Running time: 137 minutes
Original title: Otto e mezzo
The splendour of Fellini’s eighth and a halfth film lies in its ability to entertain us so effortlessly while being simultaneously incessantly creative, weaving together dream, fantasy, recollection and present reality, and commenting on the struggles of an artist while doing all of the above completely coherently.
After all these years, just like Citizen Kane, the film it is often compared to, despite the two being very different in many ways, it is still a gorgeous piece of work that, mostly thanks to the music of Nino Rota, glues your eyes to the screen as it is never quite obvious what might follow next. It is funny and sad and sexy and naughty and breathtaking, and there is nothing out there quite like it. This was made before postmodern cinema was à la mode and it is all the better for it, as the focus is not on connected texts in film or literature; instead, the film looks inward, at its main character, a director named Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, and by extension at Fellini, who treats the ennui of his character with droll asides and yet evokes real empathy in the viewer.
We first meet Guido in a dream immediately after the opening credits. He is sitting in a car in a traffic jam in Rome and tries to escape from his vehicle, but can’t. Everyone around him is staring at him in stony silence while his deep breathing is become more and more pronounced, anxious. In one car, a man is stroking the exposed arm of a voluptuous woman as she purrs. Suddenly, Guido is seen flying out of the car, along the cars stuck in traffic. He flies up towards the clouds, past an unfinished construction that we would later learn is part of the set for his film, before he is pulled down by a piece of rope, or string, attached to his leg, and falls into the sea.
There is much to analyse here, from the setting of the beach and the excited woman in the car to the smoke that fills his car as he tries to escape and all the people passively looking at him in silence. But it is the images themselves that catch our attention. The stark black and white and the surreal visual of Guido flying along the road, into the sky, before crashing down into the sea when someone pulls the rope and another commands it by reading from a screenplay, “Down, for good!” suggest Icarus but also the fragility of his own position, a prisoner of strangers’ looks.
The first time we see Guido’s face in close-up, he is looking in a mirror. Perhaps sooner than us, he realises he has to face himself, and much of the film will be devoted to this enterprise, and although the things he finds are not discoveries and don’t necessarily lead to some kind of catharsis, it helps the viewer accept the final moments of the film, one that does not offer closure but that simply extends the merry-go-round of Guido’s life one has been presented all through the film.
Guido has checked into a spa to relax and work in peace on his latest screenplay, but he is at his wits’ end, and very playfully, but intentionally ominously, we share his point of view when he arrives outside, people greeting him with a nod of the head and a smiling, all the while looking straight into the camera, and Rota’s rendition of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries takes over the soundtrack.
The only bit of self-reference that comes into play is from the mouth of Carini Daumier, the script consultant who very likely represents the worst of the worst self-involved and terribly opinionated film critics out there, who discusses Guido’s screenplay with him and tells him bluntly:
You see, what stands out at a first reading is the lack of a central issue or a philosophical stance. … That makes the film a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism. You wonder, what is the director trying to do?
These words refer, of course, to the film itself, and while Guido plays the main part in the flashbacks of Fellini’s film, it might not be Guido but rather the main character in Guido’s own film, and in this way the two overlap significantly, though it is irrelevant to our entertainment what scenes belongs to which film. In the final scene, for example, a character from Guido’s childhood, Saraghina, appears, though this scene is suddenly set in the present, and she hasn’t aged. Was that scene not a memory but rather a scene Guido had in mind for his own film? At another point, early in the film, Guido’s walks down his hotel corridor singing Rota’s music we’ve been hearing on the soundtrack. How is this possible? Was the music actually playing in his world? Where, and who played it? These are the kinds of questions that demonstrate for the film’s clever interplay between different fictions in the story, and the fact we don’t mind so much signals the skill and success of Fellini with this film.
The film is packed with scenes that can be either memories or potential events (most likely autobiographical in some way) in Guido’s own film. But far from being “gratuitous episodes” as Daumier fears, they are absolute marvels of storytelling, often with either a great deal of dialogue or a complete lack of dialogue. One is spoilt for choice for examples, but among the most talked-about scenes is the one that takes place in a bath house, or more accurately Guido’s harem.
Fellini’s 8½ is daring and adventurous and eschews an intellectualisation of its subject while making us wholly aware of the trials and tribulations of the central character and not undermining the severity of his situation. The theme is not overwhelming and the actions themselves are often staged in restricted spaces, but the film is as monumental as anything the cinema has produced. After so many years, the film still delivers a powerful blow to the system, because it shows what can be done with the medium. Like the enigmatic formula Guido as a young boy is told to repeat to protect him at night, “Asa nisi masa”, there is a formula to this film, but the power of the director is such that it takes on a magical quality only he knows how to wield.
This is one of the finest films ever made.