trivia, its great balance of cinema artistry and compelling storytelling help deliver a classic that would do well on I think most people’s all time favourite movie lists. I’d love to give it an ironic 8.5 overall score, but I’ll give it a more accurate 9/10.

Overall rating - 9/10


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