Blog Directory CineVerse: Our 2 1/2 cents on 8 1/2

Our 2 1/2 cents on 8 1/2

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Quite possibly the most meta film ever made and the finest cinematic export from Italy, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ hasn’t lost any of its astounding visual power or ability to provoke thought and introspection in the nearly 60 years since its theatrical debut. It’s a challenging work to parse and appreciate, especially for newcomers, but the effort is thoroughly rewarding for those willing to trust the artist and step outside their cinematic comfort zones. Our CineVerse group attempted an analysis last week; here’s a summary of our discussion (to listen to a recording of our group conversation, click here):

What makes 8 ½ special or sets it apart from traditional films?

  • It’s incredibly personal, revealing, intimate, and autobiographical.
    • This film is what resulted after director Federico Fellini experienced an extended period of creative blockage and lack of inspiration for his next project. He enjoyed worldwide acclaim and popularity after directing La Dolce Vita in 1960 and reached the pinnacle of his career. However, he found himself in a creative stagnation afterward. So he decided to make a movie about the hardship of a now-famous director making a movie who is being pressured from all sides by loved ones, creative collaborators, and members of the church.
    • The result is an incredibly honest movie about the egotism, impulses, affairs, memories, and feelings experienced by Fellini, as personified in the character Guido played by Marcello Mastroianni.
    • In this way, it’s arguably the best movie ever made about making a movie, and the most meta film of all time.
  • The stream-of-consciousness narrative and fragmented images make for a unique cinematic experience. The story shifts from realistic to surrealistic, blending fantasy images and dream logic into a simple and straightforward narrative about an artist suffering a midlife crisis and creative sclerosis. The tone is varied, shifting from comical to serious to nostalgic to ironic. The film features vignettes, characters, and episodes that flow freely from scene to scene. We get flashbacks interspersed with sequences based in reality as well as sudden transitions to dreams and imagined visions.
  • Correspondingly, the artistry on display here is staggering. We are shown fantastic camera movement; incredible depth of field in which the foreground, middle ground, and background are densely occupied by different figures, objects, and actions; unforgettably lit compositions that showcase brilliant cinematography, including high-contrast lighting; and spatial framing that is quite impressive, considering the sheer number of actors, segues between scenes, and camera movement.
  • 8 ½ is also a fascinating psychological document.
    • Consider that Fellini had explored Jungian psychoanalytic theory and therapy.
    • Theories abound that the movie explores the interplay between the id, ego, and superego, especially in the harem scene in which there are three levels on which the important women in Guido’s life reside. Additionally, three female archetypes dominate his life: madonnas (exemplified by his wife, mother, and older female relatives), whores (embodied by Carla and other tempting tarts), and a muse of untouchable purity (in the form of his idealized fantasy version of actress Claudia Cardinale).
  • The score by Nino Rota is light, whimsical, and carnivalesque as well as suggestive of mystery and uncertainty. It’s a knockout soundtrack that foreshadows some of the music Rota was to write later for The Godfather.

Themes present in 8 ½

  • Crisis of creativity. This picture demonstrates the impact of and fear surrounding writer’s block or a similar form of artistic impedance.
  • Turning lemons into lemonade. Fellini uses this challenge – the idea of not having an idea – as inspiration, crafting likely his best movie in the process.
  • Suffering for your art. We see the extent to which Guido is distracted, harassed, morally challenged, fatigued from, and ultimately overwhelmed by all the pressures he faces. We observe his character presumably commit suicide to escape all this, although this is a fantasy sequence.
  • We are products of our environment and upbringing. Guido cannot escape from his Catholic guilt or crisis of conscience related to his marriage and work. Likewise, we see how he turns time and again to his childhood memories and experiences, both good and bad.
  • You are the star of your own life’s movie. Like Guido, you get to cast the players, create the scenes, and give yourself top billing.

Other films or works that 8 ½ reminds us of:

  • James Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries
  • Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories
  • All That Jazz
  • The stage musical and film Nine
  • Synecdoche, New York

Other films directed by Federico Fellini

  • I Vitelloni
  • La Strada
  • Nights of Cabiria
  • La Dolce Vita
  • Julia of the Spirits
  • Amarcord

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