Federico Fellini’s 8½ is the story of a director who doesn’t know what to do for his next movie, made by a director who didn’t know what to do for his next movie. Confused? That’s only the beginning.
By the end of the 1950s, Fellini was already a popular and respected filmmaker throughout the world — in the United States, for instance, he had won two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, for 1954’s La Strada and 1957’s Nights of Cabiria — and the massive success (and occasional controversy) of 1960’s La Dolce Vita catapulted him to another level. Naturally, expectations were extremely high for his next film. But there was a problem, as Fellini explained in an excerpt from Charlotte Chandler’s I, Fellini, reprinted in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion release of the film:
In the case of 8½, something happened to me which I had feared could happen, but when it did, it was more terrible than I could ever have imagined. I suffered director’s block, like writer’s block. I had a producer, a contract. I was at Cinecittà, and everybody was ready and waiting for me to make a film. What they didn’t know was that the film I was going to make had fled from me. There were sets already up, but I couldn’t find my sentimental feeling.
People were asking me about the film. Now, I never answer those questions because I think talking about the film before you do it weakens it, destroys it. The energy goes into the talking. Also, I have to be free to change. Sometimes with the press, as with strangers, I would simply tell them the same lie as to what the film was about — just to stop the questions and to protect my film. Even if I had told them the truth, it would probably have changed so much in the finished film that they would say, ‘Fellini lied to us.’ But this was different. This time, I was stammering and saying nonsensical things when Mastroianni asked me about his part. He was so trusting. They all trusted me.
I sat down and started to write a letter to [producer] Angelo Rizzoli, admitting the state I was in. I said to him, ‘Please accept my state of confusion. I can’t go on.’
Before I could send the letter one of the grips came to fetch me. He said, ‘You must come to our party.’ The grips and electricians were having a birthday party for one of them. I wasn’t in the mood for anything, but I couldn’t say no.
They were serving spumante in paper cups, and I was given one. Then there was a toast, and everyone raised his paper cup. I thought they were going to toast the person having the birthday, but instead they toasted me and my ‘masterpiece.’ Of course they had no idea what I was going to do, but they had perfect faith in me. I left to return to my office, stunned.
I was about to cost all of these people their jobs. They called me the Magician. Where was my ‘magic’?
Now what do I do? I asked myself.
But myself didn’t answer. I listened to a fountain and the sound of the water, and tried to hear my own inner voice. Then, I heard the small voice of creativity within me. I knew. The story I would tell was of a writer who doesn’t know what he wants to write.
I tore up my letter to Rizzoli.
Later, I changed the profession of Guido to that of film director. He became a film director who didn’t know what he wanted to direct. It’s difficult to portray a writer on the screen, doing what he does in an interesting way. There isn’t much action to show in writing. The world of the film director opened up limitless possibilities.
According to Fellini biographer Tullio Kezich, screenwriter Ennio Flaiano — who collaborated on the script with Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi — suggested that the film should be called La Bella Confusione, or The Beautiful Confusion. It would have been an apt title, but the more enigmatic 8½ had personal significance to Fellini. Before starting this project, he had directed six features on his own (The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone, Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita), co-directed another feature (Variety Lights), and contributed shorts to two anthology films (Love in the City and Boccaccio ’70). He counted each solo feature as one film and each of the other works as half a film; thus, his next movie would be number eight and a half.
The film opens on a traffic jam. When his car suddenly fills up with exhaust, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) finds himself trapped and, pound on the windows though he will, nobody comes to his aid, even though many people in the surrounding vehicles are watching him struggle. Finally, he manages to escape. He begins to fly, floating away from the traffic jam and soaring through the open sky — until he gets lassoed by the ankle and yanked back down to earth. At this point, Guido wakes up, still gasping and reaching out, trying to grab on to something. There’s no time for him to ruminate on his dream; two doctors and a nurse are entering his bedroom, with a film critic close behind. “I am a great fan of yours. Honored to meet you,” one of the doctors says and, a moment later, asks, “So, what are you cooking up? Another film without hope?”
Guido, a famous director, is visiting a health spa and preparing to shoot a new movie, a project that’s already behind schedule. “You see, the film… I really want to make this film,” he tells the critic (Jean Rougeul), whom he brought in to offer advice on the screenplay. “I postponed the shoot for two weeks because…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. In truth, his ideas are still vague, muddled, uncertain, not nearly ready to be committed to celluloid, but because he won’t admit to this creative crisis, pre-production is moving forward all around him: casting, location scouting, even the building of a gargantuan structure for a rocket launch scene. “You gotta be crazy to listen to this director,” says the producer, Pace (Guido Alberti), as he surveys his eighty million lire investment. Still, he does listen to Guido, and so does everyone else. Wherever he turns, someone is asking a question, whether it’s an actress who wants him to describe her character, an agent trying to find out when shooting will begin and whether his client should look into other offers, or a reporter trying to figure out Guido’s political and religious views. Again and again, he avoids giving definite answers; he simply doesn’t have any.
His personal life is just as unsettled as his professional life. When his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), comes to the spa town, he gets her a room in another hotel instead of the one where he’s staying. “It’s full of people who know me,” he explains, glancing around nervously as they walk through the train station together. She asks if he’s happy to see her, and he assures her that he is, yet he was relieved a few minutes earlier when he thought she hadn’t shown up: “She didn’t make it. Better that way.” It’s worth noting that Carla first appears in the opening dream sequence, where she’s shown with another man, paying no attention to Guido and his frantic efforts to escape from his car. Is it because he thinks she doesn’t really care about him, or is that just what he wishes? At any rate, his interest in her seems to be purely sexual. In every other context, he’s either ill at ease or detached in her presence, partly because she’s a bit insipid, partly because of his guilt and fear that Luisa (Anouk Aimée), his wife of twenty years, will find out. (Fellini, for the record, had married actress Giulietta Masina in 1943; 8½ was released in 1963.)
Guilt may also be a major motivator in his impulsive decision to invite Luisa to visit him, but the situation is more complicated than that. When she first arrives, there’s genuine tenderness in his manner toward her, and although she teases him about his “famous virility,” she’s clearly fond of him and pleased by the invitation — until she spots Carla. Though Guido insists that “it’s been over for three years,” Luisa knows better than to believe him, and she’s had enough. “I know we’ve been stagnating for years,” she tells him. “But it’s you. You’re the one who always calls me back and wants to start all over again.” To Guido, Luisa is a symbol of stability, the one constant in his tumultuous life, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t want to lose her, even though his own behavior is to blame for pushing her away. This becomes especially clear during one of his many fantasies. In this particular instance, he envisions almost all of the women he knows and has ever known as his adoring harem, catering to his every whim and lavishing praise on him. (“He likes to act like a kid, but he’s really very complex.”) Luisa, ceaselessly doing chores, excuses all of his faults, and although the other women briefly revolt against him — evidence that Guido can’t ignore his own shortcomings, even for the sake of a self-indulgent fantasy — she remains loyal. As she scrubs the floor at the end of the sequence, she says:
Aren’t we fine living all together this way? At first I didn’t understand that this is the way things are meant to be. But now… Don’t you think I’m good now? I don’t bother you anymore. I don’t ask questions. A bit slow, wasn’t I? It’s taken me twenty years to understand. Twenty years since the day we got married, and you became my husband and I your wife. Do you remember, Guido? Do you remember that day?
It’s a quiet, profoundly sad conclusion to an over-the-top satiric scene, and it’s miles away from the real Luisa, who doesn’t hesitate to criticize Guido and let him know how much he’s hurt her: “How can you live this way? It’s not right living this way, not letting others know what’s true and what’s false. Is it possible that for you it’s all the same? How?”
Because Guido’s entire existence is in a state of confusion, it’s fitting that the lines separating work from private life, reality from imagination and present from past become increasingly blurred throughout 8½. The opening is a standard, if surreal, dream sequence, but soon the film is moving seamlessly from one state to another and back again. Even in the middle of an otherwise real, present-day scene, fantasy and memory can intrude without warning, sometimes disappearing just as quickly. For example, when Guido goes to get his dose of mineral water at the spa, he suddenly sees Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), an actress whom he wants to appear in his movie as an ideal woman, one who can save a man from himself and his confusion. She offers him his glass, then turns into the more prosaic woman who actually works there. “Sir, your glass,” she says as she brushes her sweaty hair away from her forehead. Later, when he and Carla are lying in bed in her hotel, his late mother appears in the room, wiping the wall with a rag as if shining a window.
In essence, the whole film is a reflection of Guido’s psyche, and as he works in a visual medium, images play a crucial role. Similar images recur throughout 8½, often in surprising, intriguing ways. At one point, Guido remembers taking a bath in a wine vat at his grandmother’s house when he was a little boy. Although there are numerous children present — cousins, perhaps some siblings — Guido appears to be the favorite. Some of them have to sleep three to a bed, but he gets his own, and as his aunts tuck him in (“Aren’t you a beautiful sticky bun? The most beautiful!”), they even jostle for his affection, albeit playfully: “Who do you love best? Me? Is that right?” Later, his harem fantasy takes place in the same room. Once again, he takes a bath in a wine vat and gets wrapped up in a towel, and once again, he’s surrounded by doting women, including the aunts. There’s also a more subtle similarity: In the harem scene, Luisa’s friend Rossella (Rossella Falk) perches on a railing above the vat, and though she’s not in quite the same spot, the image brings to mind a girl seen in the flashback, sitting above the vat and throwing grapes at the other children. Like Rossella, the girl has an interest in spirits. Could she be Rossella herself? It’s not clear, but Rossella is on very frank, comfortable terms with Guido, like family, and he does tell her to “cut the big sister tone” when she asks him what’s wrong.
Another visual link between the past and present occurs when Guido consults a cardinal (Tito Masini) about certain religious elements that he wants to include in his film. (Notably, the members of his production crew are in awe of the cardinal’s power and want to make the most of it. “Getting in their good graces means you can have anything you want in life,” one of them tells Guido, while another says, “Remember my divorce in Mexico City. Get me my divorce.” It’s not unlike the way people around Guido appeal to his own power, trying to get parts in his movie for themselves or their relatives. Carla even wants him to find a job for her husband.) This scene follows another flashback to Guido’s childhood, in which he runs away from school with some other boys to watch a woman called the Saraghina (Eddra Gale) do her infamous rumba. He gets caught, taken back to school and sent to the confessional, where he’s told that “Saraghina is the devil.” In the present, Guido’s interview with the cardinal (which may very well be imagined, or at least exaggerated) takes place in the spa’s steam bath, with the two men on opposite sides of a sheet and the cardinal seen in profile — a makeshift, unorthodox confessional.
Saraghina, meanwhile, bears a certain resemblance (around the eyebrows) to Carla when Guido does Carla’s makeup for a sexual game.
In the same scene, Carla, wearing a scarf on her head, turns to look at Guido over her right shoulder. Subsequently, in one of his fantasies, the idealized Claudia — a symbol of purity and innocence — does the same thing. The fact that her scarf is white while Carla’s is back says a great deal about Guido’s shallow view of women, and of Carla in particular. As the character Gloria (Barbara Steele) declares when Guido’s fantasy harem revolts, “We are all women created out of his imagination.”
The Carla scene is followed by a fantasy or dream in which Guido encounters his dead parents in a mundane, nondescript afterlife. After his father (Annibale Ninchi) dresses him in an adult-sized version of his old school uniform, his mother (Giuditta Rissone) kisses him, first on the cheeks and then on the mouth in a decidedly non-maternal fashion — at which point she turns into Luisa. This takes place early on in 8½, but already it’s clear that Guido’s issues are both deep-rooted and inextricably knotted, and the rest of the film bears this out.
Fellini also uses repeated images to help the audience identify with his protagonist. On at least three occasions, he frames shots so that Guido is standing on the left, with his back to the camera, and what Guido sees is on the right. Why he chose these three particular shots is unclear — one involves Guido’s friend Mario (Mario Pisu), one involves Carla, and one involves Guido’s parents — but whatever the case, they encapsulate the film as a whole: about Guido and from his perspective.
Guido’s role as a filmmaker is closely tied to the way he views the world. Even the ostensibly real scenes often have an artificial, cinematic quality to them: crowds that appear choreographed (heightened by Nino Rota’s score), dramatic lighting, the sea of unoccupied white tables surrounding Guido, Luisa and Rossella at an outdoor cafe. His memories, too, sometimes look like movies. When two priests from Guido’s school track him down at Saraghina’s, he bolts, so they chase him around the beach. This footage, sped up and slapstick in style, resembles a stereotypical silent comedy — appropriate, since the 43-year-old Guido would have been born around 1920 (like Fellini). Then, once they drag the young fugitive back to school, everything is dramatic, exaggerated, larger than life. It’s probably how Guido perceived the situation when he was a child, but the passing of time has further distorted it: His mother is shown as an old woman, as she would have been when he last saw her, not as she would have been when he was ten or eleven.
He connects cinema and life in more active ways as well. In Carla’s hotel room, he plays the director, making her perform a role: “Now go into the corridor for a minute, then pretend you’ve come to the wrong room and found a stranger.” He even changes her makeup. “Who do you think I am?” she asks. “One of your actresses?” More significantly, his would-be film — in spite of the launch pad for a rocket — is heavily autobiographical; essentially, it’s 8½. (Thus, through the pedantic critic character, who disparages all of Guido’s ideas, Fellini both anticipates and rejects potential objections to his own film.) This is obvious throughout the movie, of course, but never more so than when Guido and his associates watch the screen tests that they’ve shot. Some actresses are auditioning to play the wife, some the mistress, some Saraghina. Not only are the character types drawn from Guido’s personal experience, but so are the costumes and the dialogue. “All lines from his life,” says Luisa’s sister (Elisabetta Catalano), who hates her brother-in-law. For Luisa herself, it’s the last straw. She walks out of the theater; Guido hesitates, then follows her. “Were you offended by something you saw? It’s just a movie,” he says. Her response is vehement:
I’m the first to understand that. It’s a movie, another invention, another lie. You put everybody in it, but the way you like to see them. But I know the truth. The difference is that I would never have the impudence to tell everybody the way you do. Go ahead. Make your movie. Indulge yourself. Stroke your ego. Go make everyone think you’re so wonderful. What could you ever teach strangers when you can’t even tell the simplest truth to the ones closest to you? To the one who’s been growing old with you?
This speech is exactly what Guido dreads: confirmation of all of the self-doubt with which he’s been struggling while trying to make his film. His intention wasn’t to create “another invention, another lie”; quite the contrary, as he had explained to Rossella in an earlier scene:
I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help to bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves. Instead, I’m the one without the courage to bury anything at all. And now I’m utterly confused. This launch pad to deal with… I wonder why things turned out this way. When did I go wrong? I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.
That last line is key. The critic tells Guido that “destroying is better than creating when we’re not creating those few truly necessary things,” but 8½ contradicts that by its very existence. Fellini, too, felt that he had nothing to say, yet out of his uncertainty he was able to make something beautiful, a testament to creativity and to confusion itself. Like Guido, he had no solid answers about life — just a desire to find them, and for him, the best way to do so was by making a movie. As he explained in a 1960 interview, reprinted in Fellini on Fellini, “If I had found a solution, and if I were able to explain it convincingly and in good faith, then of course I should not be a story-teller, or a film-maker.”
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