Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ portrays a key juncture in the life of the fictional film director, Guido Anselmi (as played by Marcello Mastroianni). Guido is successful with audiences and well regarded by the critics, but he is having problems with his ideas for his latest work, a strange piece that seems to combine autobiographical elements with science fiction. The latter element has led to the construction of a large space rocket which has then become a sort of vast visual symbol for his escalating difficulties. As his sense of panic and paranoia grows, he is increasingly pressurised and harassed by his collaborators who are confused by his seeming indecision. To add to his woes, his marriage to Luisa (Anouk Aimée) is in trouble and his attempts to resolve this are hampered by the appearance of his demanding mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo). Ensconced at a spa resort where he is taking the cure for his nervous exhaustion, he is assailed by memories and distracted by fantasies which add to his feelings of confusion and inertia.
Any attempted plot synopsis of 8 ½ has to struggle with the considerable difficulty of trying to sum up a film in which conventional narrative plays little part. As D.A. Miller puts it, ‘any argument about 8 ½, I soon understood, ran the constant risk of being swamped by an incomparable visual spectacle’ (Miller 2008: 74). What is immediately evident is that this is a highly personal work. Guido seems to bare an uncanny resemblance to the film’s creator, Federico Fellini. The very title of the film refers to the fact that Fellini had previously shot six feature films, as well as co-directing one and making two shorter pieces (each counting for a half), therefore making this one count as number 8½ in his output. With a wonderfully circular logic, the film which Guido struggles to make is actually the film we are watching; process and outcome have become one and the same thing. The intensely personal nature of the film has led to accusations of obscurity and self-indulgence from some critics, a view which Fellini rejected. He told one interviewer: ‘It doesn’t seem to me that 8 ½ is a difficult film to understand. For me it was a liberating experience and I also hope it liberates the viewers’ (Costantini 1995: 62).
8 ½ marked a particularly crucial moment in Fellini’s own development as a filmmaker. Born in Rimini in 1920, he had begun his professional career in a striking range of occupations including as a cub reporter, humorous writer and caricature artist working for magazines, newspapers and radio, as well as acting as a gag writer for one of Italy’s foremost variety performers. By the mid-1940s he had come to know many of the key creative figures in Italy and had formed a friendship with the director Roberto Rossellini for whom he co-wrote the screenplay of Rome, Open City (1945), one of the masterpieces of postwar Italian neo-realism. He continued to write for Rossellini, including Paisà (1946), as well as for other filmmakers such as Alberto Lattuada and Pietro Germi, becoming closely associated with the naturalistic, socially aware style dominating Italian cinema of the period. However, when he came to direct himself, he quickly moved away from realism. Lights of Variety (1950, co-directed with Alberto Lattuada) was set in the backstage world of travelling performers, while his debut as a solo director, The White Sheik (1952), showed the influence of his earlier career as a cartoonist.
La Strada (1954) marked the beginning of his international success; it was the first of four Fellini films to win the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. Its comic-tragic story of the destructive love affair between a circus strongman and a Chaplinesque female clown, played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masini, took him further towards the stylisation which was to become a major feature of his work. The gradual shift in Fellini’s output towards a modernist mode was mirrored in the output of other Italian directors of the 1950s such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti. This change of emphasis moved viewers from the exterior world of contemporary Italian society into the interior lives of the characters on screen, and of the filmmakers themselves. As Pierre Sorlin describes it, ‘Filmmakers could successively, disturb and then re-establish a chronological order. Modernism was therefore an enquiry on the potentialities of cinema, not a struggle to describe the world’ (1996: 132). Experimentation and international success continued to follow for Fellini with Nights of Cabiria (1957) and La Dolce Vita (1960). The latter melded Fellini’s increasing interest in formal effects with a critique of the amorality of a newly affluent Italy, but it was 8 ½ which most decisively marked the director’s transition into a cinema of self-reflexivity. In this way it also prefigures Fellini’s later work which moved further into visual experimentation, subjectivity and memory with Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1974).
If 8 ½ is partly a film about the creative process of making cinema, then it is also about the behind the scenes world of film production itself, and the image we are presented with is hardly a flattering one. Poor Guido is pursued by a horde of demanding executives, writers, and production staff who are impatient for him to produce another popular masterpiece but who also greet his ideas, such as they are, with scepticism and incredulity. Everywhere he goes there are hangers-on, aspirant stars, and budding starlets. These people demand answers which he cannot provide. The press add to his woes with their own expectations and questions. In its depiction of the strains of contemporary filmmaking it served as a precursor to other films on the same theme, including Truffaut’s Day for Night (1974), as well as cinematic considerations of the creative process from Woody Allen’s near homage Stardust Memories (1980) to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979).
However, the film we are actually watching is essentially Fellini’s own riposte to any negative thoughts about the nature of filmmaking. While Guido puzzles over what ideas to pursue, his own self-doubts become the very subject of the film and they are realised with a cinematic panache which becomes a visual demonstration of the power of the medium. The opening sequence is a perfect case in point. The first shot finds us positioned just behind Guido inside his car as he is trapped in the traffic jam from hell. The camera pans left and right, with the image occasionally freezing into a still, as his neighbours stare blankly at him or are preoccupied with their own concerns. As exhaust fumes begin to fill the car and suffocate him, Guido suddenly escapes and floats away miraculously into the sky, until his pursuers lasso him and he is pulled to earth. Only at this point does Guido suddenly wake with a scream and the audience simultaneously realises that we have actually been witnessing a dream. Conventional cinema would have signalled his dream-state from the beginning, but it is part of Fellini’s self-conscious formalism that he denies us explanation, leaving the audience to experience the images and sounds in front of them as pure cinema.
A few moments later we find ourselves at the spa where Guido is taking his rest cure. The camera pans and tracks around an extraordinary exterior where elderly visitors queue for the spring waters. Bright sunlight produces eye-dazzling overexposure and the movement of figures is choreographed to the music of an orchestra playing Wagner. Grotesque faces appear in close-up and acknowledge the presence of the camera by smiling at us or shyly turning away. Only after a few moments do we realise they are greeting Guido. Suddenly the beautiful Claudia appears and the music is momentarily silenced as Guido, and the audience, are held spellbound by her appearance. We are again made aware of the power of the cinematic form itself, but we are also drawn into the world of subjective experience, that of Guido, of Fellini and of the audience.
Subjectivity is signalled by sudden, unannounced switches into fantasy, again eschewing the more obvious signalling devices used by mainstream narrative films. Most notorious of these is the extended sequence in which Guido compensates for his long record of troubled relationships with women by imagining his home life as a chauvinist’s paradise. Here an assortment of women from his past and present form an ever-willing harem, waiting on him hand and foot. However, Guido’s imagination never allows him 4 8 ½ (1963) to stray too far from reality and his desires are quickly supplanted by his fears as the passive inmates of his harem suddenly turn on him. He quickly takes on the role of circus ringmaster as he corrals his female attackers armed with a chair and a whip, taming them like wild lions and tigers. Fantasy becomes an ironic commentary on his own attitudes.
Similarly, transitions between the past and present take place without any of the devices normally required in conventional mainstream cinema. Guido’s deceased parents simply appear to him as he flicks between material reality and the interior world of his thoughts. As he calls out, they move away from him back into the past. In his confusion it is his childhood which draws him most strongly. He remembers skipping school so that he could visit La Saraghina, a broken-down, middle-aged prostitute who performs a magical dance for him and his friends on the beach. Despite her grotesque appearance, she has a strange, sensual loveliness in her movements. His Jesuit tutors are far from pleased and chase him in speeded-up motion. In another mesmerising sequence full of warmth and nostalgia, he recalls helping with the grape harvest, crushing the fruits with his bare feet, and then being bathed and wrapped in towels by another harem of loving women. The function of these memory scenes is partly to remind Guido of the happiness he has experienced, but also to form part of the film’s complex mosaic of images, visually replicating the way in which the subjective mind functions.
Guido’s personal crisis is to a degree one of creative block, but it is also one brought about by a sense of purposelessness, equated here with the dilemmas of modern living. However, Guido does find an answer and he does make his film. In the final sequence he is suddenly surrounded by all the most significant people in his life, who encircle him with love. Many of the individuals who have been exhausting him with their demands are there but now he sees them differently. As Fellini himself described it, ‘at the end of 8 ½ the protagonist realises that his fear, complexes and anxiety are in fact a kind of wealth’ (Costantini 1995: 67). Guido tells his long-suffering wife of his realisation that life is simply a party that is there to be enjoyed. Suddenly, all the things that have worried him are reversed and he views the same circumstances with a feeling of contentment. Led by a circus ringmaster, a role he often seems to play himself (as does Fellini, by implication), he joins with everyone else in the magical dance. For all its depiction of personal doubt and turmoil, 8 ½ is ultimately a joyful celebration of life and cinema.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Italy, France. Production Company: Cineriz, and Francinex. Director: Federico Fellini. Producer: Angelo Rizzoli. Screenwriters: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi. Cinematographer: Gianni di Venanzo. Music: Nino Rota. Editor: Leo Catozzo. Production Designer: Piero Gheradi. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Guido Anselmi), Claudia Cardinale (Claudia), Anouk Aimée (Luisa Anselmi), Sandra Milo (Carla), Rosella Falk (Rosella).]
Peter Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini, Boston: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Costanzo Costantini, (ed.) Conversations with Fellini, New York and San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Tullio Kezich, Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
D.A. Miller, (2008) 8 ½, London: Palgrave/BFI, 2008.
Pierre Sorlin, Italian National Cinema 1896–1996, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Angel Quintana, Federico Fellini: Masters of Cinema, London: Cahier du Cinema, 2011.
Source Credits: The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.