Ah, the dulcimer tones of fine Italian cinema! They call to me like a pizza made out of encouragement and long, life-affirming hugs. Today we cull our film from the timeless works of Federico Fellini, the director of La Dolce Vita and Satyricon. This, his most personal and revealing film, is one of the greatest European films of the 1960s. It has a hypnotic, dream-like power that is truly a joy to bask in. And a big part of what makes this film so special is the semi-biographical perspective the film takes. It is a comical, poignant, subversive, and slightly surreal take on Fellini’s life at the time by Fellini himself. It is extremely powerful in its intimacy, and it speaks to us from beyond the gulf of time with a voice that is almost instantly relatable with its portrait of the artist as people as vulnerable as you or I.
The plot is simple. We follow the exploits of famous director Federi- I mean, Guido Anselmi, and his tribulations with finishing his latest film. He’s having creative difficulties, mostly caused by everyone nagging on him all of the time about it. He’s famous and revered, and he’s expected to create something really amazing, but all the pressure is getting to him. It grows ever worse as personal problems at home involving his wife and his various infidelities. Everyone wants a piece of him, everyone wants to talk to him, and he can’t get away from it. He checks himself into a spa, thinking that will alleviate some of the stress, but it soon becomes apparent that he cannot find solace. He begins to retreat into fantasy, waking memories, falling into the nostalgia of his colorful past. Can Guido make the movie come together after all, or is he doomed artistically in this endeavor, enslaved by his own haunting memories and the debasing lack of control in his life?
It is so strange how shared experiences affect us. 8 1/2 speaks to anyone who has been put under pressure to create something, or put through a ringer of high expectations over anything. Guido is the poster child for the overly encumbered, the man living up to unrealistic expectation, and I think anyone can understand that desire to be left to one’s devices. But 8 1/2 speaks at times specifically to the artist, the ones disenchanted with their craft after experiencing some sort of block, who allow the world to eke into the sacred personal world of their art. And yet, simultaneously, 8 1/2 is completely about Fellini, and there is no message to be bequeathed, only a recollection of who Fellini is and his own trials and travails as an auteur. So through his experiences we can project a similarity between us and him, this was an intensely unique scenario that he lived and shared with us. In a way, Fellini makes us discover the meaning of art and storytelling through the dichotomy of 8 1/2.
Fellini creates something edgy, surreal, and hilarious in this virtual cinematic memoir. 8 1/2 takes us into the mind of a man who is cowed in the face of the women he has loved, and so we can look at it as a sort of conquering of the male through his passion. Guido, as a character, is both inspired and driven to distress by all the women in his life; his wife, Luisa, who he loves but has trouble approaching due to her demeanor, his mistress Carla, who is the exact opposite of Luisa, for better or for worse, and the beautiful and enigmatic Claudia, an actress working closely with Guido who he feels is the only one who can pull him through this strange block of his. As he drifts into fantasies, he even recalls other women in his life, in particular an older lady in his youth that first awakened his feelings of sexuality. But it is not an indictment of women in any way, as that does not seem to be Guido’s or Fellini’s intention; it is a celebration of women, how they confound, exasperate, inspire, and terrify the adult and the confused young boy in us all.
The acting is the best you’re likely to see in the Mediterranean during the early 60s (until Godard filmed a movie there, that is…) Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s male muse for the second time, blows me away as Guido. At the time, he was seen as a sex symbol, much like the Hugh Jackman of his day, but truly Mastroianni proves here that he’s more than just a pretty face. He plays the struggling artist like it really means something to him, a thing so rare in acting nowadays. He is Guido in the same way that Guido is Fellini; it seems to flow from a very natural place. Even the surreal bath scenes in Guido’s fantasy is very subdued compared to the zaniness that Fellini could have pulled out of him, which is telling of something just below the surface of this awesome performance. The women in Guido’s life are also amazing. Anouk Aimee plays Luisa, the wife, with a glare and a bitter glance that puts an icy chill in my spine. She is very disappointed in Guido for reasons that are both very apparent but never implicitly stated. I like her a lot, especially in the scenes that Guido fantasizes about her, where we see her range. There’s a lot more to take in about this character than we see at first, so pay close attention to her and understand her, she will become much more vivid to you afterwards. Claudia Cardinale plays a movie star named Claudia (NO!) that is Guido’s ideal woman. She really epitomizes the heart of this movie, which exists somewhere between the consternation of Guido and the myriad souls of his muses. I liked her character the best, as she seemed so sweetly earnest, even in the face of Guido’s lecherous behavior.
8 1/2 is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart. It is the tale of the artist in distress, the tragedy of failed creativity that anyone can relate to, despite its intensely unique perspective. The fine acting, the astounding script, and the immaculate direction by Fellini himself are simply words to the same lovely song that combine to make something that is more than the sum of its parts. 8 1/2 now resides in the very language of Italian cinema, from the cinematography to the sheer attitude, and it’s not there without good reason. If you go and see this fiercely independent vision of surreal heartache and comedy, you will understand by the end of it all. I give 8 1/2 10 Claudias playing Claudia out of 10! My highest recommendation!
Tomorrow I take in Lawrence of Arabia! Until then!!!!!!!