With the enormous worldwide success of his film La Dolce Vita (1960), Federico Fellini consolidated his reputation as a filmmaker of the first rank. No other film has so pitilessly examined the failure of celebrity culture and tabloid journalism to offer anything of worth to humanity, and the unrelenting bleakness of the film’s scenario ends in a maelstrom of complete social collapse. After making La Dolce Vita about the world around him, Fellini felt the need to move on to something more personal and intimate, about his own life during this period, but was as yet unsure what form such a project might take. According to Fellini’s friend and confidante Angelo Solmi,
few people knew that since autumn 1960 the director had been thinking about the outline of an ambitious new film [which was to become 8 ½]. He began to toy with the idea after a visit to Ischia, where had contemplated human beings half-buried in the radioactive mud of the Lacco Ameno baths belonging to Angelo Rizzoli, his producer. He wanted to portray different aspects of a man whose life was meaningless and who was attempting to come to grips with his problems at a fashionable bathing station . . . the story would necessarily have a vein of bitterness, but would be fundamentally comic; indeed, when he talked to his friends about it, Federico laid great stress on this comic note which he did not elaborate further, as he shrouded his new film in the greatest mystery.1
The visit to the baths at Lacco Ameno was followed by another sojourn to the healing baths of Chianciano – “partly for treatment of his liver, partly to collect some facts” – and the drafting of a long letter to Brunello Rondi, essentially outlining the entire narrative thrust of the film,2 though in the end no less than six personages would be credited for the final script. 8 ½, which at one point Fellini wanted to call La bella confusion (A Fine Muddle) was beginning to take definite shape in his mind, and was originally conceived as centering on the life of a disillusioned “writer or professional man, or perhaps a theatrical impresario”.3 Fellini at first wanted Sir Laurence Olivier or Charles Chaplin to play the leading role, but soon realized that working with Marcello Mastroianni, once again, would be more congenial. But still, despite a rough idea of 8 ½ narrative trajectory, Fellini was unsure of what the final outcome would be. As he told Solmi,
when I said I didn’t even know what the plot was, journalists thought I was telling one of my habitual lies. Instead, for me, it was the truth . . . I appeared to have it all worked out in my head, but it was not like that . . . fifty times I was on the point of telling the producer “I can’t remember the story any more, I can’t go on making it.” In short, the preparation was torture. (But) afterwards, everything was easy.4
What brought the film together, in the final analysis? As Fellini readily admitted, a key part in the success of 8 ½ was casting Mastroianni in the role of Guido Anselmi, the film’s protagonist, but also Anouk Aimée as Luisa, Guido’s estranged wife; Sandra Milo as Carla, Guido’s mistress, and most importantly Claudia Cardinale as Claudia, the “Ideal Woman” who seems to represent everything that Guido is seeking throughout the film. But the major alteration to Fellini’s original concept of the film was in making Guido a film director, like himself, who is burned out by the film business, the constant pressure to succeed both commercially and artistically, and feels that he has exhausted all his resources. As Fellini noted,
(one) must choose a professional that you know well, [but] at the beginning it
seemed too bold to depict a film director. I knew that everyone would identify the character [of Guido with me, and consider the film an] autobiography. Now it is true that inevitably all the episodes in 8 ½ refer to my life, but some of them gradually became distorted, while others took shape during the shooting. The result was the story of a director who must begin a film but cannot remember the plot and continues to oscillate between two planes: reality and imagination.5
And indeed, that’s precisely what 8 ½ is – in Fellini’s words, “a fantastic, enchanted ballet, a magical kaleidoscope”.6 And yet there are many darker shades to the film. As Guido, the disillusioned film director, Mastroianni projects a weariness, a sense of unease and malaise from the first frames of the film onward; Guido is in love with the cinema, but has no idea how to “top” his last project. The huge hotel Guido and much of the cast and crew inhabit for much of 8 ½ seems empty and desolate, echoing the vast hotel in Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), a place where no one really lives – they just exist, waiting for something to happen – in this case, waiting for the film itself to coalesce.
Throughout much of 8 ½, Guido evades all responsibility for the film he’s supposed to be making, despite all the resources put at his disposal, causing his producer, Pace (Guido Alberti) enormous inconvenience, and putting the entire production at risk. It is only when, near the end of the film, that Guido realizes what’s wrong; he’s been concentrating on creating a film for others, when in fact his central problem lies with coming to terms with his own existence. Suddenly freed from the pressure to create for the public, Guido improvises a mesmeric closing sequence for the film, in which all the characters of the film join in a magical dance that reaffirms his connection with humanity, and especially his wife Luisa, with whom he has been quarreling – to the point of considering a separation.
The dreamlike nature of 8 ½ is underscored by the pervasive sense of unreality that informs the structure of the film; dreams, fantasies, memories and unfulfilled desires merge with the daily need to get the untitled film-within-a-film completed, as Guido seems to willfully resist making any real decisions until the end of the film, when it becomes clear that the voyage of self-discovery that 8 ½ represents is what’s been in front of us all along. While La Dolce Vita is an indictment of contemporary society, 8 ½ is a personal work, a film that Fellini himself noted “pleases me, first of all, and then the public”.7
But in making a film about his own personal creative crisis, Fellini scored one of his biggest critical and commercial successes, as the film won two Academy Awards (Best Costume Design [Black and White] and Best Foreign Film), and is regularly cited as one the greatest films of all time in international critical polls. 8 ½ is part fantasy, part reality, but above all, a film that urges us to look inside ourselves, and try to face life with a sense of humor and self-deprecation. As Fellini noted, “what I should like most is that 8 ½ should help banish the neurotic complexes that obsess people who want to change others. I think people should be taken as they are. If the film restored this sense of freedom, then it succeeded”.8 And in this, 8 ½ succeeds admirably, as a document of personal liberation for its director, and a document of the triumph of the human creative spirit for its audience.
8 ½ (1963 Italy 138 min)
Prod Co: Rizzoli Film Prod: Angelo Rizzoli Dir: Federico Fellini Scr: Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Federico Fellini and Brunello Rondi, from a story by Federico Fellini and Ennio Flaiano Phot: Gianni Di Venanzo Ed: Leo Cattozzo Prod Des: Piero Gherardi Music: Nino Rota
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Barbara Steele.