#6 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
On the surface, this movie is pure navel gazing on the part of Federico Fellini, and I think that’s definitely part of the whole package. However, Federico Fellini was able to move beyond that self-reflective part of the story and tell a story about statis in life, something that can appeal to a broader audience, instead of just his own qualms. It also represents the complete and definitive break from his neo-realist roots. La Strada represented a thematic move. Nights of Cabiria continued along the same lines. La Dolce Vita moved production from the real world to movie sets and focused on the upper classes, but with 8 1/2, Fellini embraced subjective narrative, constructed sets, and upper class characters at a level that would never have appeared in his earlier films. At least La Dolce Vita spent time contrasting the rich and poor in Rome. In 8 1/2, there is only the rich.
In some ways, this reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona as well as his Shame in different ways. Stylistically, 8 1/2 represents the same kind of break for Fellini as Persona meant for Bergman, but it also feels like Fellini demanding to be left alone to make the kinds of movies he wants, which I considered to be one of the subtexts from Bergman for Shame. The main character, Guido, is an obvious manifestation of Fellini himself, and Guido is at the end of pre-production on a new film with the start of production halted a couple of weeks for Guido to spend at an expensive spa to recuperate from an unnamed condition that put him out of order. He seems completely unable and unwilling to make any decision in his life, whether it’s about the movie he’s supposedly in charge of or in terms of the relationships with his wife and mistress. The movie is described as a science fiction film with construction on a huge spaceship set already started (even though Guido has not approved the final design for the thing), but all the talk with his actors (who have never seen the script and have no idea what characters they will be playing) are based on people Guido has known in his life, in particular the women. The story that we can elicit seems to be either about humans escaping a dying Earth, or about a man dealing with the women in his life, there seems to be no bridge to explain how one fits with the other. So, I see this as Guido as Fellini’s filmic counterpart, trying to make a completely different movie from what Fellini had made before and unable to do it. On a certain level, this feels like Fellini’s plea to the world to let him make his own movies the way he wants to, though that’s probably taking this two-bit analysis a step too far.
Anyway, Guido spends the final days of his recuperation with his producer and department heads buzzing around him in the comfortably large patio area and in the hotel he’s staying at and his production team has set up makeshift offices in. He fends off questions without answers, angering everyone as he goes. His production designer has a small breakdown in the hallway saying that in 30 years in the industry he’s never experienced anything like this.
Things get more complicated for Guido when he invites both his mistress and his wife to visit him, but he can’t fully commit to either of them. He acts like the mistress isn’t attached to him when anyone else is around, but he can’t commit to his wife in any meaningful way anymore. He’s stuck between them just like he’s stuck between all of the decisions on his movie. That stasis (born of Fellini’s own stasis during the lead up to the production of this movie) ends up consuming him completely. He can’t choose between his women and he can’t choose anything on his movie, so he ends up falling into fantasy.
Fellini had started his career in the Italian neo-realist tradition, helping to writing the script for Rossellini’s Rome Open City before directing Variety Lights and The White Sheik which were both lighter in tone but still firmly entrenched in the neo-realist tradition. The use of subjective photography here in 8 1/2 makes the final break from that tradition. Dreams, in particular, were something one did not try to replicate with cinema in the neo-realist tradition, and yet that’s exactly how Fellini starts the film. A figure, Rubini, is trapped in a car in traffic with everyone in every other car looking at him as smoke begins to seep into the vehicle. He tries to escape, but he only gets out through non-specific means and ends up floating above, like he feels trapped in his situation and the only way out is literally impossible (but so is the nature of dreams). He ends up floating above a beach with a rope tied to his ankle, and someone on the ground pulls him back down to earth before he wakes up in a panic. The movie is filled with subjective filming like this, often centered around a beautiful young woman who is not actually there but ends up being Claudia Cardinale, the woman he’s cast in his movie but has not arrived yet. She drifts into scenes where she is not literally, like the line for some health water at the spa, and just vanishes when Guido returns to the real world.
The centerpiece of the film is a large and long dream sequence where Guido gets all of his women into the house where he grew up. There’s his mother, his wife, his lover, and a great assortment more, including women he’s never met. They are all there to please Guido in one way or another, but these are entirely fictional versions of these women. The most striking example is Guido’s wife, Luisa, who goes from a bitter, hurt woman who’s seen her husband philander for years and is sick of it into a completely pliant housewife who’s happy to stay up after the rest of the harem has gone to bed in order to scrub the floors. However, the fantasy ends up breaking down when one of the older women, a showgirl that Guido knew years before, begs to remain downstairs with the younger women instead of being shunted off upstairs with the older women, and a small protest ends up breaking out amongst the women, showing that even in his own mind Guido can’t keep himself happy.
Everything ends up falling apart for Guido in real life as well. During a look at screen tests to finalize a series of smaller roles, Guido can’t decide on anything while his producer yells at him. Luisa realizing that all of the characters are simply versions of herself, Carla, Guido’s mistress, and other women in his life, including the large prostitute who had lived in a shack by the sea in Guido’s childhood (again, what any of this would have to do with a science fiction epic is beyond me, as well as every character on screen), so she leaves him finally. The writer he had invited to help critique his script (and functions as a self-contained critique of the film itself from a neo-realist point of view) Guido imagines getting hanged in the aisle. Claudia shows up finally, and Guido speeds away with her. She serves a similar purpose as Sylvia in La Dolce Vita where she represented an ideal. Sylvia was the sexual ideal, but Claudia is more of a womanly ideal. And yet, Claudia is nothing but coy and playful with Guido in the most plutonic of ways. His ideal wants nothing to do with him on a personal level. At a press conference for the start of production, Guido finally completely breaks, imagining himself crawling under the table and shooting himself, another way out, and the entire production collapses in real life.
The movie ends with Guido considering the lack of decision that had consumed him with his writer who concludes that the production’s collapse was a good thing, and then Guido’s fantasy returns in the form of every character descending the steps of the large scaffolding around the half-built rocket and everyone dancing in a circle. The return of the carnival, and the signal that it was going to dominate the rest of Fellini’s career. It’s that Fellini’s career would settle into the carnivalesque extravagance that would gain the name Felliniesque that recalls Bergman’s Shame to me. Fellini tells the world that he can’t make another kind of movie, and he’s no longer going to try. It’s an interesting historical note that he did end up trying in an aborted science fiction film named The Journey of G Mastorna to make the epic that his cinematic counterpart Guido failed to make, but the descriptions I’ve read of it show it to have been the weird cross section of genres that the ill-defined film in 8 1/2 would have ended up being had it been made.
This movie is so eminently watchable and feels like it’s going to fall apart for long stretches as you wonder how these disparate parts will fit together, and fit together they do. The final stretch of the film brings all of these assorted ideas and techniques together in a rather brilliant endgame that resolves a story about statis in the only way it can, with the character making no decision at all but one to get him out. An interesting thing about Fellini’s main characters is that they are often very terrible people. From Fausto in I Vitelloni to Zampano in La Strada and Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s male characters are unpleasant, selfish men with little interest in anything other than physical pleasures. They have little understanding of women, seeing them as vessels for purity or profanity and little else, and yet they’re in these tales that are rather wonderful to watch as they confront the limits of their worldviews and often end up sad and alone.
The ending of 8 1/2 mirrors that of La Dolce Vita in that they are both circus acts at play in the service of their central characters’ unrealistic fantasies. In the earlier film, we see it objectively. In the latter film we see it subjectively. This ends up giving 8 1/2 an ending that feels happier than it actually is, but I see it as sad as the ending to La Dolce Vita. None of what we see is actually happening. It may be the sign of a complete mental breakdown while Guido is being carted off to a mental institution for all we know, but one thing we do know for sure is that his producer, who has just left in a huff, and his wife, who left the night before, are not suddenly there in real life, dressed in white, so that Guido can organize a dancing circle for an audience of one.