By Afra Nariman
8 1/2 (1963)
Directed by: Federico Fellini
Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo
A confused and troubled filmmaker struggles with creative stasis while attempting to get his new film made. As his career and personal life becomes more and more complicated, he reflects on his past, his loves, and finds himself drifting into the fantasies that he desires. As he attempts to make sense of his life, both past and present, he ponders his decisions and his positions on love and honesty. In the midst of all of his experiences, his new film gradually becomes more and more autobiographical.
This is one of those great films that transcend the art of filmmaking. It has a story that communicates through both reality and fantasy, and through past and present. It’s fast paced, yet dreamlike in its execution and is unparalleled in its ability to engage you with interesting conversations, romantic visuals, angelic music, and incredible cinematography, especially for its time — but it still holds its own amongst more recent films in every element of its production. 8 1/2 has a mysterious, yet sophisticated essence that is evident from it’s quietly suspenseful first scene, to its big celebratory finish, and every strange and beautiful hallucinatory vision that we see in between.
In the first 25-30 minutes of the film, I was engaged and hooked as much as any film has ever hooked me in its set up. The combination of mysterious cinematography and orchestral music being conducted in the background breathes life into the film before the story even really begins. One of the notable early scenes in which we witness a portrayal of the film’s balance between the romantic, the fantastical and the genuinely grounded elements of the story, that we eventually come to know so well, is when Guido is at the park for an event. The entire time, we hear the music defining our mood and level of engagement — until he sees a beautiful girl, and the music disappears, as does all sound, and we are left with a mystical and deafening silence as he basks in the woman’s celestial beauty.
At the park, we also meet the intellectual writer, Daumier, who advises Guido and critiques his new script. From time to time throughout the film, he returns to the story to provide explicit philosophical insight into the film’s otherwise subtly explored messages and themes. Although at this point in the film, 30 minutes in, we’re fully focused on the story unfolding on screen, and not what’s to come, we’ve already been introduced to many of the ideas and themes that the story is built upon. As it progresses, we slowly realize that his own film is extremely autobiographical; it is inspired by his life and by the women in his life, specifically the ones who have shown him what lust is, but who he could not have loved. In multiples instances throughout the film, Guido is told by the women in his life, that he does not know how to love. His constant dishonesty in the relationship department, and his never-ending lust and desire get in the way of his ability to truly be in love, and consequently be happy.
8 1/2 is dreamlike in the way that it transitions in and out of a filmmaker’s reality of attempting to get his new film off the ground, his dreams, his memories, and his fantasies that he often find himself thinking about. The film is filled with interesting characters, all of whom offer something substantial to the film and to Guido’s story. Guido is suffering from a creative stasis, yet gathers many potential actors and actresses to be in his film. Constantly, he has producers, agents, actors and actresses asking him endless questions to which he has no answer for. Instead he reflects on his past and on his fantasies.
It is not just his hallucinatory visions of his past and his fantasies that radiate with mystery and that mesmerize you. Filled with music and dancing, Guido’s present reality, as depicted in the film, also puts you in an artistic trance, and sometimes serve as connectors to his memories, allowing us to further explore his character. One of the most enchanting scenes of the film comes when Guido and a group of potential collaborators for his film are gathered in a courtyard outside of their hotel, celebrating what they believe is their next successful artistic endeavor. There is live music being performed, spirits are up, the film is as lively as ever; and then the next performers arrive. They are a couple who transmit thoughts, or “read your mind.” This entire scene in the courtyard is part of one of the most surreal, hypnotic and entertaining sequences of the film. In a nostalgic moment, the scene shifts from the thought transmitters’ act to Guido’s childhood. We get a personal look at a day in his childhood home, and his interactions with his family.
In another flashback to his childhood later in the film, he and a few other neighborhood kids approach a woman who is practically described as lustful, and frankly, “un-Catholic.” They pay her to dance the “rumba,” leading to one of the strangest, yet most dazzling scenes of the film. Their “dance party” is broken up by a couple of priests who chase down Guido and go on to discipline him, insisting that he mustn’t partake in such activities.
This scene gives us a window into Guido’s past, the origins of his desire and lust, and the beginnings of a dichotomy in his life that arise from the tensions between lust and religion, which he still struggles with in the present. In fact, his own film also explores this concept, which Daumier refers to as “the Catholic consciousness of Italy.” In other words, the struggle of how to balance human desire and lust, while living a Catholic life. This concept is portrayed through the memory of the priests who disciplined him as a child, and through his present day interactions with Catholic leaders. While meeting a Cardinal for some advice, he speaks to a priest who comments on his film’s plot. He brings to light concerns over the fact that his film may corrupt the public by inspiring lustful behavior, rather than educate them on something good.
For Guido, his lust gets in the way of his ability to love, as I mentioned earlier. He has a lovely wife, Luisa, but is incapable of loving her properly because he is constantly dishonest with her. In fact, even his mistress, Clara believes that he cannot love. He cannot commit to anyone or anything due to his dishonesty. The integration of memories and fantasies give us a glimpse into the life and mind of Guido and allow us to better understand his thoughts. The past fuels his present, and the present fuels his fantasies. Under heat about his notoriously dishonest nature in relationships, and unable to decide how to move forward with his film, he retreats further into his fantasies.
One of his most comprehensive fantasy scenes take place around this time. He fantasizes about living in one home with all of the women in his life, both past and present; from the “rumba” dancer, to Luisa, to Clara, and many others. Aside from being insane, hectic and full of dancing, this scene is a sort of satyrical critique of Guido’s dishonest and lustful behavior, that showcases the ridiculousness and shallowness of what he wishes for. At the end of the scene, he reflects:
He cannot commit to one woman, he cannot be honest and he cannot love. Because of these three deficiencies, he is unable to be happy. His fantasy illustrates the outrageously improbable and shallow circumstances that he would need to be happy. Perhaps he now begins to realize that honesty and love go hand in hand, and only when those two elements of life are fulfilled truly, can one be happy.
The film explores the nature of honesty (or dishonesty), love, lust, and balancing lust with a Catholic life of purity. Although those are a few of the larger, most obvious themes explored in the film, there are others that are enveloped throughout, that are examined more subtly. As I mentioned, Daumier’s role is to help communicate explicitly, the otherwise hidden messages of the film. Near the very end, after Guido potentially considers to not make his movie, Daumier offers him a consoling and intelligent perspective on the matter:
There are so many superfluous things in the world already. No need to add chaos to chaos…
Destroying is better than creating when we’re not creating those few truly necessary things. But is there anything so just and true in this world that it has the right to live?…
Better to knock it all down and strew the ground with salt, as the ancients did to purify the battlefields. In the end, what we need is some hygiene, cleanliness, disinfection…
We’re smothered by words images and sounds, that have no right to exist, that come from the void and return to the void. Of any artist truly deserving of the name we should ask nothing but this act of faith: to learn silence…
If we can’t have everything, nothingness is true perfection.”– Daumier
The distinction between all art and necessary art, is an extremely insightful moment. Daumier is providing the film with a subtle critique of artists, specifically filmmakers, who make the movies that are made just for the sake of existing. Through his characters, director Fellini insists that great artists should only make the necessary works of art, the meaningful ones. In other words; quantity over quality. So many stories, and this is especially true today, are told that don’t need to be; but the truly great artists (filmmakers) know that there are some films that they need to make. It is those artists responsibilities to know the difference. 8 1/2 is undoubtably one of those few, necessary films.
The film ends with a reflective monologue spoken by Guido, where he expresses his new found respect for honesty and love; as he has realized the vitality of the two qualities in the making of a happy life. In a final scene that combines every aspect of the story — his past, his present, his loves, his memories, his fantasies and his film — we are left with the beautiful notion that life is a celebration and that you should share it with the one you truly love. If you are true and honest in your love for that person, you will experience all the good that life can offer, and the meaning and happiness that will come along with it.
8 1/2 is an ode to filmmakers and the creative process. It’s cool and fun, it evolves from multiple angles, and it’s insightful. It accumulates depth as it progresses, allowing the film to reveal itself as it goes on. It is one of, if not, the best movie about a filmmaker or filmmaking that I’ve ever watched. Although the film tells an incredibly intimate and personal story about Guido, everything around him is constantly busy and hectic. This duality between the personal and the big picture (everything other than the personal) is prevalent in many ways. The film explores the concepts of honesty, love and lust through a study of Guido’s character, but is able to relate every lesson that he learns, to the world and to life in general.
With a mysterious and mystical aura surrounding every moment, the film jumps back and forth between being mesmerizingly dramatic and being upbeat and lovely. This is evident until the very last minute of the film. After Daumier’s speech to Guido that I outlined above, the film could have ended; but Fellini opted to make one more jump and end his masterpiece with an unparalleled liveliness and upbeat aura, rather than with Daumier’s dramatic and insightful speech. Fantasy and reality dictate the entire story, and come together to give the film the celebratory finale that it deserves. 8 1/2 is philosophically insightful and truly refreshing to watch. It is one of the best films that we’ve been given.