If this is the criterion upon which Federico Fellini is to be judged, then 8½ (1963) is a success. 8½ has intimidated me for a long time. Whenever critics write or talk about film, especially films about films, 8½ comes up and is spoken of as a fantasy and the work of a visionary. This isn’t comforting language. Worse is the tone. They speak in wonder of it, conjuring in my mind kaleidoscopes and indulgence that make no sense to anyone without Fellini’s cipher. Critics often love those ciphers, digging into the background of the director or writer’s life and drawing all the parallels and filling in all the spaces like finishing a crossword puzzle. I hate this. It’s the worst kind of snobbery that assumes all is obvious through explanation, so that they can rewatch it and tick all the boxes and be satisfied without actually feeling what’s being conveyed. What was such a pleasant surprise was that I saw 8½ quite differently. Anselmi, the main character, is a fantasist, but Fellini is not. That was my key to the movie.
The life of a director is a difficult one. Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is trying to make a movie with one minor flaw: he has no idea what he’s doing. There is no script, there are only actors, there is no plot, there are only producers. Everyone wants a piece of Guido, but Guido has nothing to give. [That’d be a great musical number, wouldn’t it?] While professional disaster stirs in the air, his health is failing him. So is his judgment. He asks his long-time mistress (Sandra Milo) to come down to where they intend to film and they have some…interactions. Later, his long-suffering wife Louisa (Anouk Aimée) calls and he invites her to come down, which she does (with friends). All the while, Guido builds the idea of his film on his own personal experiences either in memory or in wild metaphor.
In a way, I was well prepared for 8½ because I’d already seen Stardust Memories (1980), which is a mutatis mutandis rendition of Fellini’s film from Woody Allen. There is one major distinction and that is that Allen is going over past work and the audience’s reaction rather than making a film based on his own experiences. Where Fellini is pretty clearly putting his own life and messy impulses on display, Allen is dealing mostly with his feelings.
Each communicates rather well, but Allen uses English which I find far more satisfying than Italian. 8½, more than almost any other, caused a terrible reading-viewing frustration where the dialogue was so heavy and frequent and the missed visuals so important to appreciate that I’ll have to spend precious time watching it three more times to get a full picture of it. Maybe I should just learn Italian. Or French. Or German. We’ve been making talking pictures for almost a hundred years now, you’d think a viable dubbing technique would have presented itself by now.
Despite that, I will not be contradicting consensus. If anything, I’m surprised the film is not better loved. While it is mostly seen as a movie about movies, I saw instead a movie about a man with impulse-control issues who ultimately decides that he’ll try to try. While it may seem indulgent to make a film about one’s bourgeois demons, Mastroianni plays the role completely such that this relatively low-stakes conflict takes on deeper proportions. This being the first Fellini film I’ve seen, perhaps I have no other introduction to confuse this with and so Mastroianni was Fellini and will now always be Fellini. Fellini isn’t exercising, he’s sharing. At least, I shared in it. Guido is struggling to escape his own self-centeredness and that’s something we can all share in. And, unlike Stardust Memories, its style is fully accessible. Mostly.
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