Directed by Federico Fellini
8 1/2 must be the most autobiographic film of Fellini’s career. From what I’ve read, each of his films has an autobiographic quality, but this one, the title of which refers directly to the number of films he had mad, is specifically about a movie director (Fellini’s same age) who suffers from writer’s block, unable to complete his most recent film. Woody Allen would make his own version of this film with 1980’s Stardust Memories and there have been a number of other creatively-stifled writer/director movies including Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York. There have also been even more movies that are simply meta, referring to their own medium more often than not as a joke, some kind of self-referential humor.
But I think those meta jokes have also become tired. They’re like a form of “lampshading,” which is when you have a problem with some aspect of your story, but you refer to it explicitly as if hoping that your acknowledgement of the problem makes it less problematic. So meta humor can often work in this way, and I think in some cases it devalues your film because, by shedding light on the medium itself, you purposefully take the audience out of the story.
But 8 1/2 doesn’t quite do this. It’s grand and comical, and the push ins and pull outs that reveal the medium feel like just another element of the performative quality of Fellini’s work and of his characters. In many of his films there is some kind of show, whether the street performance of Zampano in La Strada or the magic act in The Nights of Caberia. Fellini is used to filming a performance which we recognize as a performance. And, interestingly enough, Fellini followed the neorealist movement (which sought a more real, cinema verite approach), with characters and stories that are highly performative. His protagonists from La Strada and The Nights of Caberia, both played by wife Giulietta Masina, are expressive, broadly comedic, and the way they move or dance around a space is reminiscent of a silent film.
So he has always dealt with characters more than people. In 8 1/2 he makes himself into a character, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a famous film director. We first meet Guido in a dream sequence, a surprisingly haunting one which would seem to set the tone for a psychologically horrifying movie, but the rest of the film will be much more light-hearted.
In this sequence, Guido is stuck in a car surrounded by other cars full of people looking at him or simply pointed in his direction. They are expressionless and motionless, like mannequins waiting to be moved.
The easiest thing to imagine is that these are his actors or characters who have yet to be written. Guido struggles to get out of the car, and then he floats away, tethered to the ground like a kite before falling into the ocean.
Then he wakes up, and we see how much people dote on him. He is respected, but in some ways he is picked apart by the people around him. They all want something from him, even if just attention. Throughout the story he will deal with producers, actors, agents and a wife who all want something from him, and he will simply melt into himself, unable to act because he’s hardly able to think.
Now, many of these characters are piranha-esque. They pick at Guido in a way that makes us empathize with him. We understand why he wants to be alone, and by the end all the characters become more and more aggressive, moving increasingly from the real to the satirical, and once again we are right there with Guido.
But his wife is another story. She is quiet, controlled, and her interactions with her husband often feel like a game of chess. She is holding something back, and she kind of snaps while watching the screen tests of actors auditioning to play her. She will seem to break off her marriage from Guido, and it’s only in the end that he confesses to her, in breathy voice over, that he is finally seeing everything clearly and wants to be with her.
By that point the film is so abstract that it’s hard to know what’s really happening or if it’s important. Because Guido is essentially Fellini, what happens to Guido seems insignificant. We know that the real person is behind the camera, able to do what he wants, so just because Guido kills himself (or appears to), that doesn’t mean Fellini is dead. In fact, in that moment near the end of the film when Guido shoots himself, it seems a purposeful attempt to make it clear that Guido and Federico Fellini are not one in the same.
It’s as if, throughout the story, Fellini and Guido both struggle, trying to identify who they are (through memories and fantasies), and what anything means. Fellini does so through Guido because that’s how he makes his art, through the vessels who are his characters. Then, perhaps in a moment of liberation, Guido dies, and the pressure is gone. The final ten or so minutes of the film feature a resurrected Guido who now more than ever might as well be Fellini himself. In this final, joyous sequence, Fellini directs a group of circus musicians. He runs around with a director’s hat on and a loud horn through which he barks commands. The scene starts out quietly at first, but it builds and builds as Guido brings in more characters whom we recognize from throughout the film. They all dance together, and eventually Guido himself joins in, the final statement that he is only a character.
So as Guido dies, both literally in the story and then metaphorically when he ceases to be ‘Guido’ the character and becomes just another dancing cast member of 8 1/2, we can finally see Federico Fellini at work. The final dance is a simple, pure expression of joy.
Before we get there, we watch Guido struggle with the pressures of making his most recent film and balancing his rocky marriage with a mistress or two. Guido mostly drifts among people, and in a few flashbacks and fantasies we get a better sense of his relationship with women. In one memory, he and his school friends run to a large women whom they pay to dance for her. Or at least that’s what it seems. She seems to be the type of character who is around for young boys to get their first taste of sexuality, and then, hilariously, in a fantasy in which Guido imagines living in a house with all the women he’s ever been with, this large women shows up again.
The fantasy involves Guido returning home and being pampered by his wife and mistress and every other woman imaginable. In these fantasy they live for him, and when they get to be above a certain age, he sends them upstairs. But the women rebel against Guido’s rule that they have to go upstairs, particularly since he himself is above the age at which such a thing must happen. But after their brief rebellion they give into his plan, and the fantasy goes on.
This sequence is very much played for laughs, an examination of Guido’s attitudes towards power and towards the women in his life. He is not such a nice, empathetic character as someone else says to him about his protagonist in the film within the film. Guido, as Fellini, isn’t the best of him. Instead he might be the worst, the parts of Fellini he’s trying to work through.
8 1/2 demands a rewatch. It’s a long film full of too much assorted imagery to remember. There is a through line regarding the making of the film within the film, but it never matters much to the story. It’s just a spine to which various visual poems can be attached. The story as a whole, clearly about the creative process, is at times indulgent, but because it ends with celebration and is riddled with humor, it never feels too burdened with one man’s ego. Like a Woody Allen film, in which he most often casts himself, the film is about one man, the director of the film, but it keeps him honest. Or the director himself is honest with himself. After all this is just a movie, and at the end of 8 1/2 shows that this was all just a performance. It’s supposed to be fun.