Blog Directory CineVerse: In appreciation of 8½: A meta movie masterpiece

In appreciation of 8½: A meta movie masterpiece

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Released in 1963, Federico Fellini’s 8½ delves into the struggles of Guido Anselmi, a film director facing a creative impasse and grappling with personal and professional pressures. This semi-autobiographical work, known for its avant-garde visual style, non-linear storytelling, and use of surreal elements and dream sequences, has had a profound impact on the cinematic landscape, earning widespread acclaim for its portrayal of the artistic process and its exploration of human psychology.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion on this film, recorded two years ago, click here. To hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode, focused on 8½, click here.

8½ deserves to be celebrated 60 years later for a multitude of reasons. First, it’s quite possibly the finest cinematic export from Italy. The film hasn’t lost any of its astounding visual power or ability to arouse thought and introspection in the 60 years since its theatrical debut. In addition, it’s incredibly personal, revealing, intimate, and autobiographical. This work 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 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.

What’s more, the stream-of-consciousness narrative and fragmented images make for a unique cinematic experience. The story shifts from realistic to surrealistic, blending fantasy images, buried memories, 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.

Ponder, for a moment, the incredible array of sequences strung together in a completely unpredictable fashion. The film begins audaciously, with Guido escaping a stifling traffic jam by floating out of his car skyward and then being brought down to earth like a kite on a string. Cut to a visit to a bucolic spring where the waters are thought to provide miraculous health benefits. We get our first glimpse of the snowflake pure female muse Claudia Cardinale. Son, we are in a train station, where Guido’s mistress Carla arrives and they have a hotel room tryst. Guido dreams of his late mother and father restlessly stirring near their mausoleum. 

Before we know it, we’re taking an elevator ride with the clergy and witnessing Guido barraged by show business people, who each want something from him. Suddenly, a magician/mentalist appears to entertain the crowd and Guido recalls being a youngster taking a wine bath followed by a loving bedtime tuck-in from female relatives. Before long, he returns to Carla, now fever-stricken, and prepares to meet with the Cardinal, which conjures up memories of paying a voluptuous woman named Saraghina to dance seductively for him and his childhood friends. He’s forced to atone for this sin by his teachers and the clergy. 

Next, we see Guido in a sauna with older men, and he is permitted a brief moment to convene with the Cardinal, who tells him there is “no salvation outside the church.” Jump to a marketplace, where Guido meets up with his wife Luisa. Arguments about his cheating and their crumbling marriage ensue over that day and the next. Guido fantasizes about his wife and his mistress being friends. Then, we get possibly the film’s stand-out scene, the harem sequence, where Guido is surrounded by various impactful women in his life and he must crack a whip to keep them from rebelling against their expected roles. Soon, we are in a theater watching screen tests with Guido and his film collaborators—tests that hit too close to home for Luisa, who breaks up with him. 

Guido meets the real actress Claudia Cardinale and takes a drive with her to a deserted area, where she says of him, “He doesn’t know how to love.” Suddenly it’s the next morning, at the spaceship launch pad set, where Guido, hounded by the media, escapes a press conference by sneaking under the table, where he fantasizes a suicide. The movie closes with the entire cast of this Fellini film, 8½, being directed by Guido to hold hands in a dance-like procession as the magician, some clowns, and Guido’s child persona perform a carnival-like song.

The artistry on display is staggering. We are shown fantastic camera movement, with the lens darting around in different directions to follow different characters and narrative diversions; incredible depth of field in which the foreground, middle ground, and background are densely occupied by different figures, objects, and actions; unforgettably lit compositions, including high-contrast lighting; and spatial framing that is quite impressive, considering the sheer number of actors, segues between scenes, and camera movement.

Gianni Di Venanzo's cinematography in 8½ is equally stunning, as he blends realism and fantasy to create a visually striking style. The costumes and set design by Piero Gherardi are equally impressive, adding bold colors and surreal touches that enrich the film's dreamlike quality and create a highly stylized world. Together, the cinematography, costumes, and set design create a mesmerizing visual experience for the audience.

The cast of Fellini’s masterwork delivers exceptional performances, with Marcello Mastroianni leading the way in the central role of Guido Anselmi, a director who is grappling with his life and artistic vision. Mastroianni's performance is both nuanced and multifaceted, bringing a unique depth to Guido's character that showcases both his charisma and his vulnerabilities.

The score by Nino Rota adds a crowning touch; it’s 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. Rota also incorporates famous classical music pieces like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and one of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker dances.

As further proof of 8½’s brilliance, this is arguably the best movie ever made about making a movie, and the most meta film of all time. Talk about an astounding premise for a motion picture: The real-life Fellini experiences creative block in preparing to make his eighth feature film, so he decides to make this experience the actual focus of that production: a film director unsure of what kind of next movie to make, with Marcello Mastroianni serving as a surrogate for Fellini.

8½ is a self-aware, self-referential, and introspective film that offers a meta-commentary on the process of filmmaking itself. Through the character of Guido, Fellini explores the complexities of creativity, memory, and fantasy, creating a deeply personal and innovative work that breaks from traditional storytelling. This daring approach to filmmaking was highly influential and helped to pave the way for a new wave of experimental and unconventional filmmaking in the years that followed.

Guido’s verbalized thoughts reveal much about Fellini and his mindset in making 8½. He says: “I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say, something useful to everybody. A film to help Barry forever all the dead things we carry around inside instead, it’s me who lacks the courage to bury anything at all… Where did I lose my way? I really have nothing to say…but I want to say it anyway.”

But the plaudits don’t stop there. With its nonlinear narrative structure, self-referential meta-commentary, and dreamlike sequences, 8½ is a groundbreaking example of postmodernism in cinema. Fellini uses the medium of film to explore complex themes of reality, memory, and fantasy, creating a richly layered work that rewards repeated viewings. The film's multivalent nature challenges traditional storytelling and represents a major milestone in the evolution of cinema.

Its innovative use of dreamlike sequences blurs the line between reality and fantasy, demonstrating Fellini's willingness to experiment with the visual language of cinema. These sequences push the boundaries of what was considered conventional filmmaking at the time and continue to influence filmmakers to this day.

Fellini weaves together complex themes of reality, memory, and creativity in 8½ in a highly sophisticated and multilayered way. The film explores these themes with nuance and depth, challenging audiences to consider their own relationship with these concepts.

8½’s groundbreaking approach to filmmaking pushed the boundaries of cinema and paved the way for a more experimental and sophisticated style of filmmaking. The film's influence can be seen in the work of many filmmakers who followed in Fellini's footsteps, and its impact on the medium of film is still felt today.

Several prominent directors have cited 8½ as a major influence and among their favorite films, including Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, and Wong Kar-wai.

Notable works that drew inspiration from 8½ include:
  • Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s homage to Fellini's work, particularly 8½.
  • Adaptation (2002), featuring a self-referential meta-commentary on the creative process and a complex, nonlinear narrative structure that is reminiscent of 8½.
  • The Science of Sleep (2006), which is also filled with dreamlike sequences and explores the relationship between reality and fantasy in a similar way to 8½.
  • Synecdoche, New York (2008), which similarly follows a complex, multilayered narrative structure.
  • Holy Motors (2012), which crafts a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere and examines sophisticated themes like 8½.
  • Pain and Glory (2019), Almodóvar’s treatise on memory and creativity that also boasts bold, stylized visuals.
  • All That Jazz (1979), another semi-autobiographical picture that uses dreamlike sequences and a nonlinear narrative structure.
  • Mulholland Drive (2001), yet another nonlinear story replete with dreamlike sequences and identity and memory subtexts.
  • Other subsequent works that borrow from 8½ are Synecdoche, New York (2008), the stage musical and film Nine (2009), and Black Swan (2010).
For the aforementioned reasons, the picture reveals much about Fellini and his artistry and talents. This is a semi-autobiographical film that draws deeply from Fellini's personal experiences as a filmmaker and his battles with creative block. The characters and situations depicted in the film are largely based on real people and events from Fellini's life, imbuing the work with a sense of authenticity and emotional honesty. Through the film, viewers are given a unique window into Fellini's creative process and his intimate relationship with his art. This personal touch adds a raw power to the film that still resonates with audiences today, many years after its initial release.

8½ 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 thematic underpinnings abundant in 8½ reward those who appreciate quality subtextual content. Above all, this is a story about a crisis of creativity, demonstrating the impact of and fear surrounding writer’s block or a similar form of artistic impedance. The film centers around Guido, a filmmaker suffering from a creative impasse who struggles to come up with ideas for his next project. Fellini delves into the anxieties and pressures that creative individuals face, as well as the challenges they encounter when experiencing creative blocks. The film also examines how our artistic endeavors can both inspire and complicate our personal lives. Through the struggles of its central character, 8½ presents a thoughtful exploration of the intersection between art and life, and the complex dynamics that exist between the two.

Another major message is the value of 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. Theme #3? 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. The film raises questions about the price of artistic success and the sacrifices that artists must make to pursue their passions.

8½ also posits that 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. This film explores remembrance and nostalgia, highlighting how our past experiences shape our current identities. The movie's characters are haunted by their memories, struggling to reconcile their pasts with their present realities. Throughout 8½, Fellini explores the tension between past and present and the challenges that arise when we attempt to make sense of the trajectory of our lives.

Another takeaway: 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.

This film also explores the complex relationship between the real world and the fantasy world. The movie blurs these boundaries, challenging us to question the nature of the world around us. Through its dreamlike sequences and surreal imagery, the film examines how our dreams and fancies can shape our perceptions of reality. Fellini invites us to ponder the power of the imagination and how our inner worlds can influence the way we interact with the world outside ourselves.

8½ deserves to be treasured, above all, for its inimitability. Thanks to its plentiful characters, unforgettable faces, complex relationships, emotional conflicts, striking set pieces, bravura sequences, and an audacious narrative that’s as unpredictable as it is enthralling, 8½ is unlike any other film ever made. The viewer experiences something fresh and different every time the work is revisited. This is a work in kinetic overdrive thanks in part to a restless camera, a movie in constant motion that demonstrates the cinematic ingenuity of an exceptionally skilled filmmaker at the peak of his powers who, like the best Seinfeld episodes, can turn a show about nothing into something astounding both visually and thematically. The dexterity Fellini wields in seamlessly juxtaposing reality with fantasy, fact with fiction, and the mundane with the grandiose is nothing short of astonishing. Like Maurice the magician, Fellini demonstrates an uncanny ability to turn private matters, deeply personal secrets, vaulted memories, and stream-of-consciousness ideas into thought-provoking entertainment. 

8½’s greatest gift is exclusive access to the gifted: We are given rare, privileged access into the mind of a brilliant moviemaker, who demonstrates that, like the Big Bang, immense subject matter can come from the tiniest source or, in this case, a creative void.

Yes, this is 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.

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