Italy, France, 1963
Directed by Federico Fellini
With Marcello Mastroianni (Guido Anselmi), Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), Sandra Milo (Carla), Anouk Aimée (Luisia), Rossella Falk (Rossella), Madeleine Lebeau (Madeleine), Eddra Gale (la Saraghina), Guido Alberti (Pace), Mario Conocchia (Conocchia), Jean Rougeul (Daumier)
If “La dolce vita” (1960) was the film of a world where the lead character’s narrative arc looks like a fall from grace, this feature released three years later is the film of a mind where redemption becomes possible. “8½” begins with a nightmare signposting movie director Guido Anselmi’s deep-seated feeling of anxiety and solitude; more than any other movies Federico Fellini has shot (there are six features and three half-works – a collaboration at shooting another feature and the shooting of segments in two anthology films made with others, one of them shot over the period stretching from “La dolce vita” and this new feature, which stands at the eighth and a half film by Fellini, hence this flick’s title, “Otto e mezzo”,”Eight and a Half”, in full letters), it visually and thematically explores the flow of consciousness of a character, eroding the boundaries between realistic episodes and fantasies as Guido struggles to sort his life out.
Like Marcello in “La dolce vita”, Guido’s troubles are spurred by his job and his love affairs. The film’s prologue, started with the nightmare, quickly points to these two narrative strands. When Guido wakes up, it appears he is sick and staying in a hotel in an unspecified spa town; as doctors are busy examining him, a man comes in the bedroom with papers and his talk with Guido hints he is working with him on a new film – he is a haughty and sarcastic writer, Daumier; they resume this conversation later, after Guido went down in the hotel’s park to get his glass of mineral water filled, a mundane moment the distracted and depressed mind of Guido turns into a complete fantasy, with the sudden appearance of a beautiful woman who turns out not to be the real one serving his drink (absolutely not, indeed).
In his story, Guido would struggle to get his new project done, essentially because he does not really know what his purpose is, but also to handle his relationships with various women circling around him. Both problems fuel a personal crisis of identity, a sense of failure and disconnection that is tinged with darker fears and pains – as his strange dream where he meets his dead father shows.
Each main part of the film begins with the arrival of a woman Guido seemingly wanted to see but was not quite ready to meet: Carla, his mistress, and Luisia, his wife. The first part right away depicts his awkward bond with Carla, who is elegant, attractive but scatterbrained and whimsical. It also comically illustrates Guido’s growing inability to manage his new film, emphasizing his reluctant handling of the actors and his constant fudging in the face of the demands of his producer, Pace, and of the production assistants led by Conocchia. But it also veers into more intimate territory as two memories from a distant past are reconstructed, deepening the trend to examine Guido’s personal vision and not just the reality entangling him.
When Luisia comes, with her sister Rosella and a friend, the tone becomes instantly more contentious and the narrative more complex. A sullen character hiding behind sunglasses (incidentally like Guido, but for the man they stand as a shield), Luisia is mercurial and bitter. She demands explanations and sentiments Guido cannot produce – and knowing that Carla is around does not really help. The people around Guido press him to lay out his project and make key decisions. Painting himself into a corner, Guido keeps fantasizing till he does acknowledge obvious truths about his work and his feelings and draws the consequences in a final move as amazing as it is symbolic.
His memories were born out of embarrassment and ennui; the first occurs at the end of a long-winded and tedious dinner in a restaurant, a scene reminiscent of “La dolce vita” that highlights the spiritual vacuum of social life and the shortcomings of successful people, when Guido is hailed by an entertainer trying to amuse the dinner guests with a performance showcasing telepathy; the second happens during a lull in a conversation with a cardinal who is also taking the waters and is consulted about the screenplay Guido and Daumier try to put together as Guido has a fresh vision of a fascinating woman.
Both episodes inform the audience about the typically Italian childhood of the director Guido Anselmi: the happy life in an extended family, from a poor rural background and involving many other kids partial to fantasies and magical tales under the wing of benevolent women and then a Catholic-run school, a stern and forbidding environment where fault is always readily discovered and bluntly punished, in this case the fact he attended a show put on by a well-known and often mocked local personality, a dim-witted woman with a curvaceous and imposing body and a taste for rumba, la Saraghina – she is the woman who comes back haunting him during his conversation with the cardinal. In the existential crisis he is experiencing, a powerfully debilitating trouble putting side by side doubts about his creativity and dissatisfaction with the women, Guido may be longing for the warmth and magic of his childhood but remains tormented by what his sexual awakening has unleashed and is a pathological inability to enjoy a genuine relationship and to be honest with women.
The house featured in the first memory would be the stage in the second part of an astonishing and disarming, remarkably extended and deeply eccentric fantasy where Guido is surrounded by all the women his life and his spirit have introduced so far, from the cantankerous French actress Madeleine to that ghost of the past which is la Saraghina, and from Luisia to the gorgeous woman he first imagined to meet and actually meets later, a movie star named Claudia, plus a few others. In this gynaeceum, Guido appears as the prodigal son and is pampered by the women till an incident, an actress refusing to go away in the attic, which seems like a purgatory, spurs a wider revolt that Guido promptly tames with a whip. This delirious fantasy fully exposes, as his quarrels with Luisia become more violent, with the wife ready to break off with the husband, Guido’s darkest side and his most vicious dreams, to stand as the true, tyrannical master of women living in submission. This deliciously grotesque vision (this drama remains a real fun through and through; Fellini kept reminding himself in the course of the shooting he was making a comedy) is also, and quite naturally, the perfect opposite of the reality he lives, where he cannot manage his relationships honestly and gracefully. It is the highest point in Guido’s feverish fall into a hell of his own making.
The slow erosion between facts and fantasies, the former giving way suddenly and without much of a transition to the latter, reflects the growing despair of Guido and his losing of bearings; the weak body featured in the prologue is now a mind at loss after witnessing reality getting out of hand (on the job level and the personal level) and sinking deeper into dreams and visions, which are increasingly vicious and disturbing, in part rooted in experiences from his past. At this point, it seems that Guido would be a new disgraced hero like Marcello. The twin crises have reached, it seemed, a point of no-return.
Things take then an unexpected, poignant turn. True, the long-awaited press conference becomes a nightmare, for real: like the initial bad dream, Guido is trapped, oppressed by the faces turned towards his own face, inquiring and hysterical. A final fantasy seems to give a perfect, definitive solution – but suicide is not on the cards, after all. What truly happens is not shot, actually, but recounted afterwards: Guido had the guts to explain he has no inspiration and that he is not going to shoot his new film. In a second move, he starts to think aloud in his car, vowing to love and support Luisia. The final scene stands in full contrast with most of the film: taking place on the set designed for the sci-fi part of the now-defunct film, it turns the usually empty and hostile place into a lively, busy stage where Guido can direct actions; all the characters he has met in the reality or in his memories and dreams appear, including his own person as a child, and Guido’s efforts lead to an astonishing reunion as all those people clasp each other arms and start to dance in round circle, a huge dancing band Guido and Luisia eagerly join, a wonderful show of unity and joy. Guido is not Marcello – for he has recovered his stamina, shaking off his psychological shackles and at long last articulating the truth.
There is no more pretending things or playing with the others: Guido moves back to a plain language based on a lucid and sincere assessment. The long drift into his mind’s most obscure and absurd corners has been channeled into a new fantasy offering a kinder and more optimistic vision of the people. The long shots of the finale are a welcome contrast to the oppressing, frenzied close-ups that have hogged the screen so far. The change is sudden – but just as sudden as an inspiration or a stroke of genius are. This is an existential crisis with a happy ending as love prevails – but not only a wife and a husband, but also between the artist and the people working with him and a man and his wider world. A bold, intricate, shocking exploration of an exhausted and distorted mind, the movie has surveyed without indulgence an awkward personality till the man comes back to common sense and embrace the complex and surprising life without denial and delusion.