8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

“I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever.”


Last week I watched Eyes Wide Shut for the first time. I had no idea whether I would enjoy it or not – I knew it was a long film with polar-opposite opinions for and against the film. But I adored it. I loved the topic it explored – lust within a marriage and the animalistic urges men, and women, feel. Who else explores such issues with such bold strokes and clarity. Woody Allen is exceptionally open about sexuality and marriage and, upon reading about 8 ½, it appears Fellini explored the same topics with equal bravado and surety.

8 ½ manages to capture a specific moment in Fellini’s life as he had completed his eighth film and was stuck considering what he would create for his ninth feature. Jean-Michel Frodon summarises the film by stating that it is “about an artist having to make a work, about a man having to deal with women, about a human having to face life and death” – it tackles the bigger issues of life. It tackles it with humour and surrealism. And I thought Eyes Wide Shut was profound. My first viewing of 8 ½ was during an Italian Cinema season at the BFI – the subtitles combined with the white-sets, a stylistic attribute of Fellini, made it difficult to read. But the scenes and composition of each shot were poetic – almost sonnets for each sequence and scene. It is no wonder that Rob Marshall believed Nine would be successful, as he broke down each scene and sequence into a song-number. The adjustment to the title (probably for copywright purposes) from 8 ½ to Nine highlights all that was wrong with the adaptation – ensuring a definitive title; turning the difficult-to-alphabetise title to an easily-placed-under-the-letter-N – all reek of simplifying something that is made to be complex and ambiguous – making something real that should remain dreamlike.

Following Guido – and following Fellini…

Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is trapped. He is trapped inside his own car – a machine he bought and controlled the direction of. The car suffocates him and consumes him. This car is filling up with smoke and the surrounding crowd looks into the car as it sits, stuck, in a traffic jam. Guido is a film-director of Science-Fiction – a genre that is complete fantasy – and is struggling to get inspiration for his next film. Like Federico Fellini himself, it is his ninth film that he is having difficulty making. He is stuck in limbo between his eighth and ninth film and he desperately seeks inspiration from the world and those around him. He mixes imagination with reality. We move between his set and his dreams; his conversations through to circus and parades; his childhood or, at least, how he imagines his childhood was. He believes he needs to do this – and we know he needs to find inspiration from somewhere, or else even we have difficulty in knowing how the situation will be resolved.

These are themes and ideas which, to some extent, Fellini has looked at before. Mastroianni acting as Fellini, channelling his innermost feelings in La Dolce Vita. Life as a circus akin to La Strada. But there is something more personal at work here – something that every creator understands, and Mar Diestro-Dopido clearly describes in Sight & Sound: “ a faith in finding a kind of purity”.

Inspiration and Self-Reference

A commentary on Art and Creativity is always a tough balance – though something that many other writers and directors have tackled since. In recent years, filmmaker and writer Charlie Kaufman clearly displays an unease and frustration in his craft as depicted in Adaptation (as a writer) and Synecdoche, New York (as writer/director). Only recently, I wrote about Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Coppola’s The Conversation as both attempt to deeply analyse through repetition and action, the nature, and purpose, of their respective skills; photography and surveillance respectively. As noted, Woody Allen seems to regularly approach the subject in his own films so it is no wonder that Allen cites filmmakers Fellini and Antonioni as inspirations to his own work.

Akin to The Searchers, maybe it is the context of its release that is ‘genius’. For the time, there was nothing so dreamlike and sexy in cinema – the song number ‘Italiano’ in Nine demonstrates the fashionable, iconic style 8 ½ captured. But alongside the stylishness of the film, also made cinema more reflective of the auteur – and therefore the director himself. In the director’s poll, Fellini was the most voted-for director, clearly establishing his films as directly influential on filmmakers today. Mark Romanek, Atom Egoyen and Michael Apted all citing 8 ½ as one of the greatest films of all-time. Can we see Fellini’s influence on One Hour Photo – a film portraying a man relentlessly capturing photos and moments in other people’s lives? Can we see it in the 7up series when we watch an episode capturing ordinary people’s lives every seven years? 8 ½ manages to depict a sense of self-analysis that many films have failed to deliver – turning cinema into a window into the directors, and filmmakers heart.

Timeless Rite of Passage

Often, you read about a director choosing to watch a specific film before they embark on production. The nature, themes and execution of 8 ½ is of such a high calibre that turning to Fellini, time and time again, would not be a bad idea for filmmakers today. Even the dreamlike quality of the film lends itself well to the though-process required when considering concepts for filmmaking – indeed, dreams are more complicated than paintings and music alone. Cinema is the art form which closely resembles dreams – and that, I imagine, is what gives the film such credability.

Frodon additionally dictates that 8 ½ effectively demonstrates “Cinema’s march towards modernity”, and this type of self-referential, directorically-controlled, post-modern type of filmmaking is something that was equally ahead of its time. Only a few years ago, critics would claim Inception was Christopher Nolan’s 8 ½. I assume that this is because it was so important to Nolan – and was a film which he had been desperate to make for decades. To think that a filmmakers 8 ½ is a film which is deeply personal and incredibly important speaks louder about the films credability than my short essay.

John Ford was quiet about the meaning to his films; Fellini is brutally honest and open about his. This is for interpretation – but it is open-ended. The interpretation says something about you as a viewer – and crucially, it says something about you as an artist.

*I originally wrote a post on this film way back in April 2010 and developed the review significantly. Those writers may be interested in seeing the development of my writing and use of research which I have since adopted. The original post can be found by clicking here

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