THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 39: 8 1/2

by Daniel Suddes


8 ½ (1963) 
 Directed by: Frederico Fellini  Written by: Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Federico Fellini, and Brunello Rondi Based on a Story by Fellini and Flaiano  Starring:  Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee, and Barbara Steele Oscar Count: 2 (Best Costume Design, Best Foreign Language Film)

Not even Rob Marshall’s terrible musical adaptation can diminish the power and creativity of Federico Fellini’s original masterpiece 8 ½. This film has become the definitive “film about making film,” and one that shows the fragile psyche of an artist. The main character Guido is a character of almost lucid temperament and exists in a permanent state of eternal boredom. He is not grandiose, nor is he egotistical. He is exactly like the audience who was watching him, thus making his plight universal. Fellini had been looking for a new way to connect to his audience. He managed to do so and created his greatest film.

The film marked an enormous transition for Fellini. Before 8 ½, Fellini had not really developed the Felliniesque sense of art. Of course, now the style has its own word and several emulators (most notably American gothic film director Tim Burton). 8 ½ is a film that combines the French New Wave jump cutting and dream like surrealism. But unlike most films that try to be weird for the sake of being weird, rather than to examine the psyche of a man. 8 ½ does the latter, showing a tortured artist who is no longer to create art.

The inspiration for the film was fairly simple – it was writer’s block. Fellini had found that the film he wanted to make had “escaped” from him. He envisioned the sort of character that could overcome it, and hopefully could make a film from that man. This is not exactly new territory. Jean Luc Godard made a very similar film (Contempt) the same year. While Godard’s film is also fantastic, it pales in comparison to Fellini’s accomplishments. The difference is that Godard always seemed to think that his problems stemmed from the outside, and was unable to take the blame. Fellini was completely introverted, and thus explored something far deeper and more universal.

Guido (as portrayed by Mastroianni) is not the stereotypical tortured artist. He is a very boring man, more like a producer than like a freewheeling director. He has grown complacent with everything that fame has provided him, and cannot find any excitement about his job. It is of little wonder that he is unable to make a film. Art is created from passion and emotion. He is so out of touch with the world around him that he is almost not human.

It takes flashbacks before we understand Guido. He grew up in a fantastical world, full of guilt and repression. It also is shown in the same way that a child would remember their past – full of exaggerations and contradictions. The scene with Saraghina (whose bizarre appearance makes her seem more like a Rueben painting than an actual person) is one such example. That is the scene that demonstrates how Guido developed the idea that women held all sorts of power. The fact that Guido was punished afterwards for desiring it only encouraged that belief. Now that he has it, he is unsure what do, but cannot stop. The only thing he knows how to do is make art – and that is where any director has complete control. When that no longer gives him pleasure, what more does he have?

To truly understand an artist, it is necessary to see the world from their dreamlike state. They simply cannot see the world in the same way that everyone else sees it. Thus, while it may seem beside the point to depict any successful director as tortured, it is still quite relevant. Guido’s world is very insular – sharing it with anyone else is an enormous risk. It is also why he could no longer make films. Guido’s life has become so chaotic that he cannot put it on film. Fellini took the exact opposite approach, and thus created one of the greatest films ever made.

The best artists are the most honest ones, and Fellini was being honest in the best way that he could. Very few directors before or since have been willing to display themself in such a manner as Fellini does here.

The best scene in the film comes near the end, in which Guido has created a bordello in his mind. The whole film revolves around Guido’s bizarre perception of women. Due to a lifetime of fame and being a public figure, he has come to view everyone around him as nothing but objects. This scene represents the culmination about that world view. He has not treated the women in his life well, and that is what this scene comes to terms with. Finally, he finds that he needs happiness with the people, rather than with making a film that is being forced upon him. This scene is what fails about Rob Marshall’s remake. He uses it to find some sort of redemption in Guido, when there is none to be had. It is not about atonement, but about guilt. Still, it is good that Guido does feel something about what he has done, and that there may be hope for him after all.

Did You Know: Fellini attached a note to the camera during the production of the film. It said, “Remember, this is a comedy.”


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