Federico Fellini’s surreal, autobiographical, self-referential comedy (of a sort) captures the dread of writer’s block, the pressures on a filmmaker, and the male mid-life crisis better than any other film I’ve seen (Barton Fink may equal it in terms of writer’s block). Fellini takes us deep into the worries, dreams, and memories of a successful writer/director who doesn’t know what his next film–soon to go into production–should be about.
And Fellini does it all with humor, stylish visuals, and an enthusiastic embrace of the cinema as exciting as Citizen Kane‘s. The camera swirls and dances through extras drinking mineral water or waiting for a mud bath. Reality slips into fantasy and back again as easily as a Steadicam can slip from one room to another. I’m still not sure which part of the ending is fantasy and which is reality. Since 8½ is an auteurist film about an auteurist filmmaker, we can reasonably assume that Fellini based the main character, Guido, on himself. Of course the part is played by Marcello Mastroianni, who was far better looking than Federico Fellini. But hey, this is a movie. I’d want my cinematic alter-ego to look like Mastroianni.
Guido has a lot on his plate. His next film is headed towards production–sets and costumes are being built–but he’s lost his confidence. He’s delayed the shoot. He avoids talking to his stars about their characters. His producer is losing his patience. And his writing collaborator–apparently the only person who’s read the script–does nothing but tell him how bad it is. This collaborator/critic becomes one of the film’s best running jokes. As he continually points out flaws in the film to be made, it begins to sound as if he’s criticizing 8½ (“It doesn’t have the advantage of the avant-garde films, although it has all of the drawbacks”). It’s as if Fellini beat the reviewers to the punch by panning the movie inside of itself. (Not that 8½ has these flaws, but I could see how some people might think it did.)
All this is set in an upscale spa resort where Guido has gone for unspecified health reasons. It appears as if he’s brought his entire production company with him, and that the film will be shot (if ever) near the spa.
To make Guido’s life even more complicated, his mistress arrives (played by Sandra Milo–Fellini’s real mistress at that time). Then his wife arrives. And he keeps seeing fantasies of Claudia Cardinale.
The film contains a number of great set pieces. There’s Guido’s walk, mostly shot POV, through the spa to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries. The descent into the mud bath to interview a cardinal. His childhood memory of watching a woman dance and being punished for the “sin.” And, of course, his harem fantasy where all of the women he’s loved and wanted happily do his bidding. I’m a bit hesitant to call 8½ a comedy, although on reflection I think the word fits. It’s nowhere near as funny as The General or Some Like It Hot, but it is often funny in a sardonic way.
I was still in high school when I first saw and fell in love with 8½. I saw it at least three more times in college. But the real revelation came when I revisited it in my 40s. With its flashbacks, regrets, insecurities, and sexual fantasies, 8½ is very much about the middle-aged male. I don’t think a young person can catch everything about it, although–as my younger self proves–you can catch a great deal.