8 1/2 – 1963

Director Federico Fellini
Screenplay Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Barbara Steele, Jean Rougeul

Carla: He acts like a little boy, but he’s really very complex.

Madeleine – l’attrice francese: Don’t be fooled. He’s a hypocrite.

8 1/2 feels to this ignorant American viewer like part Vacation, part Roma and part The Player. The gist of the story is a director (Mastroianni) who is in the midst of a creative block. He feels a fraud, because deep down he knows it to be true. What he really wants to present is not in demand. Truth, beauty, innocent visions of how women affected his youth. When your producer, critics and the public in general think you’re making a sci-fi movie, it’s tough to pull that kind of vision into focus. His “Saul in Damascus” moment is not a message anyone in his production crew cares about, especially when they’re all running the same kind of con.

“I just don’t believe cinema lends itself to certain topics,” a Monsignor tells Guido, the director, “You mix the sacred and profane love too casually…you can either educate or you can corrupt millions of souls.”

This is true in Guido’s life, to be certain. He’s been corrupted for so long, he no longer can tell the difference between the purity of his youth and how its been corrupted by his present. Scenes from the former blends into any moment he is experiencing, to a moment at the beach where he and his friends see a prostitute do a relatively tame dance, by today’s standards. Witnessed by representatives of his strict Catholic school, he is punished as a result. If anything, it only encourages him, like the neon sign over the Tree of Knowledge saying “Don’t Eat Me.”

During this stagnant time, he hires a critic to give advice on his ideas. Of course this is a delight to the self-important and well read, but little lived man. One who relishes to dash ideas, while offering no real insight or original ideas of his own. That this critic has little real understanding of the internal struggle of the artist is not a surprise. His bookish knowledge stops at the door of Guido’s soul.

He can’t know of the struggle between the pure and the profane that this 43 year old philanderer is negotiating minute to minute. Most of the women know, of course. They get to see him bounce from lie to lie, thinking he is placating them. Really he is just starving his soul for truth he’s either unwilling or incapable of giving. His version of reality is like smoking in a steam bath. The purity is blocked by the poison he’s constantly inhaling.

The rest of the crew moves to and fro throughout. Caught in varying states of chaos designed to make him think they amount to something, even though he’s shut down production during his internal hiatus. He’s hoping to get the approval of everyone, and therefore can please no one. Least of all himself.

Fellini is an incredible force behind 8 1/2. Every shot is framed as though a portrait that is constantly in motion. His efforts at blending all moments with such chaotic movements come from a rumination “on which our minds live: the past, the present, and the conditional – the realm of fantasy.”

His movement from each state within the frame of a single shot shows is self-awareness as a lord of illusion, with little control of his own life. Staid, lifeless religious forms assure him that there “is no salvation outside of the church.” The comic and the tragic are all one.

Fellini’s Guido gives viewers the window of the soul of a man without hope of controlling himself, much less the steady stream of nonsense forever streaming past him. Anywhere he goes anywhere in the hotel he holes up in to avoid the film, they are there, buzzing. The production just comes to him. Still nothing gets done.

Inviting his wife Luisa (the remarkable Aimée) to the production is supposed to help. Even when she brings her friend, Rossella (Falk), who acts as a confidante.

Rossella: So are you any better? Has the solitude helped?

Before Guido can answer, he is whisked away in a car driven by his producer to go see the large rocket they’re making for the sci-fi film. He begs both women to come, they do, reluctantly. He wants to create an honest film, but is surprised he has nothing to say when it comes to being honest. Any of these women could help him, if he just listened to them. He’s not seeking truth, only solace. Without the former, the latter is impossible.

Meanwhile, the rocket, four hundred tons of phallic concrete sitting on a base of sand, stands there waiting for a story to be told.

“It’s a pompous shack, just like him. A self-portrait.”

Guido asks Rossella what his wife wants from him. She says she thinks the only thing she wants is for Guido to be different. He’d rather she cheat on him, so he’d feel less the scoundrel.

Fellini’s message, that it’s impossible to be an honest storyteller when you’re unpracticed at honesty, is prevalent with every scene. No matter how simple the concept seems, Guido will never touch it.

“I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it anyway.”

He swaps out the truth for lies. When his mistress walks into the courtyard where he, Luisa and Rossella have been sitting, his performance is comically bad. This is a realization that arrives too late, as he immediately sinks back into revelry of his dreamworld. Very soon, this will not even be enough.

Mastroianni plays Guido as a marvelously tired man who no longer can recognize the truth for all of his lies. He doesn’t possess the capacity to translate, so it all comes and goes as fantastically horrible visions in his aging head.

Guido rests all of his hopes on Claudia (Cardindale), the perfect woman to express everything in his sickened heart. He wants her in his movie, as he wants her in his life. He thinks her beauty is the untarnished truth. Unfortunately, all he can do is destroy that truth with the clouded visions of his sordid life. Claudia knows this, reminding Guido that his protagonist is really not relatable. He doesn’t love anybody. He “doesn’t know how to love,” he only lives the illusion.

When the final decision is made, he is congratulated by the clueless critic. The only good film, he surmises, is the one that isn’t made.

“Destroying is better than creating,” he says, “When we’re not creating those few truly necessary things.”

As if a critic knows what’s worth creating. “To learn silence,” indeed.

Guido’s final understanding, he can’t create truth when he denies it in his life, comes at a cost. He’s finally happy, with his knowledge. And he’s fully gone.

(***** out of *****)

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