8 ½ (1963)

  • Director: Federico Fellini
  • Writers: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi
  • Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Guall that ido Alberti, Mario Conocchia, Bruno Agostini, Cesarino Miceli Picardi, Jean Rouguel, Barbara Steele, Eddra Gale, Ian Dallas, and Giudetta Rissone
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#10), 2008 Cahiers du Cinéma Top 100 list (#46), shown at 1963 Cannes Film Festival, Grand Prize – 1963 Moscow Film Festival, 2 Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Costumes), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Federico Fellini, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with cable subscription on TCM App, stream with subscription on HBO Max or the Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I have a confession to make, which is that I’ve been loving movies for decades and am closing in on 200 movies here on the site, but had never sat down and watched a Federico Fellini movie. We all have our blind spots, I suppose, but this is a fairly large one, especially given that Fellini is one of only a few directors whose name has since been fully adjective-ized by critics. To call something “Felliniesque,” according to Wikipedia, is to compare that thing to the director’s “distinctive style, which blends fantasy and baroque images with earthiness.” I get the impression that perhaps 8 ½ (a strange title with a few meanings, including the idea that that it is how many films Fellini had directed up to that time, like an Opus number in classical music) is not the most accessible place to start. I’m left completely floored by bits and pieces of it but not really having any idea what to make of it overall. Which is less to say I don’t like it and more to say that I think I would need to watch it a couple more times to figure out what I actually think of it.

Roger Ebert once called 8 ½ the greatest film ever made about filmmaking, but more than that, it’s a movie with a subject of making itself. It stars perhaps the greatest of all Italian movie stars, Marcello Mastroianni, as a movie director named Guido Anselmi. Something vague is wrong with him (we first meet him with a doctor who tells him to drink a lot of mineral water and rest) and he is suffering from creative block while he’s supposed to be getting started on his latest movie. He is also caught between his intellectual but disapproving and frigid-by-Italian-standards wife (Anouk Aimée) and his sexy but dumb and annoying mistress (Sandra Milo). Over the course of the movie, he retreats into a fantasy world. Sometimes it seems like what we’re seeing is a sort of memory-from-his-point-of-view of what happened, and other times it’s clear what we’re seeing is entirely in his head. In one central sequence, Guido sees himself as the center of a harem where he is adored by all the women in his life, only for even this fantasy to go off the rails when the women tire of him and organize a rebellion. Meanwhile, he keeps seeing snatches of what he thinks is his ideal woman (Claudia Cardinale, the character is uncoincidentally also named “Claudia”). Eventually she appears in real life but turns out to be another actress interested in a job but nothing more.

Over the course of the movie, Guido is pressured by his assistants and producers to cast various roles and make decisions about various scenes. The roles all turn out to be actual people in the movie (at one point they all watch a series of “screen tests” of other actors for roles like Guido’s mother and his priest), and the scenes they’re discussing have a tendency to turn up later on. At one point, Guido consults with a priest about a scene in his movie involving a Cardinal. The priest notes that it’s unrealistic for a Cardinal to meet with someone at a mudbath spa. Later in the movie, beneath a mudbath spa that feels like a descent into hell, Guido finds and talks to a Cardinal. In the movie’s final scene, all the characters get together for a dance or conga line or something (it looks more like the sort of spontaneous line dancing that occasionally used to break out at our Synagogue), which Guido and his wife soon join. It’s every character in the movie, even characters like his mother (Giudetta Rissone) and the prostitute he remembers having his first sexual thoughts about (Eddra Gale), whose appearance at that time and place makes zero sense.

Fellini started out in movies as a member of the “Italian Neorealist” school that rose to prominence in the immediate ashes of World War II, getting his first movie jobs under the wing of Roberto Rossellini. Had he remained there, he might have made some movies, but it’s unlikely he would have risen to the status of Italy’s undisputed most prominent director on the international stage. His first big departure, 1960’s La Dolce Vita, was a massive international hit. After this his movies seemed to travel deeper and deeper into his own subconscious. Having the idea of making a movie about a man with writer’s block, he literally showed up on the set to start this movie not knowing what he was going to do, and at his lowest point realized what he wanted to do. 

An uncharitable way of putting this, as one online critic noted, is that “Fellini is so out of ideas that he makes an entire movie about the fact that he can’t come up with any ideas for a movie.” And, yes, there is some of that. But if 8 ½ was just Fellini casting a super handsome major star as himself, it wouldn’t be nearly as good. There’s something about its discursive, introspective structure that makes this very personal movie somehow universal. We may not all direct movies in real life, but somehow his way of ordering his life as a movie is not so dissimilar from the way we order our own lives.

So I had an idea of the sort of feel and general themes of your average Fellini moving going into this, but what I found myself surprised by is the sheer level of filmmaking virtuosity going on here. There are many shots in this movie where we watch something going on the background then a face will suddenly pop into the foreground, or there are these long shots where we’re following people walking and having a conversation while they are temporarily superseded by a series of other things happening in other parts of the screen or closer to the camera. It seems like a lot of these shots took levels of coordination most directors would not be willing to bother with. As with all Italian films of his era, Fellini did not choose to record sound on set, instead dubbing in all the dialogue and sound effects. I’ve watched Italian movies where you don’t notice this that much, but here Fellini doesn’t seem to have spent much time making sure the dubbing matched up with the characters’ mouths. Rather than seeming slip-shod, it somehow adds to the general dreamlike atmosphere of the whole thing.

Roger Ebert said that he could always tell what is real and what is fantasy in this movie. I’m not sure I can, at least on the first viewing, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as it might to some people. One thing I would say is that I honestly had trouble keeping track of who was who, especially among the numerous buxom black-and-white Italian ladies who are tangentially related to Guido’s life in one fashion or another. Does that make me racist against Italian ladies with large breasts in black-and-white movies? Maybe, but all I know is that I had to go on Wikipedia more than once to try and figure out who one character or another actually was. Some of them I’m still not sure.

So I found the experience of watching 8 ½ really, really interesting, but I am not exactly prepared, like Ebert and many others, to elect it immediately among my all-time favorite movies. I was left thinking I’d like to go through the rest of Fellini’s oeuvre, and I’m sure we’ll be doing that over time here on the site. If you haven’t checked out his movies, it’s worth doing so. And this in particular is one of those movies that heavily influenced lots of other movies that likely would not exist without it. Godard’s La Nuit Americaine and Fosse’s All That Jazz are basically just them doing their own versions of this movie, while Charlie Kaufman, Terry Gilliam, and David Lynch all owe large swathes of their own careers to this film, directly or indirectly. Most obvious, a musical based on this movie, Nine, debuted on Broadway in 1982. It took Guido’s obsession with the women in his life to the next step and made every other character in the movie a woman. In 2009, Rob Marshall directed a movie version of the musical based on this movie, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido, which mostly received bad reviews.

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