Federico Fellini, speaking to Irving R. Levine in a 1965 interview for NBC News, admitted that he rarely went to the movies. “I do my work with such passion that I don’t know how to be just a spectator,” he explained. Asked about contemporary directors whom he admired, he could only come up with three names. One was Akira Kurosawa; another was Alfred Hitchcock; the first was Ingmar Bergman. “I’ve only seen two of his films, Wild Strawberries and The Magician, but they were enough to make me love him like a brother.” The following year, in an interview with the French magazine Positif, he reiterated his high regard for Bergman, whom he described as “a really gifted man, a true author, a real showman.” He also noted that 1958’s The Magician “upset me, in a way, because it is exactly the same as a story I wrote four or five years ago and meant to film — in a different atmosphere, of course. It’s Nordic and I’m Mediterranean, Latin, but the subject is exactly the same.” Although his variation on The Magician never made it to the screen, one of Fellini’s most famous films does share a number of similarities with the other Bergman movie he had seen.
Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries, or Smultronstället, follows an elderly doctor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), as he travels from Stockholm to Lund in order to receive an honorary degree. Six years later, Fellini released 8½, the story of a director named Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) who finds himself facing a creative crisis in the midst of preparations for his next movie. At this basic level, the two works would seem to have nothing in common, but neither one stays at this basic level. Instead, they use dreams, fantasies and flashbacks to paint rich, full portraits of their protagonists. Isak and Guido are very different men, however, and their personalities shape the structures of their respective films.
Wild Strawberries begins with Isak in his study. Via a voiceover, he explains that he has largely withdrawn from relations with other people, and although he’s sometimes lonely as a result, he is grateful for the work he’s been able to do in his life. He talks briefly about his son, his daughter-in-law, his mother, his long-dead wife, his housekeeper, and at last introduces himself: “My name is Isak Borg, and I am seventy-eight. Tomorrow I shall receive an honorary degree in Lund Cathedral.” This is followed by the credit sequence, after which Isak is shown in bed. “In the early hours of June 1st, I had a weird and very unpleasant dream,” he says in another voiceover. The dream is not just weird and very unpleasant, but downright surreal, with Isak wandering through a nearly empty city, encountering a handless clock, a mush-faced man who drops dead at a touch, and his own corpse, which comes to life and grabs him by the wrist, pulling him toward its coffin.
8½ wastes no time on introductions. Its opening scene is a dream, and like the one in Wild Strawberries, it’s both surreal and psychologically revealing. Guido is stuck in a traffic jam when his car suddenly begins to fill with exhaust. Although he pounds on the windows, the people in the surrounding vehicles — including his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), shown with another man — fail to come to his aid, though many of them watch his struggles with interest. At last, he breaks free and goes floating up into the sky, soaring through the clouds. For a few moments, he’s free — until he gets lassoed by the ankle and unceremoniously yanked back down to earth. Guido awakens, and only then does the audience get to see his reality, though reality, fantasy, memory, past and present are intermingled to such a degree for him that those labels soon start to lose their meanings.
The middle-aged Guido is a man who wants more out of life than he can possibly have. “He wants to grab everything, can’t give up a single thing,” he says, describing the protagonist of his heavily autobiographical would-be film. “He changes his mind every day, because he’s afraid he might miss the right path. And he’s slowly bleeding to death.” Not only is he out of ideas for his work and in danger of disappointing innumerable people, but he’s also juggling a burdensome mistress and an increasingly frustrated wife (Anouk Aimée), unwilling to relinquish either one.
As he struggles to keep his head above water both professionally and personally, the chaos around him evokes scenes from his past and sets his imagination running wild: He recalls an incident from his school days, converses with his deceased parents, envisions himself with an adoring harem composed of all the women in his life. Fantasy intrudes in smaller ways, too, sometimes right in the middle of otherwise real, present-day happenings, as when he wordlessly orders the execution of an obnoxious critic in the midst of viewing screen tests.The film moves fluidly from one state to another and back again, and the lack of easy divisions reflects Guido’s confusion. (Before settling on 8½, a nod to the movie’s numerical position in his filmography, Fellini considered calling it La Bella Confusione, or The Beautiful Confusion — an apt description.)
In sharp contrast to Guido, Isak leads a quiet, orderly existence, so it’s fitting that he confronts his own issues in a comparatively straightforward manner. His spiritual journey coincides with his physical journey to Lund, which he decides to make by car instead of by plane as originally planned. The road takes him into his past in an almost literal fashion, because he stops along the way to see his mother and to revisit the house where he spent his childhood summers, giving rise to memories of events that took place many decades earlier.
Isak is always careful to introduce his flashbacks and dreams to the viewer through voiceover narration, suggesting a level of clarity that Guido doesn’t possess. Still, his memories are more complicated than might be expected. Whenever he’s shown taking an active role in the flashback scenes, he remains an old man of seventy-eight, as if he can no longer picture himself any other way. (Similarly, Guido sees his mother as an old woman instead of a middle-aged one when he recalls his childhood, though Guido himself is played by a young boy then.) At other times, he’s an observer invisible to the people around him, something like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol; the difference is that he’s watching goings-on that he didn’t actually witness at the time, which means that he’s imagining rather than remembering them. Regardless of how accurate or inaccurate his envisionings may be, the consequence of these events — his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson), to whom he was engaged, marrying his brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand) instead of him — changed the course of his life, and it makes sense that he would try to figure out how things went wrong.
Both Guido and Isak are products of their pasts, of their upbringings in particular. Young Guido is seen being doted on by his aunts, who playfully fight for his affection and blatantly favor him over all of the other children in the extended family; small wonder, then, that the adult Guido is a selfish man who still wants — even expects — to be adored and praised by the women around him. His obsession with the female sex also has roots in his days at a strict Catholic school, from which he used to sneak off to watch a woman called the Saraghina (Eddra Gale) perform a rumba on the beach — a pleasure all the more thrilling because it was forbidden, much like his affair with Carla.
Isak, meanwhile, was one of ten children, and it doesn’t appear that he was in any danger of being spoiled. His mother (Naima Wifstrand), now ninety-six, is a cold, critical woman, the sort who refers to a photograph of herself and two of her sons as “rubbish” and complains, nonetheless, that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren never visit her. Although Isak was once idealistic (“He wants us to read poetry and talk about the next life and play four-handed piano, and he only wants to kiss in the dark, and he talks about sin,” Sara says in a flashback), he’s become more and more like his mother with the passing years, his high-mindedness curdling into inflexibility, pedantry and emotional detachment. Having lost Sara, who considered him too lofty for her, he ended up marrying a woman named Karin (Gertrud Fridh). The marriage was a disaster: She resented his superior attitude (she said he talked to her “just as if he were God”) and was unfaithful to him, while their son, Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand), grew up to be a bitter, callous man who despises life. “All along the line, there’s nothing but cold and death and loneliness,” Evald’s wife, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), says of her husband’s family.
What’s interesting is that the outside world sees Isak in an entirely different light. When he stops at a gas station in the area where he used to practice medicine, the young man working there (Max von Sydow) is thrilled. “Mom and Dad and the whole countryside still talk about him. The world’s best doctor,” he says. Moreover, Isak has no trouble charming a trio of young hitchhikers whom he picks up (especially a girl named Sara, also played by Bibi Andersson), and his relationship with his longtime housekeeper, Agda (Jullan Kindahl), is one of grudgingly affectionate quibbling, like that of an old married couple, though she rejects even the intimacy of calling each other by their first names. It’s his family that he hurts — not just his late wife, but Evald and Marianne as well, illustrated by his refusal to take any interest in their marital problems and his insistence that Evald pay back an old loan that he can’t afford, despite Isak’s own wealth. “You’re a selfish old man, Uncle Isak,” Marianne tells him. “You’re utterly ruthless and never listen to anyone but yourself, but you hide it all beneath your old-world manners and charm. Beneath your benevolent exterior you’re as hard as nails, but you can’t fool us who have seen you at close quarters.”
Guido, too, is widely respected and admired. The members of his cast and crew regard him as an authority figure and constantly bombard him with questions, the press is interested in his work as well as more personal matters like his political and religious views, and the fact that he’s been successful up to this point indicates that there’s a significant audience for his films. It takes Luisa, his wife of twenty years, to appraise him as frankly as Marianne appraises Isak, which she does after discovering that he plans to turn their private issues into material for his next project: “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?”
At the conclusion of Wild Strawberries, when Isak has reached the end of his physical journey, his revelations along the way appear to have brought him to a place of unprecedented serenity. In keeping with his orderly, rational character, he declares that “in this jumble of events, I seemed to discern an extraordinary logic.” He had told Marianne that his recent bizarre dreams seemed to be telling him something he wouldn’t acknowledge in his waking hours, “that I’m dead, although I’m alive,” and at last he has a clear picture of himself and the changes he can make in the time left to him. “A doctor’s first duty is to ask for forgiveness,” he’s informed in one dream, so he starts to do just that — much to Agda’s surprise. “Are you ill, Professor?” she asks.
As befits his own character, Guido is still in something of a muddle at 8½, still trying to work things out, but like Isak, he’s also found new peace of mind through his experiences — real and imagined — and he seeks forgiveness and a fresh start:
What is this sudden happiness that makes me tremble, giving me strength, life? Forgive me, sweet creatures. I hadn’t understood. I didn’t know. It’s so natural accepting you, loving you. And so simple. Luisa, I feel I’ve been freed. Everything seems so good, so meaningful. Everything is true. I wish I could explain, but I don’t know how to. So everything is confused again, as it was before. But this confusion is… me. Not as I’d like to be, but as I am. I’m not afraid anymore of telling the truth, of the things I don’t know, of what I’m looking for and haven’t found. This is the only way I can feel alive and I can look into your faithful eyes without shame. Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together! This is all I can say, Luisa, to you or the others. Accept me for what I am, if you want me. It’s the only way we might be able to find each other.
While walking around Rome one night in the late 1960s, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman made plans to collaborate on a film. “Each of us would do his own story, and there would be some vague link. ‘Like love,’ one of us said. I don’t remember which one of us said it. It might have been Liv Ullmann. It sounded good to us, since both of us believed in the search for love as a dignifier of man. Also, it was a very beautiful night in Rome, and on a night like that, all ideas sound good,” Fellini told Charlotte Chandler in an interview for her book I, Fellini. The project never came to fruition, at least not as it was initially conceived. “Usually films born in such a moment of outpouring of emotion never make it to the screen,” Fellini continued. “In fact, very few ideas for films make it to the screen. In this case, both of ours did, but not in a collaborative effort. They became two films — his and mine.” (Bergman’s story evolved into 1971’s The Touch, Fellini’s into 1980’s City of Women.) Perhaps that was inevitable with two directors who had highly distinctive voices and styles, but Wild Strawberries and 8½ — different though they are in many respects — suggest that they might have found a great deal of common ground.
Chandler, Charlotte. I, Fellini. New York: Cooper Square, 2001.
Fellini, Federico. Interview with Irving R. Levine. NBC News. 1965.
Fellini on Fellini. Trans. Isabel Quigley. Da Capo, 1996.