Federico Fellini's semi-autobiographical 8 1/2 is one of the great (if not one of the best) films about filmmaking, memory and fantasy. The title refers to his unfinished project. It also illuminates the difficulty in translating one's own nostalgia into artistic expression ("You've got to make yourself understood. Otherwise, what's the point of it?"). It opens with a dream sequence of a man trapped in an automobile who eventually floats out high above the sea. This is symbolic of the new birth of our main character, Guido (an appropriately understated Marcello Mastroianni), a well-known, 43-year old filmmaker who is struggling to make his next picture. In hopes to be inspired, Guido undergoes treatment by staying at a spa. There, he continues an affair with his flamboyant, ravenous mistress Carla (Sandra Milo). Their relationship is obviously unsatisfying, as Guido attempts to direct her ("make a slutty face") from bed and his distracted, weak attempts to nurse her when she is ill.
Fellini's use of character shows Guido's constant interaction with others but Guido's inherent isolation (he is described as "Mr. Alienated"). Like "cruel bees sucking life out of a flower," advisers, producers, scriptwriters, and reporters constantly prod and probe him about art, political affiliations, religion, love. His actors have demands too and as do his filmgoers who note his inability to make a hopeful film or a love story. Guido fittingly falls asleep in a bed full of headshots. All of this is the natural predicament of a filmmaker struggling to make a film "useful to everybody ... that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves." The set of the film itself, is ironically an elaborate rocket launchpad, built on the unsteady foundation of sand.
The Catholic church is a heavy presence over the film; there is a shot of an imposing raised-arm statue of a religious figure over Guido as a schoolboy. The church guides Guido to the Cardinal for the ultimate treatment ("there is no salvation outside the church") and for him to use cultured subjects and logic if he wishes to make a statement on the Catholicism. What's so rich about Fellini's work here is his depictions of religious figures: they are capable of both cruelty and understanding (and wisdom) and are just as human as anyone else.
The difficulty of loving someone, the battle between truth and artificiality and the quest for truth in art are major themes in 8 1/2. When Guido's wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) enters the picture, she emerges as an unassuming but challenging figure, fed-up with Guido's infidelity and self-absorption. She scolds him at one point, unable to decipher the truths and falsity in his statements. And yet there is a tender neediness to their relationship. When Guido's mistress Carla asks for truth, Guido reverts to another state of dream. He is told he has "changed" and is unable to love. The film asks many questions on the state of the artist: should he, essentially a liar, strip away everything around him in order to pursue the purity of truth? How does one become a better man while remaining an artist critical and passionate about the world around him? All of this culminates in a dreamy, Utopian carnival-like sequence where all of his characters hold hands and dance. Is this scene of unity merely another forced fantasy, a hopeful dream? It ends similarly to the final bows of actors in a play.
8 1/2 is a movie where "everything happens," but not in a frivolous way. It's buoyant, liberating (both in content and cinematic possibilities) yet also made of many careful choices ("you're free, but you must learn to choose"): almost every frame is a thrilling visual surprise (the film breezes by in its near two and half hours). Like the women described in the picture, the movie is "sensual but wicked." Surfaces, headlights and lamp lights gleam around Guido (including his own chic pair of eyeglasses). Nino Rota's jaunty score, and the use of classical music, adds to its the texture. The costumes (which won the Academy Award) reflect the distinct personalities of each of his unusual muses--especially the indelible, heavily-mascaraed women of his life. ****