A film director (Mastroianni) is struggling to find the creativity required to deliver his next movie and consequently is being hassled by industry figures as well as his wife and his mistress. In order to escape his tormentors, the director retreats into a world of memories, dreams and fantasies. The result is a dazzling array of themes and images which make 8 1/2 the quintessential Fellini movie. It also closely mirrors his own problems prior to getting the project off the ground.
Reviewing a film like 8½ is quite tough. Easy to recommend, hard to say why, and impossible to say whether you’ll like it, regardless of how much you appreciate it. Suffice to say it is an intensely personal film for the director, Federico Fellini, and it might just be one for you too. Its beauty is intoxicating whatever your conclusion, so dive in, embrace it and let it simmer on your mind.
It has such a varied and playful structure, that scenes can differ wildly, verging on a collection of set-pieces, yet they flow effortlessly together between Guido’s (Mastroianni) present, his fantasies, and his past. His memory of the exotic Saraghina is a stunning moment in particular. There would be a tendency these days to make the memories and dreams overly romantic and strange to emphasise their place in the story, but here the moments in Guido’s reality can be just as theatrical. There is no signposting between them either, challenging your own perception of the events. What I’m trying to say is that there appears to be no design, when of course there is. In fact, it is astonishingly clever as the self-referential dialogue relates to us the difficulty Fellini is having while making his eighth and a half film, within the film we are watching! Phew… I’m reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation screenplay. He had been asked to adapt a novel and the film is about his attempt and failure to do so. While it bends your mind, it boils down to the writer having a block and working it out on screen. Fellini is doing a similar thing.
Mastroianni is marvellous as Guido and he has a great cast to support him, especially the women. The wonderful Anouk Aimée is his long suffering wife, and may be his and the films anchor, while he is teased in his own mind at least by Claudia Cardinale. Barbara Steele also pops up and her entrance is a real wow moment! I’ve often said I think Hitchcock gave Grace Kelly the best entrance of any actress in Rear Window. I’m tempted to put Barbara’s introduction a close second.
Here in these elements is where the film can easily divide an audience. Guido is exhausted, as much from his affairs as from a previous film, but because we are so focused on him and he is suffering from essentially being too successful, it is easy to see it as pretentious self-pity, which he is suffering at his own convenience, you might say. And the film is clearly so personal to Fellini that it may be auto-biographical, so you can’t help but wonder if he is coming to terms with his own addictions and shortfalls by making 8½. So at the end, he feels better and self-satisfied because he shared it with us? If the film wasn’t so bloody good, its self-serving nature and cheap treatment of women could be offensive.
It does have a light and cheeky sense of humour throughout from the first moment to the end and in truth, you are not forced into sympathising with anyone, things just move along as they would naturally. You see his dreams and fantasies, but it is not some sentimental inner voice relating them to us in retrospect, dictated by a narrative. Indeed it entirely avoids committing to having some sort of focused resolution. We see them as they happen and all his neuroses, faults and ambitions are laid bare. Guido is a hard character to dislike, regardless of your perspective (oddly the same problem his wife has!) and it is possibly the most honest and pure film ever made.
I have recently watched three Italian films from the early 60s that demonstrated how Neo-Realism had evolved. Il Posto, La Commare Secca and Mamma Roma (also 1962). That last one, an early film from Pier Paolo Pasolini, demonstrated how the director was seeking such realism in his work that he didn’t want the audience to entirely forget they were watching a film. As such, there is a brief moment where a young actor stumbles during a dance scene and, embarrassed, his eyes look straight at the camera. Passolini left this ‘mistake’ in as part of the experience. The barriers between the film-makers and their audience were being broken down, even while the film still had a poetic and important story to tell.
Fellini took this to a natural end-point in 8½. There is no story as such to tell as it is merely a snapshot within the film-making process. So it’s an enigma because it could be the purest expression of realism, but there’s surely nowhere else for it to go. And does it even have a point? Well, it is at least a fascinating demonstration of what film can achieve and should be required viewing for everyone. So I suppose it makes its own point, which just sums up the whole, wonderful, infuriating genius of the thing!