“8 1/2” (Italian, 1963, black and white) opens tonight, January 11, at the Hollywood Theater in Portland
In the 60s and early 70s, Baltimore was rich with at least a half dozen art house theaters. So in my late teens, I was exposed to films such as Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” a whole new world of cinema for me. I became entranced by the European films, but viewed them with a certain naiveté, only understanding that there was something new and different from the films I’d seen growing up. Viewing this film decades later is truly rewarding because with age, experience and education, the themes, subtext, design and art of this film stand out much more.
Fellini’s early films were influence by Italian neorealism, a style often shot right in the streets, focusing on social matters like poverty and injustice, and occasionally employing non-professional actors. Around 1960, Fellini was introduced to the Jungian concepts of the collective unconscious, universal themes and the importance of dreams, influencing a change in his approach to filmmaking. In “8 1/2,” fantasies and dreams combine magnificently with Fellini’s self-reflections on filmmaking, resulting in a beautiful masterpiece filed with musings on life, meaning, and art.
"8 1/2” centers on film director Guido Anselmi (Marcel Mastroianni). It opens with Guido in his car, stuck in traffic, surrounded by other cars and buses. One hears perhaps a heart beat, some rhythmic pattern. A poisonous gas enters the car. Some of the people in nearby cars stare, while others ignore him, as he struggles to escape death.
Next, dressed in a black cleric-type overcoat, Guido floats over the tops of the cars into the clouds, then is dragged by a rope attached to his leg into the ocean, where he appears to drown. Guido gasps and wakes up. A doctor, who is a fan of his, asks: “Well, what are you working on now? Another film without hope?” From the beginning, then, dreams, fantasies and reality intrude on each other.
Guido is stuck. He is bereft of ideas but is being pressured by his producer and others to create a science fiction film. Guido can’t even decide if this is the type of film he wants to create, but his producers, cast, crew, actors and actresses are insisting that he get started, choose actors, develop ideas.
The producer has even built a huge rocket launching pad, anticipating Guido’s agreement. Guido asks himself whether he can create something true and meaningful on demand. He wants to make an honest film with no artistic compromises, and mocks the critics who say he lacks fundamental ideas and just puts together “a series of completely senseless episodes.”
Meanwhile, Guido is entangled in a relationship with his crass mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) all the while encouraging his smart and pragmatic wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) to come stay with him. Tension percolates between him and Luisa since she’s unwilling to remain with him if he continues the relationship with Carla. At one point, Guido dreams of being a man with a harem. It is a mysogynistic world where all the women in his life cater to his every need, but are banished to the upstairs of the house once they reach age 26. It’s interesting that the original trailer (below this article) for this film opens with and emphasizes the harem scenes even though they are a small part of this lengthy film (138 minutes).
Guido struggles with his Catholicism, and encounters with clerics in different scenes of the film capture his angst. The black robes of the clerics often contrast sharply against bright white backgrounds, suggesting the absolutism of the faith with which Fellini himself struggled.
As a young boy, Guido and other students sought out the prostitute La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), paying her to dance the seductive Rumba on a beach nearby their Catholic school. Caught watching her, the young Guido is dragged back to the school and forced to wear a dunce cap and a sign reading “Vergogna” (Shame). In a later scene, as an adult, Guido is castigated by the clerics as a filmmaker for mixing sex and spiritual love. They tell him he should educate, not corrupt.
Guido has an idea and wants to speak to the Cardinal to incorporate him into a scene in the film. He is told that only if he repents can he get what he wants in life. “There is no salvation outside the Church.” In this scene, the Cardinal is a silhouette behind a white translucent sheet, his true self hidden with only a shadow revealed to Guido.
My favorite scene is when Guido and other people in his life sit in a screening room and watch film clips incorporating scenes and characters from earlier parts of the film. As they watch themselves, their disagreements, hopes and disappointments play out right in the screening room, a parallel to what they are seeing on screen.
No more mention of the plot is to be made except one note about part of the concluding moments of the film, which implies a redemption of sorts for Guido. He and his wife reach certain conclusions about their relationship. Then, Guido joins a ragtag clown band, consisting of circus characters playing flutes, a French horn and an odd kind of tuba.
Music for this scene and others was composed by Nino Rota, and show the importance of jazz, classical and circus music to Fellini in enhancing the scenes (particularly the parade scenes) and shifting mood and style. On the other hand, there is an effective use of absolute silence, such as at the film’s beginning when a woman walks out of a forest as Guido stands in line at a spa to get his glass of mineral water. Fellini also effectively draws on Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” Rossini’s “Barber of Seville Overture” and other classical pieces. Notice how in some of the scenes with music the actors move dance-like across the screen.
When “8 1/2” screened in America, it was greeted with a lot of praise and some scorn. Despite the negative criticisms (including that of renowned critic Pauline Kael) , “8 1/2” was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and received 2 (Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Costume Design in Black and White). It also received awards from the Directors Guild of America (Best Director), numerous awards from the Italian National SYndicate of Film Journalists (including for Best Director, Best Score, and Best Screenplay), and received the Best Foreign Language Film Award from the New York Critics Circle.
This is an excellent opportunity to view “8 1/2” on the big screen, the best way to watch it. In Portland, it is playing exclusively at the Hollywood Theater. Tickets range from to and can be purchased on the website or at the theater, located at 4122 NE Sandy Boulevard.
Sources: Federico Fellini: Comments on Film, ed. Giovanni Grazzini (1988), The Material Ghost , Gilberto Perez (1998), IMDb