Vision is what gives an artist his will to express whatever dwells within his mind; it is the ability to perceive the world in a way so unique that a glance upon his work can reveal his name, but such capacity can only belong to those who confront the phrase found in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men: “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams”, for it is inside the empire of limitless plausibility that vision lies.
Federico Fellini took this concept beyond along with the likes of Luis Buñuel and Michelangelo Antonioni, and penetrated deeply into the shallow waters of self discovery to bring up, as it was his fashion, an exaggerated version of himself, a carnivalesque retelling of how a film is made, narrated with a dreamlike voice fighting hard to tell us how it was to be in his head.
8½ is the product of such an insightful journey that could rival literary geniuses like Dostoevsky and Joyce, whose understanding of the human condition is shared by the Italian filmmaker in this wonderful achievement that Martin Scorsese called the “purest expression of love for the cinema that I know of”. And, as is the case of the aforementioned writers, Fellini can paint this interior landscape inside his main character, because they are the same person.
As much as Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce, Guido Anselmi is Fellini; they interpenetrate each other courageously and utterly, fearlessly having watchers observing their stream of consciousness spread against the screen, and though Guido might not be aware of this, Fellini is and he expresses who he is, with all his blemishes and life experiences uncovered.
What makes films like 8½ and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror so unique, is not just the fact of being so personal, but the way they are told, using every bit of the auteur’s personality and revealing his thoughts interspersed through a serious of clashing scenes that don’t necessarily make sense in terms of editing as much as they do in terms of being projections of the mind. But 8½ is also set apart for another reason: it makes the audience feel like the main character.
While facing a writer’s block, Guido sees his world swooping after him for the answer to what his next film will be like while he is trying to find out the very same thing. It’s a vicious cycle full of questions that can only be answered by himself. His thoughts are recurring visions that illustrate the creative process and explore the psyche of the artist; a series of contrivances that generates empathy between the viewers and Guido, up to the point that the feelings of tension start to become mutual, particularly when Guido is assaulted by motor mouths demanding absurd knowledge that only God might possess.
Pressure is actually what sets the story in motion since not as much occurrences happen on the outside as they do in the inside of Guido: his ideas, memories, and internal scenarios fly right past each other trying to get his attention and becoming a way out of his tense reality.
While 8½ is a film about itself and the filmmaker trying to get it done, it also deals with many things surrounding an artist’s orb, like women, who take on a role as important as nothing else within Guido’s perspective
much like in Fellini’s being not only objects of desire, but muses that can be worshipped or ignored, but never controlled, except in the reign of fantasy, in which a very funny scene occurs when the women in Guido’s life rebel and he subdues them with a whip.
Everybody can have an interpretation on 8½, but they will all stem from the basic idea that it is about how hard it is to be a filmmaker with fans, collaborators, producers, reporters and else wanting something from you.
On the technical aspects, 8½ is absolutely superb. The cinematography is fluid and dreamlike, it’s a perfectly choreographed waltz between the actors and a camera so synchronized that it seems natural. The editing is violently shifting, changing scenarios with minimum relation to each other with the same speed and mixed up precision as the train of thought. The music is absolutely brilliant, giving the film the poignancy it requires when the images get too personal.
In terms of acting, the biggest contribution comes, of course, from Marcello Mastroianni, whose performance adapts itself to the various situations he faces inside Guido’s mind and on the real world; he never seems confused since he is the manipulator of his environment and he is the one that confuses the audience, so he can easily go from highly stressed to melancholically reflexive, to cynically satisfied. The rest of the cast might be criticized for being unrealistic, but in fact it does a great job as it intends to portray caricatures, and not real people, so the cartoonish nature of Claudia Cardinale’s or Anouk Aimée’s characters is not a mistake or a simple aesthetic decision, but a huge contribution to the naturalness of Guido, perhaps the only “real” character in the film, since the others are rendered by his vision; he is the only honest character.
Like never before, and few times after, Fellini did on 8½ what was considered to be an exclusive responsibility of literature: he portrayed himself as a full human being with a history behind and beyond him while also sending the biggest love-letter to his beloved art form. His film is a personal journey through the afflictions and joys of sharing with others honestly and courageously the fulfillment of his dreams, as well as bits of his life and passion, not caring about becoming the center of a discussion between strangers just to tell cinema: I love you.