8 ½ (1963)
Written by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi
Directed by Federico Fellini
Somewhere around the first quarter of rewatching this film (for me, it was my wife’s first time), I turned to Ariana. We exchanged knowing looks, and eventually, one of us spoke. “This is fucking incredibly good, right?” The other confirmed this statement as we returned to watch what is undoubtedly one of the best films ever made. I first saw 8 ½ before my brain was truly ready for it. I was a twentysomething with arrested development due to being brought up in a homeschooled household. My neophyte brain was just developing during those years, playing catch up. Now, at 41, I look at 8 ½, and I see a film that resonates with me on a level few films do. This is what an artistic masterpiece looks like.
Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a famous Italian director who is creatively blocked on his current project, a science fiction film. He’s attempting to rejuvenate himself at a luxurious spa while working with a prominent critic to tear through his work to improve it. Guido certainly isn’t making life easy on himself, having his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) stay in a hotel while he lives and works out of a different hotel. Guido eventually invites his estranged wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimee), to come to stay with him, but she wisely brings along a friend, knowing her husband is full of shit. The director moves effortlessly from his waking life into his dreams, trying to make sense of himself and the kind of person he has become. This involves plumbing the depths of his subconscious and engaging in war with his sex fantasies while also grappling with the moments that shaped him as a child.
One of my biggest takeaways from watching this film is that Fellini appears to have invented, in part, what we think of as modern cinema. The work of filmmakers like David Lynch, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and even Judd Apatow owe their existence to 8 ½. It’s a film that immediately begins commenting on itself and the director but not in a way that feels like Fellini is trying to impress us with his cleverness. Instead, the meta-commentary is coming from a thoughtful & earnest place, a person trying to come to terms with the worst aspects of themselves and determine if anything is to be done about it. Yes, Guido is certainly a misogynist, but the whole arc of the film is about him coming to that realization and understanding it was wrong of him. Fellini layers in comedy with the drama that helps us know he isn’t passing judgment on anyone here but trying to understand.
Fellini is at a turning point in his career, marked by the name 8 ½. He’d made seven features and two short pieces in a couple anthology movies. So when it came to naming this, he just said it was 8 ½. I read it as someone trying to get past the surface level of his work and dig into something more substantial. In his previous work, Fellini had been at ease pointing the camera at other people to explore their lives, but he’s making a film about himself here. He’s even anticipated the critical response to this movie by featuring a movie critic character within it who openly deconstructs and points out the glaring lack of substance. This is the nasty little play seen in films like Lady in the Water, where the critic is antagonistic and dies as a masturbatory act by the director. The things the critic says are valid critiques of the movie.
The movie also serves for Fellini to share his love of the grotesque. This is not meant to be derogatory towards these people, but as a means to elevate the types of beauty the mainstream has pushed away. You can see this in his earlier work, but it’s profoundly evident here, particularly in Saraghina, a fat joyous sex worker who seared herself into young Guido’s psyche and still remains an archetype of sexuality for him. While some viewers may laugh or jeer at her, Fellini does not present Saraghina in a mocking way. I immediately thought of Divine, the drag performer featured in many of John Waters’ films. They are both these unapologetic and bold figures that remain with the audience long after the movie ends.
8 ½ is a film where it can be argued that every single scene is memorable. Each new moment bursts with life and exciting ideas. The physicality of actors, particularly Mastroianni, provides so much beauty and comedy. There’s a scene where Carla first arrives, and Guido meets her at the train station. As she waves and calls to him, he suddenly looks around, paranoid that someone who knows him might see. Mastroianni’s movement is perfect; a quick worried glance over his shoulder accentuates the scene with comedy. Later, as he’s walking down a hallway and members of the film crew are coming out of every door with questions about production, he resorts to a dance, bobbing and weaving around them, avoiding their questions. One way of viewing the movie is as a meditation on being in charge of something and not wanting to be in control.
The crown jewel for me is the luxurious childhood dream sequence. That is an exercise in such powerful filmmaking, leaning into the subconscious and the feel of memory. Guido joins the other children in helping squash a large tub of grapes and is lovingly swaddled in a blanket by the women in his life. These are mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and women in the community. The warmth and love that comes out of this moment are palpable. As the sequence goes on, the camera floats in technically impossible ways but precisely how it feels to move in dreams. It culminates as he sits in bed, and an older child convinces Guido that a ghost will appear and show them where the treasure is hidden. Then, they only need to recite the words asa nisi masa. This return to childhood is a way to try and recapture the magic lost as we age and must become adults. It’s the nostalgia that has captured so many people’s minds, particularly in America today. These remain memories for Guido, but they can inform him to pursue things that return him to that time of greater empathy and love.
David Lynch spends considerable time in interviews musing about the source of creativity. He’s not interested in locating it and mining the vein dry. Instead, he wonders how you keep that channel open and flowing back and forth once you have connected with the creative. You have to feed your creativity, or it withers and dies, but if you overfeed it, you risk damaging yourself and your relationships. Fellini is doing the same here. He’s had great success at this point; Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita were massive international hits. The director wants to understand where his creativity has come from and why it sometimes feels dead. He’s also profoundly concerned about the place of women in his society, seen as either saints or whores, a type of thinking he openly admits he has because he was brought up in this society. The questions are asked, but 8 ½ does not provide answers; it opens a conversation that he hopes you will continue with him as he makes more films.
Beyond all of those things, this is a celebration of art, of movies, of making these beautiful things that move and sing and dance and share the inner life of other people. Italian neorealism was (is?) a fantastic subgenre, but Fellini is moving beyond that with this movie. His work will now explore the psychology of his characters by manifesting their thoughts, dreams, and nightmares on screen. He sees films as a means to delve into the impossible realms in the waking world. Movies are recorded dreams, so they should feel like it. People try to impose structures and rules onto the subconscious, and when you’re making a film, that is reasonable. But at some point, we must release control and let the images and sounds come to us. Our job is to record them so that other people can experience them on a visceral level. One significant thing this film proves is that Federico Fellini was born to make movies.