A look back at Federico Fellini's introspective and spectacular '8 1/2'
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If there's any one column that I've started since joining HitFix that I love and dread in equal measure, it's this one. I love it because it gives me a chance to write about anything in the history of film that I consider formative and essential to a film education. I dread it because it's such a big blank canvass each week, and after I finished my initial run of 26 entries on the list, picking one for each letter of the alphabet, I hit the wall because I realized I was free to write about anything next... and "anything" is an awfully big target to hit.
Thankfully, I finally broke my writer's block, and there's no small irony to the idea that the film that did it for me was Fellini's "8½," a story about a director who, free to make anything he wants, finds himself unable to figure out what, if anything, he has to say. For many people, their exposure to this Italian classic is still only knowing it as the movie that inspired the musical "Nine" last Christmas. Considering how powerfully off-base that film was, and how wrong it got the source material, that's a shame. I feel like "Nine" might have put people off of Fellini's film if they've never seen it, and that would be a travesty.
The difference is that "8½" is authentic, the work of a man trying to make sense of his own life with art, while "Nine" is an act of empty fetishism, a pale echo of the original. Everything that is wrong with "Nine" was encapsulated in the song "Cinema Italiano," a naked admission of what "Nine" was about. It treats the look and mood and feel of Fellini's films as something you can slip on like a t-shirt, an affectation. But Fellini wasn't making films and putting something on... he was making films about the world he lived in, the people he worked with, the faces that surrounded him. His movies could be surreal and grotesque and outrageous, but they were his. They were movies that came from inside him, and in the case of "8½," it was a movie he had to make, or there was a chance he was done making movies altogether.
"What monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalog of your mistakes. What do you gain by stringing together the tattered piece of your life, your vague memories, the faces of those you could never love?"
Guido Anselmi is a filmmaker, and normally, I can't tolerate movies about filmmakers. I think they're indulgent, they lie about the process, and they have little or nothing to offer up about life. But here, the whole point is that Guido's work is in danger of being indulgent, that he feels he has become a liar in his life and his art, and that he wants desperately to find a way to tell the truth. Marcello Mastroianni gives a masterful performance here, and from the very start of the film, he is deeply empathetic, although not very sympathetic. He's married to Louisa (Anouk Aimee), a beautiful woman who has reached the end of her tolerance for his bad behavior. He keeps a mistress on the side named Carla (Sandra Milo), a dingbat dumpling who reads Donald Duck comic books in bed after sex and who constantly asks Guido if he can help her husband find work. He obsesses on Claudia (the totally obsession-worthy Claudia Cardinale), the actress who has starred in his films earlier and who represents his feminine ideal. He is supposed to be working on a new film, but he's not sure what it is he's trying to say. He knows he wants to deal with his own life in the film, but his script is, at best, a mish-mash of ideas and images. He brings in a writer named Carini (Jean Rougeul) to work with him, but all Carini ever seems to do is criticize every impulse Guido has, tearing down the cheap and easy symbolism and the easy confessional nature of the work. Carini is just one of the characters in the film who seem to voice the things that Guido is most afraid of. Rosella (Rosella Falk) also shows up to prod his conscience, at one point even declaring herself his Jiminy Cricket.
What makes the film so beautiful and so revealing is the way Fellini plays with reality and art in the film, the way he layers in Guido's dreams and memories even as he deconstructs the idea of turning your life into a movie. His cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo does remarkable work, as does Nino Rota, whose score is haunting and gorgeous, making liberal use of familiar classical music at times. There are beautiful sequences in the film that are meant to be trips into Guido's childhood, scenes that explain his association between lust and guilt or that underscore his desire to be cared for and pampered by women. There's a long sequence that takes place on the night of a wine bath, when all the kids in the house are dumped into a cask used to stomp grapes, and after they bathe in the wine, they are bundled up in sheets and carried off to bed. The way it's shot and scored and edited, it is dreamy and sensual and mysterious and scary and, in the end, it feels like a real memory, where you can't quite put your finger on what it is that makes the image stick, but in which the details are almost hyperreal. There's another amazing scene where Guido and Louisa are at an open-air cafe, and Carla makes an appearance. Louisa is understandably upset, and as she and Guido argue, he withdraws into a fantasy about Louisa and Carla coming to an agreement, welcoming each other into a shared affection for Guido, and that blossoms into an even larger fantasy about a house filled with all the women that Guido loves or desires. What the sequence articulates so wonderfully is the grand paradox that we can't always get what we need in terms of love from one person. That's certainly the ideal situation, and what we all hope for, but different people play different roles in our lives, and accepting and understanding that is the key to true happiness.
I'm not the sort of person who understands or condones adultery. I consider it a character flaw in people I know who partake in it, and I would end my marriage before I ever cheated on my wife. You either are or are not faithful, and I don't think people who cheat have any business being married. Yet in "8½," Fellini successfully makes a case for why Guido cheats. He doesn't condone it, but he explains it, and he shows just what sort of toll it takes on the people around him. Guido's work as a film director is obviously important to who he is as a character, but the greater truths on display here are about the way we are all the sum of our experience and the people we have known and the choices we have made, and we can either deny those truths about ourselves or we can spend our lives miserable. This isn't really a movie about struggling to make a movie. It's a movie about struggling to have the courage to look at yourself and your life with unflinching honesty, and to be brave enough to change the things you can, to accept the things you can't, and to weather the hard moments as you hopefully find some measure of grace and peace. Like many great films, what you take away from "8½" will depend largely on who you are when you approach it. I've seen it a half-dozen times in my life, and watching it again this past weekend, as I stare down the barrel of my 40th birthday, as I wrestle with the profound disappointments of my professional life compared with the overwhelming joys of my personal life, I have never been more affected by the film's message and by Fellini's magnificent vision. By the time all the people in Guido's life join him in a celebratory dance, driven on by a circus dirge, I found myself overwhelmed, drunk on the instinctive, deeply personal nature of the film, and refreshed, ready to face whatever challenges exist in my own life. Cinema has always been my healing spring, and this was a pilgrimage I needed to make, one that came at the perfect time.
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