"In the case of 8 ½, something happened to me which I had feared could happen, but when it did, it was more terrible than I could ever have imagined. I suffered director's block, like writer's block. I had a waiting for me to make a film. What they didn't know was that the film I was going to make had fled from me..."
Fortunately this predicament led legendary director Federico Fellini to come up with his somewhat autobiographical masterpiece 8 ½, which is not only considered one of Fellini's all-time greatest achievements, but one of the greatest of all films about 'making a film' ever made. The story is about a film director named Guido who feels he is trapped and a prisoner of his own life and his own profession. Guido clearly represents Fellini and combines all his lusts, fears, sexual fetishes, desires and self doubts as a filmmaker and artist. Guido seeks advice from older clerics and priests which of course bring back his childhood guilt, sexual repression, shame, and current infidelities resulting in numerous flashbacks and dream sequences. 8 ½ is a film that is full of juxtaposed dreams, visions, lies, fantasies, and realities in a cinematic version of the director's own stream of consciousness. Moviegoers had to guess what was real and what was imagined with little help from the director, and almost no one knew for sure what they had seen after one viewing. Not only were there no answers, audiences could not agree about the questions. The beginning nightmare sequence in which Guido is caught between a horrifying traffic jam is the first of many extraordinary fantasy elements in the story, and they mostly focus on Guido's fears and the expectations of all the people in his life that expect nothing but greatness out of his work. The 'harem fantasy sequence' is one of the major highlights of 8 ½, where it involves Guido as the ruler of a household which is occupied by all the women in his life, including his wife, his mistresses, and even those he has always wanted to sleep with, but has not yet gotten the chance to. In this hilarious fantasy Guido is welcomed home by all the women of his household, as they treat him like a respected king, by drawing him a bath, washing him, cooking and feeding him, and entertaining him with music and dancing. Once any of his women get to be the age of 30 he casts them out, and sends them upstairs, as this extremely pathetic and quite sad comic fantasy sequence explores the arrogance of male chauvinism and makes for a fascinating contrast to Guido's real world; in which his wife will no longer put up with his current infidelities, and ultimately will leave him because of it.
The film opens as a man named Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is trapped in his vehicle. There is a traffic jam and it's like a scene from a horrific nightmare as all the drivers and passengers in their vehicles are frozen, all eyes coldly watching Guido's inner turmoil. Every face is on him and there's a shot of Guido's mistress Carla being felt up in her vehicle by a dirty older man. There's a creepy shot of faceless limbs hanging out of the windows of a bus. Suddenly smoke starts leaking through the dashboard of the car making Guido unable to breathe. Trying his best to get out he uses his feet to break down the windows. He realizes it doesn't work so he opens his passenger window and slightly budges out until he liberates himself from the car.
After he's finally free it shows Guido slowly floating away from the top of his vehicle making his escape. It is like a rebirth as Guido now is flying through the air above the ocean exhilarated in the freedom that he now has made for himself. Suddenly he feels a snag and you can see two men from land that caught him with a rope. The two men are his press agent and Claudia's agent on horseback as they declare, "Counselor, I've got him.. Down, come down. Down for good." The rope serves as a symbol of the film industry’s control and near ownership of Guido’s life. The men finally pull him back to land as you see his body fall helplessly back down to earth and into the ocean. Guido wakes up.
After Guido wakes up from his nightmare you see he checked himself into a spa for two weeks postponing the shoot of his science-fiction film. Guido is slightly sick with a doctor at his side giving him mineral water so he can recover as his bed is covered by various of pictures of actresses for his upcoming film. One of his doctors asks him, "what are you cooking up for us now? Another film with no hope?" Guido has a big task at hand, because he's a film director and he's in post production now of one of the biggest most expensive projects he has ever done. There's just one problem: He has writers block and is suffering from a midlife crises and secretly has no idea what the film he is creating is about. Guido is a successful director who now feels exhausted and worn down and is completely out of ideas. From past major successes Guido is expected to create nothing but greatness and everyone from his producer, his critical writer Daumier and all his actors and actresses want to know how the production of this upcoming film is moving along. After Guido gets out of bed he goes into the hotel bathroom and looks at his aging self in the mirror as the bathroom solar light eventually turns on.
The next sequence is Guido at the hotel public spa in which he has his first vision of the virginal white goddess Claudia, (Claudia Cardinale) running to him and offering him a glass of steaming water. She is an actress that he has chosen for his upcoming film and is also the image of perfection and the only thing that makes sense to Guido. Daumier starts to criticize Guido's ideas on his upcoming science fiction film as immature and self-indulgent saying, "On first reading its evident that the film lacks a central conflict, or philosophical premise. Forgive me, but this might be the most pathetic demonstration ever that cinema is irremediably behind all other arts by 50 years. The subject matter doesn't even have the merits of an avant-garde film, while possessing all its shortcomings. Here are my notes, I doubt they will be helpful." Guido tries not to listen to Daumier so he suddenly gets up and talks to an old friend named Mario who introduces Guido to his new younger fiancé Gloria who's a big fan of Guido's films even saying she got into a fight with a friend for being critical of his last film.
That evening Guido heads to the train station to pick up his gaudy married mistress Carla and while awaiting for her arrival he reads Daumier's notes and gets angry and throws them on the ground, but eventually picks the notes back up. Carla finally arrives with five suitcases of luggage and Guido tells her, "listen, I couldn't actually get you a room in my hotel. Besides it's full of people who know me. So I found someplace else. A wonderful hotel. Very charming." Guido secretly sets her up at a separate hotel trying to keep their relationship low-key.
At first he regrets asking her to come when she starts complaining about her husband but that evening while in bed together they do some role-playing and she starts to make dirty faces which of course sexually satisfies Guido. "What do you have in mind? Have you been a good boy?" Guido...do you love me?" she asks as she opens her towel and gives herself to him.
That evening while in bed with Carla, Guido has a dream of him reuniting with his dead parents at a cemetery, while it shows his mother polishing his father's tomb. Guido tries to ask his dead father questions but his father keeps avoiding them which is similar to Guido avoiding questions from everyone else in his present life. There's an interesting shot of him kissing his mother and when pulled away she turns into his wife Luisa.
The next morning after Guido wakes up he heads in the elevator which is full of priests and cardinals, which gives off a claustrophobic environment that the elevator is a sort of confessional. In the grand hotel lobby the camera seems to try and catch up with Guido as he quickly tries to avoid multiple producers, movie stars, journalists and reporters who keep asking him questions on the science-fiction movie that he is making and his upcoming projects. There is a humorous scene where he is introduced to several elderly men up for a part in his movie and Guido says they aren't old enough. His casting director then shouts, "What? This one's about to drop dead. Next time I'll get three corpses."
Later that evening outside at the spa everyone starts dancing out on the dance floor as Guido is trying to entertain his peers and his mistress Carla, who unfortunately came outside for dinner and is sitting all alone at a table. So he has one of his assistants ask her to dance to keep her company. Guido's friend Mario pulls Guido aside and tells him that he knows his girlfriend Gloria is very young and probably only is with him for his money and yet he still loves her and wants to marry her. Guido supports his friends decision but has a lot of other things on his mind, including a French actress who has just arrived at the spa, confronting Guido on her role for his film. She is dying to know more about her role for a part that Guido had promised her saying to him, "I need a long time to live with my character. I need to get inside her skin, her ideas, or I just can't do it." Since he himself doesn't even know her character and if he even has a role for her in the film anymore, he tries to avoid the question. Suddenly among all this craziness Guido seems to go into another dream sequence where it introduces Maya a fortune teller who appears on the stage and who creates a game in which he has several guests try to read each other's thoughts. Guido is interested in how Maya is able to pull off that magic trick and when Maya decides to try to read Guido's mind his thoughts for some reason or another cannot be translated.
The fantasy scene then becomes a flashback scene as it shows Guido as a young boy hiding and running from his mother because he doesn't want to have to take a bath. All the other children in his flashback shout, "Guido's afraid!" as his maids and nannies finally catch him and toss him in a large bath with several other children; which probably are his brothers and sisters. When the nannies later tuck young Guido into bed next to his brothers and sisters once of his sisters says, "Say the magic words, then when the picture moves its eyes, we'll all be rich." The children play a word game in which words derive from pig latin by saying, "Asa nisa masa..." believing that chanting those words will make a portrait in the bedroom magically come alive. This flashback portrays Guido's childhood as very loving and safe which is an interesting contrast with Guido's life now as an adult.
When back at the hotel Guido gets a call from his wife Luisa from his hotel room which gives him a good reason to get out of the public eye and to get away from everyone asking him questions on his movie. He calls his wife back and impulsively invites her to come to the spa, forgetting that Carla is there as well. "Luisa, why don't you come visit? It's a quick trip," he asks her. Luisa asks him, "So you want me to come? But would it make you happy?" Guido says, "darling...I wouldn't of asked."
That evening Guido visits the production crew to see how everything is going in the design department for the science-fiction film. This is one of the few times in the film where Guido actually feels truly at home as he looks at all the plans, drawings and sculptures for the upcoming film. One of the employees Cessarina introduces his two nieces as they both playfully ask Guido if he could find a part for them in his movie. One of the nieces says to Guido, "you don't know how to make a love story." Guido agrees with her comment which is true in his professional life and personal life as well. Meanwhile an old friend and collaborator named Conocchia pulls Guido aside and makes an angry scene in the middle of the hallway because he is being forcibly retired. Conocchia admits he is old and is not the man he used to be. He then tells Guido he will quit the movie industry the very next day, and warns Guido by saying, "you're not the man you used to be either."
That evening back in his hotel room Guido is bothered by Conocchia's comments and has another dream sequence of Claudia as she sets up Guido's bed before he goes to sleep. Guido asks her, "lets suppose you're the symbol of purity and spontaneity. But what the hell does it mean to be truly honest? Didn't you hear what that big hawk said? 'It's time to set all symbols aside, the lure of purity, innocence, escape. What is it you want? Yes...this could work. There's a museum in the town, and you're the custodians daughter who grew up among images of ancient beauty." Guido then falls into bed on top of all the photographs of all the potential actresses for his lead in the film. "I want to bring order, I want to be clean..." Claudia repeatedly tells Guido as she is laying Guido down to sleep.
That night Guido gets called into Carla's room because she caught a fever by drinking all his mineral water and he tries to calm her down so she doesn't over react. Carla tries to have Guido announce his love for her and when she tries to reach out to Guido he coldly pulls away. Carla says to him, "Guido, tell me the truth. Why are you with me?" but Guido ignores her comments.
That next day Guido goes to see the main cardinal to try to have him OK the religious overtones that he has for his upcoming film. The cardinal says to Guido, "I realize it may sound a bit superficial, even clumsy. I just don't believe cinema lends itself to certain topics. You mix sacred and profane love too casually. Yours is a great responsibility. You can either educate or corrupt millions of souls."
Later that afternoon while having lunch with Daumer Guido overhears one of the Cardinal's telling a political joke. There are several times in the film where Guido runs into priests or Cardinals from the church which bring him back old childhood memories of when Guido was a boy and past guilt and sexual repression as a child. There's an interesting fantasy that Guido has where he finds himself in a large steam room with many other friends and co-workers wrapped in towels all waiting in line to speak to the lead Cardinal and to confess their sins to the main Eminence. Guido happens to be waiting next to Mario and when Guido is finally called to see the Cardinal Eminence which is at the end of a long hallway, he can only see the Cardinal through a tiny window.
That evening outside at the spa Guido's wife Luisa finally arrives with her friend Rosella and Enrico. When Guido sees Luisa they both get on the dance floor and have a slow romantic dance together. Guido tells his wife how much he has missed her and Luisa says, "you didn't have the company of these lovely ladies? No flings since you left? Poor Guido. And your famous virility?"
After a night of drinks a group of them all go visit the absurdly large set that's called the Launch Pad and for some reason Luisa seems bothered by something and doesn't want to ride with her husband and decides to ride with Rosella. The Launch Pad that Guido’s crew has built was created even before a completed screenplay to his upcoming science fiction film. This enormous Tower of Babel like set which consumes two hundred tons of concrete alone and hundreds of feet of staircases is ridiculously expensive and is costing the studio thousands to make. Once there, everyone climbs to the top of the scaffolds while Guido notices that his wife for some reason is angry with him. Guido asks his wife’s best friend Rosella about Luisa and why she doesn't seem happy with him. "What does Luisa think about me? What does she want?" he asks. When he then asks about Enrico and suggests his wife may be cheating with him Rossella looks at Guido and says, "You'd like that, wouldn't you? No more guilty conscience. You're such a scoundrel." Guido then looks at his large outlandish set and tells Rossella, "I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something 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. Now I'm utterly confused, with this tower on my hands. I wonder why things turned out this way. Where did I lose my way? I have nothing to say, but I want to say it anyway. Why don't those spirits of yours come to my aid?" Rosella smiles and tells Guido that he has the wrong frame of mind and that the spirits say he is free and he will just have to choose what he wants to do.
That night in bed Guido tries to comfort his wife Luisa. Suddenly Luisa starts to laugh and when asked why she is laughing Luisa says, "I don't think I could ever cheat on you, if only because I couldn't bear the absurdity...the effort of having to hide and lie...but it's obviously easy for you." Guido starts getting angry and the two of them start to fight over Guido's infidelities and Luisa screams at him saying, "Why did you ask me here? What good am I to you? What are you trying to get from me? What is it you want?!"
The next morning, at an outdoor breakfast pavilion, Guido, Luisa, and Rossella eat their breakfast as Carla arrives unexpectedly in a horse-drawn carriage. Guido pretends he does not know Carla but Luisa can see right through Guido's lies. Luisa says, "Relax. I spotted her last night as soon as I got in." You then see Guido multiple times tap his nose as a sort of Pinocchio homage of him cowardly lying and not being able to just tell the truth to his wife. (Earlier on at a costume party Guido is interestingly wearing a false large nose as well.)
When he tries to deny Carla his wife cuts him off saying, "I've asked no questions. I don't want to know. Just spare me the embarrassment of hearing you swear to a lie again." Later on that evening Guido, Luisa, and some others, are watching screen tests for Guido's upcoming film, while Guido himself is having a breakdown, because his professional career and his personal life are in near shambles. His producer is losing patience with him and the farther Guido goes with what he's creating his screenwriter Daumier realizes the story is slowly becoming more and more about Guido's personal life. Daumier tells him, "Why piece together the tatters of your life - the vague memories, the faces... the people you never knew how to love?" Daumier starts to really annoy Guido with his constant chatter, and there's a scene that stands out from the rest of the film when Guido fantasizes Daumier being executed and hung which reminds me something that Luis Bunuel would do in his films, and not something that Fellini would do. Meanwhile, during the casting session Luisa realizes the audition is clearly the part of Guido's wife, in which ironically one of the woman auditioning is his mistress Carla. Of course Luisa is embarrassed and enraged with the way she is portrayed onscreen, right down to her dowdy eyeglasses as several people in the audience start laughing. Luisa suddenly has enough and gets up and leaves the auditorium with Guido rushing out after to catch her.
In the hallway Guido asks his wife what happened and Luisa says, "nothing ever happens between you and me." Guido tells her that it's just a movie and she says, "Oh I know that better than anyone. Another fiction, another lie. You put all of us in it, but the way it suits you. Go on...make your movie. Stroke your ego! Make everyone think you're so wonderful! But what could you have to say to strangers when you can't tell the truth to the one closest to you, the woman who's grown old at your side? You were right to ask me to come. We needed an ending. I assure you, I won't be coming back. You can go to hell!" His wife finally walks out on him and when Guido returns to the screen test you can slowly see Guido's fantasy elements and his reality slowly start to collide as one.
Suddenly the ‘real’ Claudia walks in to test for the main part of the movie. Excited by her arrival, Guido invites her out for a drive so they both can talk about her part in the film. While driving, Guido says to Claudia, "You're so beautiful. I'm tongue-tied. You make my heart beat like a schoolboy's. You don't believe me, do you? You inspire true and deep respect. Who do you love? Who do you care about? Could you leave everything behind and start life all over again? Choose one thing only and be faithful to it? Make it the reason for your existence, the one thing that contains everything, because your dedication to it makes it infinite? Could you?" When Claudia gives him a vapid and disappointing answer to his questions Guido realizes Claudia is the polar opposite of the idealized Claudia of Guido’s recurring dreams. Because Claudia is just like every other woman he has casted in his films, and eventually Guido decides not to have her in the film because of her imperfections.
"I don't understand. He meets a girl that can give him new life and he pushes her away?"
"Because he no longer believes in it."
"Because he doesn't know how to love."
"Because it's not true that a woman can change a man."
"Because he doesn't know how to love."
"Above all because I don't feel like telling another pile of lies. "
"Because he doesn't know how to love."
"I'm sorry for making you come all the way here. Forgive me."
"You're such a phony. So there's no part in the film."
You're right. There's no part. And there's no film. There's nothing anywhere. As far as I'm concerned, it can all end right here."
What Guido says to Claudia was one of the few times in the film where Guido is finally speaking the truth, and isn't another one of his lies.
In the final scene of the film, at a frenzied cocktail party and press conference; Guido's worst dreams seem to have come true. All the reporters and press start questioning Guido about his film and Guido finally has a creative meltdown. When they realize his film has nothing to offer he is condemned by the critics and the press as a fraud, a man who is lost. His long-suffering wife abandons him and the movie is considered a failure. He crawls under the table during the press conference, and says to the attacking press, "just a minute. I'm thinking of what to say," as he puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger as his deceased mother is heard calling out, "Guido, Guido...where are you running off to you naughty boy?" Of course the suicide is a dream sequence as well.
After the horrible press conference Guido decides to cancel his film finally and to take down the Launch Pad set. Daumier is delighted with Guido's decision in which he felt the film would have been a disaster. As he's sitting in the car with Daumier, Daumier tells him, "you've made the right choice. Believe me, today is a good day for you. These are tough decisions, I know. But we intellectuals, and I say 'we' because I consider you such, must remain lucid to the bitter end. This life is so full of confusion already, that there's no need to add chaos to chaos. Besides, losing money is part of a producer's job. I congratulate you. You had no choice. Destroying is better then creating when we're not creating those few necessary things."
Guido has his last fantasy moment which originally wasn't the real ending for the film. This was supposedly a scene only to be used for the films trailer, but Fellini decided to scrap the alternate ending for this one which I believe was a wise choice. You then hear Guido's monologue: "What is this sudden happiness that makes me tremble, that gives me strength and life? Forgive me, sweet creatures. I didn't understand. I didn't know. How right is it to accept you, love you. And how simple. Luisa, I feel like I've been set free. Everything seems so good, so meaningful. Everything is true. I wish I could explain, but I don't know how. Now everything's all confused once again, like it was before. But this confusion is me, as I am, not as I'd like to be. I'm no longer afraid of telling the truth about what I don't know, what I'm looking for, what I haven't found. Only this way do I feel alive. Only this way can I look into your eyes without shame. Life is a celebration. Let's live it together. That's all I can say, Luisa, to you or the others. Accept me for what I am, if you can. It's the only way we might find each other." Guido starts to see all the people from his life dressed in white including his parents, his wife Luisa, Carla, the young Guido, Claudia and even Saraghina walking around what seems to be a circus ring as Guido gets out of the car and joins them as the group is being led by Maya the magician as he tells Guido, "were ready to begin!" Guido then begs Luisa for forgiveness. She is unsure, but will try to accept him, flaws and all. Guido plans a new film, one that is honest. Guido then takes over and directs the characters to form a large dance circle, that he and Luisa join. The dance line moves offstage, leaving only some musicians, and the young Guido. He directs the other musicians to leave stage right, then marches out of the spotlight alone, as the screen fades to black.
A lot of people believed Federico Fellini was abandoning his Italian neorealism roots after he did La Dolce Vita and many Italians considered him somewhat of a traitor. The roots of neorealism came from the directors of Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica, near post-war cinema and Fellini started venturing off into dreams, jungles of Freudian, Christian, sexual, autobiographical images, hallucinations and the grotesque of the circus. He started adding in more fantasy surreal elements and was slowly moving away from his original style which started from I Vitelloni which was based on his relationships and friends in Italy, La Strada, which told a tragic story of a traveling circus entertainer who loved an emotional and abusive man and Nights of Cabiria, about a prostitute who wanted something more and was searching for love. After that, Fellini's symbolism began to overstep the boundaries of his narrative. The huge statue of Christ carried by a helicopter above eternal Rome in the opening scene of La Dolce Vita became an iconic scene, but no one really understood it, and that film started to lose grasp on his neorealism style and venture off into more of a dream like narrative.
When he got to 8 ½ a lot of people realized that the film was completely different from the films he started out directing and was a film full of dreams, flashbacks and breaks from reality into non reality. After he was finished with 8 ½ and did Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini Satyricon, and Fellini Casanova, many people thought Fellini had lost it and gone off the deep end. I believe that his films after 8 ½ weren't the masterpieces of his older films and besides for Amarcord which was more an exaggerated portrait of his childhood, 8 ½ was his last great film. But I believe the style he slowly developed in La Dolce Vita and in 8 ½ created his own auteur theory and a signature to his films which many people today now refer to as 'Felliniesque.' When 8 ½ was first released a lot of people were confused and couldn't tell the difference between what was reality and was fantasy, but after enough viewings I personally find it quite simple to tell the two apart. Incidentally, there is some confusion over why the film is titled 8 ½. The truth is that the film’s final title 8½ refers to the number of films Fellini directed to that point which was six features, two short (½) films, and his first film, half a feature, Luci del Varieta, which he co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, totaling 7½ films. This was therefore his 8½ film.
First released in Italy on 14 February 1963, 8 ½ received virtually unanimous acclaim, with reviewers hailing Fellini as "a genius possessed of a magic touch, a prodigious style". Italian novelist and critic Alberto Moravia described the film's protagonist, Guido Anselmi, as "obsessed by eroticism, a sadist, a masochist, a self-mythologizer, an adulterer, a clown, a liar and a cheat. He's afraid of life and wants to return to his mother's womb ... In some respects he resembles Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce's Ulysses, and we have the impression that Fellini has read and contemplated this book." Mario Verdone of Bianco e Nero insisted the film was "like a brilliant improvisation ... The film became the most difficult feat the director ever tried to pull off. It is like a series of acrobats that a tight-rope walker tries to execute high above the crowd ... always on the verge of falling and being smashed on the ground. But at just the right moment, the acrobat knows how to perform the right somersault: with a push he straightens up, saves himself and wins".
8½ screened at the Cannes Film Festival in April 1963 and was Italy's official entry in the later Moscow Film Festival where it won the Grand Prize. French film director François Truffaut wrote: "Fellini's film is complete, simple, beautiful, honest, like the one Guido wants to make in 8½". Premier Plan critics André Bouissy and Raymond Borde argued that the film "has the importance, magnitude, and technical mastery of Citizen Kane." 8½ is now looked upon as a work of cinematic art and one of the greatest films in the world. It won the Academy award for Best Foreign Language film and in 2010 the film was ranked #62 in Empire magazine's The 100 greatest films in world cinema. Acknowledged as an avant-garde film and a highly influential classic, it was ranked the third best film of all time in a 2002 poll of film directors conducted by the British Film Institute and critic Roger Ebert added it to his 'Great Movies' list. Martin Scorsese once said that Federico Fellini's 8 ½ and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom contain all that can be said about directing a film.
As with most Italian films of this period, the sound in 8 ½ was entirely dubbed in afterward; following a technique dear to Fellini, where many lines of the dialogue were written only during post production, while the actors on the set mouthed random lines. This film marks the first time that actress Claudia Cardinale was allowed to dub her own dialogue, previously her voice was thought to be too throaty and, coupled with her Tunisian accent, was considered undesirable.
When shooting began on 9 May 1962, Eugene Walter recalled Fellini taking "a little piece of brown paper tape" and sticking it near the viewfinder of the camera. Written on it was Ricordati che è un film comico ("Remember that this is a comic film"). 8½ was filmed in the spherical cinematographic process, using 35-millimeter film, and exhibited with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
In September 1962, Fellini shot the end of the film as initially written where Guido and his wife sit together in the restaurant car of a train bound for Rome. Lost in thought, Guido looks up to see all the characters of his film smiling ambiguously at him as the train enters a tunnel. Fellini then shot an alternative ending set around the spaceship on the beach at dusk but with the intention of using the scenes as a trailer for promotional purposes only. He and his co-writers, however, decided that this alternate sequence served as a more harmonious and exuberant ending to the film.
8½ a bizarre and puzzling title, but one precisely appropriate for this film, which announces in its first frame that modernism has reached the cinema. If the mark of modernism in art is self-reference, 8½ surely goes beyond any predecessor in having itself as its subject. By 1963, Federico Fellini had made, by his count, seven and a half films. Hence 8½ is like an opus number: this is film number eight and a half in the Fellini catalog. Self-referential enough, but only the beginning. 8½ is a film about making a film, and the film that is being made is 8½. Notice how everything Guido says about the film he is making turns out to be true of 8½, even the sailor doing a soft-shoe dance; how all the screen tests are for roles in the film we are seeing; how some camera movements create an ambiguity between Guido, the director in the film, and Fellini, the director of the film, thus taking self-reference one step beyond the work to its maker.
It was perhaps this last level of self-reference that led some critics in the mid-1960s to dismiss 8½ as autobiographical trivia, brilliant on its surface but devoid of significant content—a criticism already made within the film by Daumier, the writer. The worldwide success of 8½ and its current status high on the list of the greatest films ever made have long since refuted such critics, but they were right on two counts: 8½ is both autobiographical and brilliant. Its surface flow of images dazzles us with sharp contrasts of black and white, startling eruptions from offscreen, unexpected changes of scene, and a virtuoso display of all the possibilities and effects of camera movement. We find almost a catalog of humanity in its stream of faces; some of them are momentary visions, while others persist through the film and long after in our memory, such as Saraghina, that lumbering monster transformed into the embodiment of joyous life and movement. But Fellini’s brilliance reaches beyond the surface to include an intricate structure of highly original, highly imaginative scenes whose conjunction creates an unprecedented interweaving of memories, fantasies, and dreams with the daily life of his hero and alter ego, Guido Anselmi. This, more than anything probably, made 8½ the most influential film of the 1960s, liberating filmmakers everywhere from the conventions of time, place, and mode of experience that had prevailed in cinema for decades.
In a film in which almost every scene is memorable, within its own pace and ambience, its characteristic forms of movement and emotional tone, some scenes are extraordinary: a childhood reminiscence of a farmhouse overflowing with warmth, love, and security, and an ascent into an enchanted darkness where the magical words asa nisi masa promise wealth and happiness; a boyhood flight from the stifling confines of a Catholic school to the voluptuous marvels of Saraghina’s rhumba, with its grotesque aftermath of cruel punishment and guilt; young Guido being told that Saraghina is the devil, though a Dantean descent into hell reveals a cardinal enthroned at the center of the inferno, solemnly repeating that there is no salvation outside the church; a whirling, riotous harem scene that mocks the absurdities of male fantasy.
Fellini began his career in the motion picture world in 1945, as writer for and assistant to the neorealist director Roberto Rossellini, but by the time he directed his own first film, his vivid imagination had begun to replace reality as the central source of his inspiration. Through the 1950s, he explored the fantasies and illusions that both sustain and destroy us, in films peopled with characters whose lives run outside the normal streams of everyday experience: circus performers, swindlers, prostitutes. Then La dolce vita, a huge, sprawling evisceration of contemporary urban high life, made him an international celebrity and presented him with that most stultifying challenge for an artist: after such a success, what can you do next?
Fellini responded, finally, with 8½, making the challenge itself his subject and expressing the stultification in Guido’s confusion and inability to choose. He used this as an opportunity to probe the mystery of artistic creation and the problems of human relations created by a society whose traditional education portrays women as either sacred or profane, either mother or whore. Serious problems, but his film is comic. Hence none of the questions posed are ever really answered, for, as Guido/Fellini tells us, he has nothing to say. But his complete mastery of film technique and form speaks for him, shaping a purely formal solution for Guido in an imaginary dance of acceptance and communion that leaves us, the spectators, feeling a glow of happy resolution as young Guido, now dressed in white, leads his clown band into the darkness.
One puzzle that remains unresolved for most viewers of 8½ is the meaning of asa nisi masa. “Say the magic words, then when the picture moves its eyes, we’ll all be rich.” The words derive from a children’s game, like pig latin, in which one takes a word, doubles each of its vowels, and then puts the letter s between them. So, run backward, the root word is anima, the Italian word for soul or spirit. Daumier dismisses all this as another idle childhood memory, devoid of all poetic inspiration. Yet in the film, the utterance of “asa nisi masa” works like magic, releasing the marvelous flow of the joyful life of the farmhouse scene. And the childish promise is hardly idle, for it was when the picture moved its eye—when Fellini found his true métier in motion pictures—that we all became enriched.
"In the case of 8 ½, something happened to me which I had feared could happen, but when it did, it was more terrible than I could ever have imagined. I suffered director's block, like writer's block. I had a waiting for me to make a film. What they didn't know was that the film I was going to make had fled from me. There were sets already up, but I couldn't find my sentimental feeling. I sat down and started to write a letter to Angelo Rizzoli, admitting the state I was in. I said to him, "Please accept my state of confusion. I can't go on." Before I could send the letter, one of the grips came to fetch me. He said, 'you must come to our party.' I agreed. They were serving spumante in paper cups, and I was given one. Then there was a toast, and everyone raised his paper cup. I thought they were going to toast the person having the birthday, but instead they toasted me and my "masterpiece." Of course, they had no idea what I was going to do, but they had perfect faith in me. I left to return to my office, stunned. I was about to cost all these people their job. They called me the Magician. Where was my 'magic'? Now what do I do? I asked myself. But myself didn't answer. Then I heard the small voice of creativity within me. I knew. The story I would tell was of a writer who doesn't know what he wants to write. I tore up my letter to Rizzoli. Later, I changed the profession of Guido to that of a film director. He became a film director who didn't know what he wanted to direct. It's difficult to portray a writer on the screen, doing what he does in an interesting way. There isn't much action to show in writing. The world of the film director opened up limitless possibilities."
8½ is about the struggles involved in the creative process when directing a large motion picture both technical and personal, and the problems artists face when expected to deliver something personal and profound with intense public scrutiny, on a constricted schedule, while simultaneously having to deal with their own personal relationships. It is, in a larger sense, about finding true personal happiness in a difficult, fragmented life. Like several Italian films of the period (most evident in the films of Fellini's contemporary, Michelangelo Antonioni), 8½ also is about the alienating effects of modernization, and the disconnecting communications between male and female relationships.
I've always looked at the complex and tragic character of Guido as a kind of branching out of his character in La Dolce Vita, where if he followed his dreams and became a successful writer this is eventually where he would have ended up after several recent successes. Guido is a very talented artist but when it comes to managing his affairs, he is horrible at it. He's so awful that he somehow manages to accidentally invite both his wife and his mistress in the same town at the same time; and its quite hysterical to see Guido handle the situation. Some of the funniest moments in the film are watching him try and juggle his wife and his mistress all at once while doing his best to lie a way out of the mess he created for himself. They're several Pinocchio homages in which Guido taps his nose multiple times which is a tell-tale sign when he is cowardly lying and not being able to just tell the truth. Fellini actually considered a lot of this film a tragic comedy on a man whose life is falling apart before our eyes, and when watching it again I can see exactly that. Carla is a busty woman who is cheap and tawdry and Guido doesn't have any deep rooted feelings for her but she definitely satisfies his libido which is something Luisa does not do.
Most of the people who Guido surrounds himself with within the film industry are neither honest or sincere, and besides his critic writer Daumier, most of the people in Guido's life don't tell him what he needs to hear, and instead tell him what he wants to hear. Daumier seems to be a creation of all the critics who have criticized Fellini's work all throughout his career rolled into one character, and as much as Daumier seems to greatly infuriate Guido with his brutal criticisms, Guido sees some truth in them, and deep down knows he needs a man like Daumier. Daumier portrays the critic that all artists don't necessarily like, but know they need.
The science-fiction film that Guido is making isn't really explained in the story except that it's a post-apocalyptic tale of human survivors leaving a ravaged earth in a spaceship. It makes sense that the audience is in the dark about the film since Guido himself has no idea what the film exactly is and where its necessarily heading. Throughout the film the producers who fund Guido’s creative projects nag him, the press never leaves him alone, and Guido himself becomes a slave tied to his own projects which are in reality his own concerns about his artistic integrity.
The infamous 'Launch Pad' sequence that Guido’s crew has built (it was created even before a screenplay was even completed) for his upcoming science fiction film is ridiculously expensive and is costing the studio thousands to make. This enormous Tower of Babel like set which consumes two hundred tons of concrete alone and hundreds of feet of staircases is a metaphor on Guido's gigantic ego and how he has become the creator of his own state of confusion. I find it interesting that Fellini chose to use the genre of science fiction to be the genre that ultimately destroys Guido's career, mostly because Fellini never particularly was interested in science-fiction when creating his own pictures. The large size of the set also can be looked at as a sexual metaphor, created for the exact purposes to make up for something Guido felt he was lacking. This scene is also a pivotal moment for Guido in which he starts to truly question his own artistic integrity and failure as a movie director. As the slow deterioration of Guido's marriage is finally coming to an end, he has finally come to the realization that he is the creator of his own self destruction. The symbolic significance of the launch pad suggests a reminder of Guido’s sexual arrogance and infidelity and his lack of a vision as an artist.
The virginal goddess Claudia, (Claudia Cardinale)is the image of perfection and the only thing that makes sense to Guido within his complex and imperfect world. Unfortunately for him she is only an image that he created within his wildest dreams and imagination and cannot exist in reality. Near the end of the film when Guido finally meets the 'real' Claudia, seeing her in reality now makes her not the image of perfection that Guido always imagined. She is too real. She is too imperfect, and vain. She is...too human. She will clearly not be the gorgeous love interest in the story that the audience expected, in which she would arrive to be Guido's spiritual redemption. Several times in the film Guido visualizes her as the ideal woman. Claudia was perfect, comforting, beautiful, serene, uncritical, and had all the answers to all his complex problems. She was supposed to be the one that not only saves him but saves the picture as well. When he first sees the real Claudia she appears from out of the dark, unlike his visions of her in his fantasies she was always portrayed in a ray of light. Her appearance is slightly different as well. In his fantasies Claudia was dressed all in white yet when he meets the real Claudia she's wearing all black. Because of Guido's arrogance and stubbornness the real Claudia is a disappointment and he no longer cares about hiring her for the picture. Not only is he no longer interested in her, but he's no longer interested in the film and his career. He now knows to find the answers he is looking for he can no longer search for them in other people. He must look at his own reflection, search deep inside himself and search his own soul and humanity for his own redemption.
There are several great flashback and dream elements within the film which include the iconic traffic jam in the beginning of the story, the graveyard with Guido's deceased parents, Guido's childhood bath and bedtime games with his brothers and sisters, Maya the mind reader and the trouble he has when trying to read Guido, and the steam room sauna confessional with the Cardinals. There is one flashback and one dream sequence that stand out in the film that I believe are the most masterful. The flashback sequence is when Guido was around 10 years old where he and several other schoolmates all decide to skip school to go see the town prostitute Saraghina. She is a large intimidating woman who was very overpowering and sexual; that any young adolescence would always remember her monstrous presence. With all the themes Fellini used in his films which included the circus, lost love, beaches, clowns, dancing, and dreams one other theme that always stood out were his sexual fetishes of big thighs and large busty woman.
Saraghina is the exact image of his female fantasies and when she comes out of her shack and does a little dance for all the boys they all are sitting and clapping and enjoying her performance. When the priests catch Guido and the other boys Fellini shows the harsh punishments the church conflicted on Guido. "It's a mortal sin...you should be ashamed" the priests tell him. Young Guido even faces his mother as she is crying in shame of her son's immoral actions. Guido is humiliated in front of all his classmates and during confession young Guido is told by one of the priests that "Saraghina is the devil." Young Guido one day returns back to the beach to again see Saraghina again out of his sexual curiosity and he finds her sitting on a chair singing and looking out over the beach. Whenever Guido is found in the presence of the Cardinals they always seem to stir back painful memories of his childhood. These flashbacks to Guido's strict Catholic upbringing and the repressed feelings of guilt and shame when it came to sex is an interesting parallel to Guido's sinful adult life and how sex and infidelity play a large role in not only his failing marriage, but of his character and ideology. Interestingly enough there was a real woman like Saraghina when Fellini was a young boy and several times out of sexual curiosity he would ditch school and go see her. I don't know how Fellini felt about his Catholic upbringing but he portrays Guido's as harsh and cruel, teaching him to repress his natural sexual curiosities and desires, which in the long run probably hurt him more than helped him.
The dream sequence is one of the major highlights of the whole film. The scene is usually called the 'harem scene' where Guido is the ruler of a house that is occupied by all the women in his life which include his wife, his mistresses, and even those he has always wanted to sleep with but has not yet gotten the chance to. In the fantasy Guido is welcomed home by all the women of his household. They treat him like a king, they draw him a bath and wash him, cook and feed him and entertain him with music and dancing. In this fantasy his wife and his mistresses all are friendly with each other and once any of his women get to be the age of 30 he casts them out, and sends them upstairs. Several of them fight for his affections and he has to control them like wild animals, once in a while even using a whip to frighten his women prisoners so they get put in their place if any of them get out of line. Guido has a bubble bath where all his women poor pails of hot water in to keep him warm and comfortable and even his wife is content and accepting of his king like stature. It's such a pathetic and comic scene of male chauvinism which explores the differences of the male fantasy world and the real world; where in the real world his wife doesn't put up with Guido's affairs and eventually leaves him become of it. A lot of people also describe this scene as the 'farm of women' and when people label 8 ½ as a comedy they usually consider this scene as the comedic high point. In the final ending fantasy sequence of the film Guido begins to see all the people from his life and of his dreams all dressed in white including his parents, his wife Luisa, Carla, the young Guido, Claudia and even Saraghina. They all happily join together in a circle holding hands and start to dance around what appears to be a circus ring. Critic Roger Ebert says, "Inspired by a childhood love of the circus, Fellini used parades in all his films--not structured parades but informal ones, people moving together toward a common goal." Throughout 8 ½, Guido confronts his limitations as a artist, knowing he cannot make a love story and all his films involve loneliness and his ideas have no philosophical depth or artistic inspiration. I can see this kind of harsh self-criticism was something Fellini thought of when looking at himself and that is what I think 8 ½ is really all about...it's a commentary about the director himself, and of his own limitations as an artist. 8 ½ was created as a artistic way to explore these limitations and the complex problems of human relationships that are created by a society whose traditional education portrays women as either sacred or profane, either mother or whore. At the end of the film none of these questions are really answered but Fellini's complete mastery of film technique speaks for himself as it takes the shape of what he loves which is an imaginary circus of acceptance and communion. This final sequence although sad and tragic gives the viewers a slight feeling of hope as the young Guido now dressed in white leads the circus band into the darkness, while the adult Guido now has lost everything...except for his dreams...