8 1/2 (1963) – Federico Fellini

How much realism can the movies provide anyhow? Yes, in theory the camera is ideal for capturing reality, but it’s a more perfect vehicle for manipulating it. To quote Godard, “… every cut is a lie.” There was a critical theory that Federico Fellini had somehow sold out his neorealist roots with his movies after La Strada (1954) which angled more and more toward lyrical fantasy and away from the stark veritism of Rosselini and Pasolini, whom he apprenticed for. 1963’s 8 1/2 represented the total break from that tradition, and from then on Fellini was no longer the director of I Vitelloni (1953) or The White Sheik (1952) but was the man who could create Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and Satyricon (1969). What was lost, really? Ask anyone who has been in charge of a creative endeavor and ask them just how real 8 1/2 is. It’s a movie about the creation of a movie. Fantasy within fantasy. Stark has no place here.

In fact, for an art-house movie that tackles big ideas about creativity and human nature, it is almost too fun, surpassed, perhaps, only by Citizen Kane (1941) in that regard. Of course, there had been movies made about movies before, but 8 1/2 is a watershed because it’s about its own making. It is quintessential meta-cinema and therefore must be lumped into the same important group with similar entries from other disciplines like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin or Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Yet I very much doubt that Pushkin had the same impish smirk on his face as Fellini does. On a small card attached to the camera during the shooting of 8 1/2, Fellini had written “This is a funny movie.” And so it is.

We are in a car. Traffic is gridlocked. Bizarre and grotesque faces are staring at us from other vehicles. Torsos and arms hang out of buses. There is no end to this jam, we’ll never get out, we are suffocating. Suddenly, we are free, gliding in air above the cars. Fellini creates this space in the car as claustrophobically as possible, manipulating the audio from white noise into desperate gasps for air. While in the car we see only the back of a man’s head and we automatically enter into the character; we feel his impending doom. When we are liberated from the car, Fellini gives us a full-body shot of the man suspended in air, still from behind, but we are also liberated from the film; we are put back into our seats. The sequence, which ends with the man being lassoed and pulled back to earth, has rightfully been praised as one of the great openings because it strikes the right tone for the rest of the movie. There’s real terror here, but its tongue is also a little in its cheek. It’s a dream sequence, but it holds your attention on cinematic terms. When we find out that it’s the nightmare of the film director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni); it makes sense because only a filmmaker would dream in such a precise visual style. Are the people in the car figures in his life, characters in his film, or is he casting for his next project?

Speaking of his next project, Guido gasps awake from his nightmare to find himself in a countryside spa, attempting to stave off a mental breakdown while preparing his upcoming film, which is being pushed into production despite the fact the director hasn’t a clue what it’s about. The spa doesn’t seem to be very relaxing, as all the irritants from his work life have followed him: his critical screenwriter (Jean Rougeul), his pushy producer (Guido Alberti), an actress he’s indifferent to demanding to know the size of her part (Madeleine LeBeau), the agent of the desired actress with nothing but bad news about his client’s availability, journalists, critics, and production staff all asking about what’s next.
Guido glides around these questions (in some cases, he literally soft-shoes) while the strains of Wagner, Rossini and Tchaikovsky are played nonstop on the spa grounds, meant to calm the guests, but they do nothing for Guido other than get stuck in his head leaving little room for his new film. He has visions of his ideal actress, Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), the woman he hopes can save his personal life as well as his film. He has flashbacks to his childhood; he sees his parents, his teachers, his friends. He catches glimpses of a mysterious woman (Caterina Boratto) who continues to pop up in seemingly disparate locales. There is a giant spaceship being erected for his film, which is apparently about an escape from Earth after a nuclear holocaust, but in discussions with his screenwriter and in casting sessions that theme never appears. What is this humongous creation for? No one knows. As one journalist puts it with a gleeful insensitivity, “He has nothing to say!”

Perhaps not, but Fellini does. This is a movie about the expectation of creativity versus the reality of how that process works. It is about the parallels of a confused personal life with a confused professional life (the movie’s original title was 
The Beautiful Confusion). Guido disastrously invites the women of his life to the spa, first his tarty mistress (a wonderful Sandra Milo) then, inexplicably, his wife (Anouk Aimée, Milo’s opposite). In one of the movie’s most famous sequences, Guido imagines himself the ruler of a harem populated with all the women from his past and present. They all get along until a revolt ensues after Guido sends away a former flame for being too old. He wants his personal life to behave like the one he has behind the camera where he does the casting, can drop collaborators from project to project, and he can, mirroring the fantasy, cast them aside when they get too old, as Guido does to a production man who is a little long in the tooth.

Unfortunately, his relationships don’t work that way, and what’s worse, it is they who have the influence on his movie career, as his romantic log jam has simultaneously blocked his creative flow. He impatiently awaits the arrival of Claudia upon whom he has been resting all the hopes of his dual crises only to discover that, predictably, she, like everyone else, is more interested in the upcoming movie than magically solving Guido’s issues. Through the three performances of Milo, Aimée, and Cardinale, Fellini presents the three types of women that Guido has been raised to understand. Cardinale is the Madonna, the savior in white. Milo is the whore, to be used like one of the extras in his movies. Aimée has become something in between for Guido; their marriage has dissolved into one of friendship. He has a relationship with her but one that would be difficult to describe as romantic. She is like his mother to him, almost a caretaker.

Through flashbacks, Fellini describes how these types of monstrous characterizations enter the minds of young men and are reinforced. Guido’s relationship with his mother is distant; there is an element of servitude in Mrs. Anselmi’s contact with her son. This is put into place by Guido’s father, whose romantic connection with his wife is far beyond where Guido is with Aimée. In school, Guido and his classmates are inundated with constant imagery of the Mother Mary, the infallible specter. Yet, their only dealing with an actual woman comes from La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), a bulbous prostitute who they throw money to and excitedly watch dance.
In his adult life, women are, of course, not types, they are real people. The docile Milo silently endures the indignities Guido heaps upon her in hopes of keeping her a secret, but she makes constant reminders that she’s using Guido as much as he’s using her. Cardinale can hardly be expected to absolve Guido of his problems; she’s simply an actress professionally arriving for work. Aimée, who is so sexy in her practicality in 8 1/2 it questions Guido’s romantic competence, is beside herself for being marginalized for being simply flesh and blood.

After trying the spa, the church (in a wonderful sequence in a bathhouse with an aging cardinal that is at first blush critical of Catholicism but is more pointed at Guido’s spiritual capacity) and mysticism (Guido’s mind is read by a performer and leads to a revelation of the magic words “ana nisi masa,” a pig-latinesque treatment of the Italian word for soul), Guido turns to suicide where he again is rebuked but is thrust into the movie’s optimistic ending. Guido learns that his problems aren’t going to go away, but they can be lived with.
Around the vestigial spaceship Guido, the director, organizes a giant parade of all the people in his life and then, in acceptance of the things he cannot change, joins it. The final procession is not without its disappointments, however; the screenwriter still has much to say and Guido’s parents are still distant, but perhaps Guido can enjoy it now, something that we’ve been able to do since the beginning.

The movie bounds forward with some of the best black and white photography ever produced. The balance of introducing all the elements, having them be digestible, and more than that, enthralling, is remarkable. The movie feels spontaneous, it gives the feeling that Truffaut had while watching Renoir’s 
The Rules of the Game (1939), making one feel like returning the next day to see if it all turns out the same. It feels off the cuff, but it must have been highly planned with any number of visual and musical rhymes (notice the difference in tone during the two uses of Wagner’s Die Walküre), yet it retains the lightest touch.
Italian movies of the time recorded dialogue after principal photography, and Fellini would have classical music playing on the set while the actors played. It’s part of the reason why Fellini actors seem to be moving as though propelled by an internal rhythm. In 8 1/2 this gliding sensation adds to the obscuration between reality, flashback and fantasy. What’s happening at any given moment is less important than the overall feeling the maestro creates. Fellini might have left realism behind, but he never abandons truth.

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