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.
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.
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.
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.
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.