Even if you've never previously seen a single frame of Italian maestro Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece “8 1/2” before, its opening moments will almost certainly prompt a Proustian rush of familiarity when you do come to see it: Woody Allen famously paid humorous tribute to the scene in question under the guise of satirising it during a moment from his film “Stardust Memories”; and indie stadium pioneers REM ripped off its imagery wholesale for their video to “Everybody Hurts”... It's influence is everywhere but the impact of this opening salvo in Fellini's ground-breaking stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature of auteurism (which captured the autobiographical context entwined in the mental processes that lead to artistic creation) still makes for one of the most striking introductions to any feature film ever made. And -- perhaps unintentionally – it also set forth in microcosm that inimitable cinematic world of whimsical irreverence, ironical, self-reflexive naval gazing, magical realism and social observation that underpins much of Fellini's middle-period work. The mundane and the extraordinary combine in both frivolously comical and unsettling ways throughout this film -- but nowhere more so than during that opening sequence, in which we are left with an impression of having encountered the uncanny amid some strange and disruptive imagery with a distinctly Daliesque flavour about it, despite its initial grounding in the apparently workaday.
And yet there's nothing necessarily 'difficult' or intellectually remote about “8 1/2”, notwithstanding its revered status and formidable reputation as a recondite art-house classic. It's true that a degree of familiarity with Fellini's previous filmography will help to unpack it for viewers to some extent – but it's certainly not essential to be a Fellini buff in order to appreciate where this piece of work is coming from: the director's deliberate use of the point-of-view shot during the opening sequence encourages us to enter, as far as it is possible for us to do so, into the head space of the film's protagonist from the very start of the film, and experience what it feels like to be him from the inside. The scene opens in a semi-lit tunnel on a packed motorway. Several lines of automobiles are in gridlock, sandwiched together side-by-side like tins of sardines on a supermarket shelf. The assembly snakes on into the seemingly infinite distance, disappearing through the tunnel entrance up ahead, whereupon the delineation of the line of vehicles appears to dissipate into white-out because of the blinding nature of the daylight that’s seeping into this darkened space occupied by the driver of the vehicle we're concerned with following. The many people populating the surrounding multitude of cars, buses and vans, etc., appear as though frozen in time, peering silently out from the discrete particularities of their boxed up worlds at our protagonist, whose vehicle we also happen to be sharing. Then, a gaseous vapour begins pouring into the interior of his car -- hissing through the ventilation, the way it might have done in a James Bond espionage flick. But the silent commuters occupying the other cars and buses look upon his (our) plight with total unconcern as the unnamed protagonist starts frantically hammering and clawing at the windows, thumping the sides of his car while looking desperately for some means of getting out of this situation. Then, unexpectedly, he finds one: somehow he is now able to float through the low roof of his vehicle, having been suddenly made unaccountably weightless and non-corporeal. Now he's gliding, arms akimbo like a tightrope walker’s, moving across the rooftops of the stepping-stone-cars balanced beneath his feet until, suddenly taking flight, he is borne aloft on clouds, heading upwards towards a faint glimmer of heavenly light beckoning from far beyond the troposphere ... only to be ignominiously lassoed by a capped little man in spectacles, who's riding a horse across a beach which has all of a sudden materialised below us. A rope now snagged fast in a loop around his foot, tethering him like a human kite and tugging him ever landward, suddenly he finds himself plummeting headlong towards the sea taking us with him, being brought back down to face earthly concerns once more after this limited taste of freedom, this time possibly for good ...
This extravagant, surrealist flight (literally) of fancy is a beautifully evocative example of Fellini's knack for distilling dream-like images from the unconscious and placing them upon the screen in magical, playful forms of fantasy which resonate more on future viewings when one has a familiarity with the rest of the film to contextualise the possible meanings one might attribute to them. This is the case even as it becomes apparent that he is also lightly mocking their pretensions as well, or rather those of the person whose mind they ostensibly have sprung from. That person in this film, is a successful movie director called Guido Anselmi (played by Fellini's on-screen alter ego Marcello Mastroianni): an Italian superstar auteur who is faced with the prospect of following up a recent blockbuster success while suffering from flu-like symptoms that leave him feeling excessively run-down. This is all part of a major mid-life crisis encompassing marital problems and a severe case of director's creativity block. Guido has decamped to an opulent health spa resort and hotel complex near Rome to recover his bearings, which is where we find him having the above dream revelry at the start of the film while hunched over a bowl of smelling salts, a busy crowd of obsequious white coated medics typing up reports on his condition in his grand suite of rooms as he inhales soothing reviving vapours with a blanket over his head.
The subject matter of Guido's personal vision is also very much the concern of a retinue of demanding producers, casting directors, hopeful but insecure actors wanting to understand their motivation, press agents, production designers and a small army of production staff employed to realise his next project for the screen: a sprawling, mega-budget, apocalyptic sci-fi epic, with massive sets and grandiose claims with regard to the proposed film’s philosophical authenticity and it's author's autobiographical honesty. The production 'circus' devoted to making this project a reality has taken over the upper floors of the grand resort hotel and Guido's colleagues insist on being told what his new film is all about … at every opportunity they can find to collar him about it! The trouble is Guido isn't too sure about what he’s trying to say himself; in fact he's not even certain if he has anything worth saying at all. He spends most of Fellini’s sprawling film trying to evade or shake off relentless demands for clarification on a multitude of points from his staff, or the constant barrage of requests from hangers-on and dependents desperate to make an impression on the great director.
Part of the problem is that Guido's present surroundings are now so far removed from most people's everyday reality anyway, that the images he dreams up seem to have become a disconnected jumble of stale autobiographical details and episodes which have been distorted by his current malaise, until they have no clear thread to tie them into an explicable narrative with a proper ideological message behind it. Or at least that's what Guido suspects. In his hermetically self-contained environment Guido moves through a sea of looming babbling faces, composed of not just his own staff and the white-coated medical professionals employed to monitor his health, but of the painted faces of the other elderly bourgeois residents of the expensive hotel (who also take the waters, visit the mud baths, and undergo the steaming sessions and the health cures the spa has on offer), not to mention a holy contingent of Catholic clergy who have a presence here it seems due to the supposed healing properties of the resort's springs and fountains. All of these people can be found wandering in the vast and crowded grounds of the spa, which resemble a classical amphitheatre from ancient Greece. At his side most of this time as he wrestles with his artistic confusions, is a film critic (Jean Rougeul) hired by Guido as a script doctor, whose purpose is to pass judgement on the worth of Guido's re-written draft scripts before shooting commences after what has been a two-week break in production, called while Guido recovers from his illness and reconsiders the direction the current project is taking. The critic harshly condemns the script for being merely 'a chain of gratuitous episodes'; and claims that, although they might be thought 'amusing in their ambiguous realism,' there is no real premise to latch onto, and 'the story doesn't even have the merits of being an avant-garde film while possessing all of its shortcomings!'
This criticism is, of course, precisely the sort one could so easily imagine being directed toward "8 1/2" itself; having a character in the film point it out is a wry joke that draws flagrant attention to Fellini's typically ironic, self-reflexive impulses -- a quality in his work that is also revealed again in his reasons for the film's rather cryptic title, which refers to the number of movies Fellini had directed up to that point (including also this particular film) which include his co-director credit with Alberto Lattuada on “Lights of Variety” and his contributions to the multi-story anthology features “Love in the City” and “Boccaccio '70”, the latter three counting as half a film each, thus bringing the total to eight-and-a-half in all. If we are to view Marcello Mastroianni's character as Fellini's alter ego, then the film itself can be interpreted as the director's response and solution to the dilemma that appears to inhibit Guido's creative juices throughout: for while the critic employed by Guido appears to assume in his critique of the director's work that the aim of all true artists should be to create art that coherently translates certain favoured critical, psychological or social theories onto the screen to be subsequently interpreted intellectually by their audience, Guido's vision as seen at the top of the film, in which he imagines escaping the mundane reality of modern consumerist Italy and ascending into a rarefied Platonic realm of artistic purity, suggests he is seduced by the romantic idea of going beyond the intellectual constraints of rationality imposed by the thinking of contemporary society, in order to produce a more profoundly honest work that is timeless and true in a purer sense than that which merely echoes received opinion entailed by whatever theory happens to be in fashion at the time of production. Guido would like to think of his creativity working on audiences in the same way as the mind-reading act that is seen in the middle of the movie, during a sophisticated evening soiree laid on in the opulent grounds of the resort by Guido's producers for the production crew and press, in a which a top-hatted magician 'transmits' the thoughts of the bourgeois audience members directly into the head of his elderly assistant; or even perhaps of Rossella (Rossella Falk), best friend of Guido's disillusioned wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), who is apparently in direct contact with spirits, who offer her their wisdom, advice and cryptic hints about what the future holds.
Yet, at the heart of the director's dilemma is the nagging suspicion that these other previously mentioned material, ideological and social influences -- viewed by Guido as contaminant, infecting the crystal purity of the vision he is attempting to capture with his work -- are always somehow still detectable under the surface as the ultimate basis of every idea he comes up with: Guido's artistic stasis, his marriage problems and his crisis of identity, emerge during the course of the movie as being really all different facets of the same malaise -- his problematic, inauthentic and ultimately rather decedent surroundings tending to crop up again and again in veiled, reoccurring form throughout his imaginings; even a dreamt meeting with his dead father over the old patriarch's crypt, which resides in what is frankly a rather barren, neglected-looking wasteland that reminds one of wartime bombsites in the extent of its dilapidation among surrounding overgrown ruins (thus conjuring difficult reminders of Italy's rather divisive recent war history too), is intruded upon by one of his producers, who the forlorn ghost then anxiously petitions for news on how well his son has been doing! The luxurious spring resort gardens where Guido encounters processions of hotel residents who've come to consume the healing waters from an outdoor bar area staffed by barmaids serving the liquid in pint glasses, prompts memories of a blissful childhood similarly full of bustle and cooing from a succession of bosomy nannies, who dote upon him as they bathe the little Guido and the other children he grew up amongst in a large barrel-full of wine, before wrapping them all up in swaddling and sending them off to their beds upstairs.
Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo bathes his daylight scenes throughout the film in detail-bleaching light, almost overexposing the backgrounds of many shots in order to harmonise the look of the spacious idyllic courtyards (in which Guido remembers playing as a child in the sun) with the harsh glare pervading the spa gardens, which the delicate grown-up director now has to shield against by wearing his customary cool dark shades. This setting also reminds Guido of his Catholic upbringing, since the white-coated doctors not only look similar to the robed priests and nuns who educated him at the seminary as an adolescent (and who also inhabit the resort, reminding him of certain incidents from that period of growing up), but the medics at the hotel even prescribe tinctures consisting of 'holy water' (300 ml a day, to be taken on an empty stomach) -- typing up their prescriptions in 'medicalese' speak as though describing real pharmaceutical treatments. Fellini fills spacious, white painted areas with processions of people both in flashbacks, dreams and representations of Guido's hectic day-to-day life as a world famous celebrity director, until the difference between each realm -- as the above described conflation of medical staff and religious personages demonstrates -- becomes difficult to discern. But it is Guido's relationships with the women in his life, in combination with his attitude towards his Catholic upbringing, which sum up the mixture of doubt, objectification of the female form and chronic self-deception at the heart of his inability to trust the worth of the material his imagination is producing. While his aging friend Mario (Mario Pisu) consorts with a beautiful, exotic, dark-eyed pixie of a mistress, a would-be actress half his age (played by a shimmying Barbara Steele), Guido makes a beautiful young actress (Claudia Cardinale) his fantasy muse, based solely on a press photograph supplied by her casting agent.
There's a deep hypocrisy and a self-deceiving romanticism underlying Guido's sexual fantasies and his nostalgically remembered eulogies to a childhood surrounded by adorable (and unconditionally adoring) women. This is a theme that was explored again more fully within the context of 1970s feminism in Fellini's 1980 sequel (of sorts), "City of Women", but it is here demonstrated by Guido's foolhardy attempts to prove to his distrustful wife Luisa that he has nothing to hide from her by begging her to come and visit him at the hotel, when in fact he has secretly installed his voluptuous (and vacuous) mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) in a cheap hotel in the village outside the luxurious health resort. Here Guido 'directs' Carla to 'act slutty', painting exaggerated 'whorish' eyebrows on her face and orchestrating their clandestine meetings in a manner that recalls a childhood encounter on a beach with a leering, demon-like giantess of a prostitute called Saraghina (opera singer Eddra Gale), who would dance, with her tangled fallen beehive hairdo flailing, to the sultry Latin rhythms of cheap pop songs being broadcast on the radio, entrancing Guido and his adolescent friends from the seminary with 'ungodly' urges.
Guido is utterly sincere in the moment, when declaring his love to Luisa, without ever being aware of his own deeply duplicitous motivations and that, drawn as he is to the purity of intellect ennobled in the admirable cerebral qualities of his dear wife (and in his representation of them through his 'ideal woman' Claudia), the carnality represented by his childhood memory of Saraghina (which he tries to capture again through play acting with Carla) is what really inspires him. His art can never be the honest call to emotional and spiritual freedom it aspires to be as long as Guido is unable to acknowledge the truth behind what drives him to create in the first place. In the bedroom scene with Carla we see him enthusiastically and instinctively 'directing' proceedings for the first time in the film: fixing Carla's makeup, guiding her to the correct starting point in the sexual role play they are about to indulge in, and describing how she is to behave during the enactment like a director giving notes to his lead. It is Luisa who sees through Guido's web of self-deceptions and lies, which he half starts to believe himself: Guido's initial response to this exposure is to seek to dramatize their arguments in his screenplay, using life directly to create art in the hope that this will provide his work with the honesty he seeks, when in fact he is merely causing more pain and humiliation to his long suffering spouse, who has to watch clumsily acted simulacrums of their tumultuous relationship being projected into the screening room as part of the series of camera tests earlier shot to help the producers decide on the casting for the upcoming project.
In fact, it is his running from truth into pure wish-fulfilment that allows Guido's imagination to finally take flight into an even more ostentatious and creative fantasy than the one which started this stream-of-consciousness odyssey of self-discovery. Guido begins by idly imagining Carla and Luisa developing a friendship after a chance meeting at the hotel during lunch, but then develops this into a surreal scenario in which the director fantasises about presiding over a crowded harem composed of every single woman seen during the film, from reality, fantasy and his childhood memories combined -- all of them now utterly devoted to him and the desire to provide for his every comfort. This all takes place in his childhood home, and is the ultimate combination of nostalgic childhood revelry, playful flirtation and sexual desire. Here the image of women being 'sent upstairs' to the attic bedroom of his childhood seems to represent them also being relegated to a memory once they've reached middle-age. But when one member of his harem decides she doesn't want to be shunted into the compartment allotted for her, even Guido's imagination rebels -- and the fantasy women attempt a coup that he then has to attempt to bring back under his control using a whip, like a circus ringmaster. This image of the director as active dictator, corralling his imaginative output into shape, ends up defining Fellini's conclusions about the handling of the creative process in general, which seems to say that only by engaging in the actual physical act of creating, and instinctively doing what comes naturally without analysing, second-guessing or trying to get one’s results to conform to preconceived notions of what one 'should' be thinking or feeling, can the artist truly be artistically free -- and although one's work may well be full of unsought influences and prejudices from all sorts of quarters one has no control over, they shouldn't be doctored, suppressed or self-censored but left for the critics and audiences to interpret as they see fit. The film ends with Guido escaping a raucous and hostile press conference on the lavish outdoor launch-pad set of his mooted epic extravaganza, by crawling under the table and emerging into the centre of a large circus ring, where a trio of cabaret performers lead the entire cast around its circumference in the biggest parade of all: the one representing Guido's life and therefor also the cinematic work that is Fellini's "8 1/2".
This classic of 20th Century cinema comes to Blu-ray in the UK courtesy of Argent Films and looks suitably spectacular in its HD rendering. Extras consist of "Lost Sequence -- Fellini on Fellini", an interesting 50 minute documentary combining excerpts from on-set interviews with Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, recorded during the shooting of the film and set to a selection of behind-the-scenes photographs taken by Gideon Bachman, with a wide selection of retrospective video interviews with surviving cast and crew members, particularly concentrating on their recollections of the shooting of the original (now lost) ending to the film which was to have been set on a train, but which was replaced by the circus ring parade sequence because that was felt to represent a more optimistic conclusion. There's also a separate 12 minute interview with assistant director Lina Wertmuller (later to become the first woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director); some theatrical trailers; and the text of Fellini's acceptance speech on the occasion of his receiving his Life Achievement Academy Award, presented to him by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni during the 1993 Oscars ceremony, and which can also be viewed on YouTube.
With "8 1/2" Fellini developed film grammar in ground-breaking new ways that portrayed the complexity of human consciousness in a form that has since percolated down into our mainstream culture through modern movies, TV and videos; but the maestro's talent for distilling intimate vignettes of personal expression and experience from opulent, extravagant visuals with a carnival-esque atmosphere and striking settings, remains as original and distinctive an achievement fifty years later as it seemed at the time of the film's release. Mastroianni still commands the screen as the world-weary, silver-haired sophisticated dude of sixties Italian cinema, and Cineastes will surely enjoy re-visiting this masterpiece now that it has been newly invigorated through the extra boost afforded by this attractive high definition upgrade.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!