After writing and directing nine films and co-writing a host of others, did Federico Fellini begin to see life as film, or is that why he became a director in the first place? He would direct a total of 21 films, so his 8 ½ (so titled because his fourth and ninth efforts were segments of collaborative works) is not quite the halfway point. But coming after masterworks like La Dolce Vita and La Strada, it was a great time for seeking some answers.
When 8 ½ first started making headlines around the world, the praise was almost unanimous and time has only elevated its reputation. The common criticism, however, was in regard to the blurred distinction between the real world, in which a director (Marcello Mastroianni) struggling to finish his latest project, a science-fiction flick he no longer feels passionate about, and the world of his memories, fantasies, and hallucinations.
But the lack of such distinction is not only deliberate but necessary. Certainly Guido, the director, is having trouble finding the distinction and, most likely, so was Fellini since Guido and Fellini are virtually one and the same.
Much has been made about the opening shots showing a suicide by affixation in a car set on a congested highway. Our attention is naturally drawn to Guido’s car as he struggles for air, but each car on the road contains a different cinematic story. Is this a real suicide attempt or is Guido dreaming? We will never know for sure, but in a later attempt to escape paparazzi hounds, Guido imagines shooting himself with a revolver, suggesting that suicide is never more than a consideration for Guido.
The most talked about scene in 8 ½ is Guido’s flight out of the car into the serenity of the clouds. Psychologists have come to interpret flight in dreams as an indicator of newly gained control in real life. Guido is far from in control, however, and he still has director’s block and an unfinished picture to answer to. His fantasy is brief and one of his crew members literally pulls him back down to the real world.
Ironically, it is droll everyday realities that inspire Guido’s fantasies. Something as simple as standing in line to get a glass of mineral water from a fountain becomes an elaborate parade in his mind. Ordinary figures (priests, nuns, etc.) become as much a work of art as the ordinary girl at the fountain who turns into an angel bearing water in Guido’s eyes.
Fellini was always an observer and in the director’s camera he found the ideal vantage point for his love of people watching. Guido is, then, a second channel between Fellini and the camera through which he observes the public. Guido is an individual, with an unusually creative mind, despite suffering from a lack of inspiration. And yet, he is the only true accessible character to take us through this strange world consisting of the real Italy and the dreamlike world of Fellini.
Real life is ugly and Guido needs his movies to make his fantasies a reality. All around him there is infidelity and disingenuousness, and he is not exempt from participation. Mezzabotta (Mario Pisu), his friend, has separated from his wife to freely romance an American starlet (Barbara Steele) young enough to be his daughter. Guido didn’t even have the integrity to divorce his wife (Anouk Aimée) after starting an affair with Carla (Sandra Milo), an actress who is herself still married. Considering this, it comes as no surprise that Guido can’t even be frank to an actress (Madeleine LeBeau) about casting her in a film. To Guido, this is all material for good cinema.
The best part of making a movie for Guido/Fellini is the escape from reality, even reality according to actors and directors. 8 ½ is a tribute not only to filmmakers, however, but also to film culture and its often wrongheaded approach to understanding cinema. In truth, inspiration comes from a number of places and Guido and Fellini know this. Life, at both its best and worst is brimming with mysterious depths. To be a good filmmaker, Fellini thinks, it is important to understand the dynamics and complications of human relationships. There is no scarcity of complications here. There is the relationship between Guido and his wife Luisa who stands by him even after she learns of his affair. There is also the strange fall-out between Guido and his veteran assistant Conocchia (Mario Conocchia). Each one is a learning step for Guido’s development as an artist.
Throughout 8 ½, there is a feeling that Guido is recalling his past through rosy lenses, from his upbringing in a peasant family (like Fellini himself), sharing a room with a number of other children and his education in Catholic school. Indeed, another important conflict is that of artist and religion. Guido is asked about the balance of Catholicism and Marxism in Italian cinema and the local clergymen certainly don’t think much of film, at least not as Guido aspires to it. But, like many great moviemakers (Scorsese is a perfect example), Fellini acknowledges the Catholic Church as an unavoidable influence in his development as an artist. Hence, Guido’s flashback to a summer day in his youth when he wandered out of Catholic school to gawk at a frolicking whore (Eddra Gale) on the beach and the punishment he received when caught. Since his early years, Guido, like many filmmakers, discovered the conflict between the purity of the priests’ teachings and his human desires. He reconciled them by becoming a director.
“The audience has to understand the film,” a crew member tells an increasingly discouraged Guido. Is this the obligation of a director and, if so, is there only one right way to accomplish this? There are no easy answers to this question, especially for such a complex film about something as complicated as life. 8 ½ is about the richness of experience and one is bound to understand it in any number of personal ways. The beauty of 8 ½ is that it does nothing more than open the doors to exploring life’s mysteries and the leaves the answers to how they shape our creative minds on a personal level. Incidents depicted may be specific to Fellini, but the film’s state of mind is a tribute to artists everywhere. 8 ½ is not only the greatest film about moviemaking, but one of the truest love songs to creative minds. Few movies have inspired so much with so little. In a sense, 8 ½ is like a breath of inspiration itself. It comes with simplicity, but leaves the mind and heart open to wonderful possibilities.
In a fit of rage near the end, Luisa accuses her unfaithful husband (who should really be married only to his art) of living in a “mess of lies”. Here she is only ostensibly talking about his deception to her. In a wider sense this is Fellini questioning his own motives for being a filmmaker. By his own admission through Guido, here he gets to tell the truth only on the surface. Beneath, he is escaping into his own fantasy.