by Bruno Zabaglio
In 1963, Italian film director Federico Fellini made a movie titled Otto e Mezzo (Eight and a Half). The unusual title corresponded to the number of movie that he had directed up to that point: seven feature films and two collaborative segments that he considered half a movie.
Most feature films can be discussed and analyzed without knowing much about its director. This is not the case for Fellini’s 8 1/2. Federico Fellini is not just the director of the film; he is Guido Anselmi. I agree with Fabrizio Borin, Professor of History of the Cinema at the Ca’ Foscari’ University of Venice, in his book titled “Federico Fellini-A Sentimental Journey into the Illusion and Reality of a Genius”, when he says: “If one called La Dolce Vita an epic, one can say that Eight and Half is an extraordinary vision of memory turned into fable, the autobiography of a crisis overcome through the power of imagination and a freedom of expression never before seen on screen.”
Federico Fellini was born in Rimini, Italy, a small town on the Adriatic Sea, on January 20, 1920. He left his hometown in 1938 and after a brief stay in Florence, he moved to Roma in 1939, where he lived until his death on October 31, 1993. Fabrizio Borin, writing about Fellini’s move to Rome, quotes the director himself on the trip from Rimini to Florence and then Rome, and his feeling toward his final destination: Rome. Fellini says: “I stayed there [Florence] for about four months. Rome is where I really wanted to go … No sooner had I arrived than I felt at home. This is the secret of Rome’s seductiveness. It is not like being in a city, but rather like being in one’s own apartment … Rome became my home at first sight. That was the moment of my birth. It is my real birthday. If I could remember the date, I would celebrate it.”
Rome was where Fellini’s career in the film industry began. He started co-writing screenplays for Italian Neorealism filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini, for the film Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City) in 1945 and Paisà in 1946), and Alberto Lattuada, for the film Senza Pietà (Without Pity) in 1948 and Il Mulino Del Pò (The Mill On The River Pò) in 1949. In 1950 he started his directorial career by co-directing the film Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada. In the span of forty years, from 1950 to 1990, Fellini wrote and directed twenty-four feature films and received numerous awards and nominations, among which are four Oscars for Best Foreign Movie: “La Strada” (1954), “Nights Of Cabiria” (1957), “8 1/2” (1963), and “Amarcord” (1974).
According to Peter Bondanella, retired Professor of French and Italian and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, and author of the book The Films of Federico Fellini (2002), Fellini’s movies have influenced and inspired through the years Broadway shows, television commercials, and other filmmakers, including Lina Wertmüller, Woody Allen, Giuseppe Tornatore, and Martin Scorsese. The latter, in a brief introduction to the 1995 book titled Federico Fellini, edited by Italian movie critic Lietta Tornabuoni, reflected on the nature of Fellini’s movies and how they relate to the Neorealism. On the topic of the Neorealism he says: “Neorealism was a moment in the world of cinema born of historical circumstance … characterized by the use of real locations, nonprofessional actors, an almost documentary approach to contemporary stories, and much technical ingenuity”, and when relating Fellini’s films to an artistic period he adds: “By contrast, Fellini’s autobiographical, spiritual, and magical world did not fit easily into an ideology or code … What Fellini carried over from Neorealism into his films was what one might call an overwhelming sense of the physical world.”
According to Peter Bondanella, Fellini’s early films had a closer “dialectic” connection with neorealist cinema. From La Dolce Vita on, and especially 8 1/2 and Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), Fellini’s movies “… would move beyond any overriding concern with the representation of social reality and concentrate upon the subjective, often irrational areas of human behavior connected with the psyche or the unconscious.” I agree with Bondanella’s analysis, and I would add that 8 1/2, with its dreams and the visions scenes, which represent the main character Guido Anselmi’s reconnection with his memories or dealing with his personal, social, and professional problems, blended and gently contrasted with the reality sequences (populated by quasi-caricatural characters), creates the perfect example of a Fellini film where, as a conceptual director, he is able to stray away from sequential narrative.
The extravagant and surreal cocktail of reality and imagination that compose 8 1/2 are, according to Peter Wuss, a German Professor of Film at the College for Film in Postdam-Babelsberg (Germany), also the product of the influence on Fellini of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory on dreams. According to Wuss, Jung considered “dreams as involuntary psychic activity that is just conscious enough to be reproducible in the waken state.” Wuss’s analysis of the film, in the essay titled: Dreamlike images in Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Tarkovsky’s The Mirror: A Cognitive Approach, and published in The Journal of moving Image Studies, (volume 4, 2005), also takes under consideration the impact that such cinematographic structure has on the viewer. He points out that in 8 1/2 “the traditional fabula of narrative cinema, a cognitive structure”, which helps the spectator be aware of what happens in a story, has been completely dissembled. He supports this theory with a quote of Fellini himself explaining that the theme of the film was: “The story of a director that is supposed to make a film, which he then forgets, and which he then takes … in two directions, that of fantasy and that of reality.”
Although every sequence in the film is very important and is filled with symbolisms related in one way or another to Guido and Fellini’s present and past, I see some as more determinant in the understanding of the film and its the main points, and I will focus on these in this discussion.
The opening dream scene shows Guido, played by Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, stuck in a traffic jam, being asphyxiated by the smoke that suddenly appears inside the car as he struggles to escape from the enclosure; all this happens while the passengers of the adjacent cars watch him. Finally he crawls out and floats away from the traffic with the help of a liberating wind. Being able to fly is a common dream event and usually symbolizes a pleasant escape from reality. Unfortunately, Guido’s dream is interrupted by someone pulling him down by a rope attached to his leg that makes him fall toward the sea and back into reality. When he wakes up, he is at the Terme (Spa), and doctors and nurses are discussing and recommending absurd dietary prescriptions surround him.
This scene, like almost all the scenes unrelated to dreams or visions, has a semi-surreal feeling; it is like living in a constant state of daydreaming, where the people who are around, and with whom we interact are oppressive and demanding. Fabrizio Borin describes Guido’s passive interaction with most of the other characters as an “experience … almost exclusively passive” of the oppressive attention of others makes him feel “caught in a spider-web from which he does not know how to free himself.” Whenever he tries to escape, people go after him and call his name (Guido, or Guidino, or Guidone). Borin is of the opinion that 8 1/2 is also the acclamation of the name Guido “ whose echoes makes us think of ‘Viaggio con Anita‘…and its hero Guido, a project originating in the memory of his father’s death.” Viaggio con Anita (A journey for Love), was a film based on the account of his trip to Rimini in 1956 on the occasion of his father death. This was a project that Fellini always wanted to make into a movie, but that was ultimately made by Italian film director Mario Monticelli in 1979.
The next significant scene is at the spa grounds, when a girl dressed in white (Claudia), played by Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, appears to Guido in a dreamlike fashion and offers him a cup of healing mineral water. The purposely-overexposed sequence of this beautiful woman symbolizes Guido’s search for clarity in his life, with the water as a source of purification. Claudia reappears in the Harem daydream scene and also at the end of the movie, when she drives off with Guido to an old piazza to discuss the film and a part for her. Here Guido finally admits that there is not a part for her. It seems that he is finally finding the courage to confess his lies and confusion. Fabrizio Borin sees the character of Claudia as a solution to Guido’s fears, and states that the choice of “the young Claudia Cardinale, with her deep, hoarse voice, triggers the stream-of-consciousness, the flow of a man’s consciousness, in teetering balance between the possible and the illusory.”
Guido Anselmi is not only searching for answers to the crises in his professional life as a film director, but because of his Catholic upbringing, which reflects Fellini’s own religious background, he is also seeking a solution to his struggle between sacred and profane love. The lustful love with his mistress Carla, played by Italian actress Sandra Milo, and the conjugal love for his wife Luisa, played by French actress Anouk Aimée, are confusing him to the point that he imagines all of them living happily together. The harem dream sequence starts as part of the episode in which Guido is sitting at an outdoor cafe with his wife and her best friend, and his lover Carla arrives. In order to avoid confrontation with Luisa, he slips into a daydream and fantasizes of a place where all his women, including the oversized prostitute Saraghina from his youthful memories, would live together and adore him. Fellini transforms the farmhouse, where Guido as a boy visited his grandmother, into a harem. The scene, which begins with Guido bringing the women presents, is the representation of a man’s inner wish to possess all the women that he desires, that all would pamper him and adore him until, once they get too old, they would be retired to the upstairs of the house and no longer service him. To further emphasize Guido’s need for empowerment, Fellini introduces at the end of the sequence an uprising of the women forced to go upstairs. Guido faces the challenge like a circus animal trainer, using a whip to tame the women and reestablish the harmony in his life.
According to Fabrizio Borin, the exotic and exaggerated appearance of most women in Fellini’s movie and in Guido’s life are presented in a “cinematic image” and therefore he sees “no continuity” between the “women of the world and those of Guido’s movie.” These women are “gigantically enlarged” in order to “connect to the symbolism of the protagonist, who sees himself and his childish world in macroscopic dimensions.” Borin also sustains that these representations connect with Fellini’s esthetics of memory, an artistic language enables him to mix his reality and the memories from his personal life with those of the movie, without any special effects.
Toward the end of the film, Fellini introduces the press conference sequence in which the producer wants to divulge the news that the filming of the movie is going to begin. At the conference, his producer, tired of paying for his confusion and his crises, informs Guido that he has to say something about the new film. Guido is overwhelmed by the aggressive and hostile questions, and by his own mental confusion. He feels trapped with no way out; he wants everything to end. But he realizes that the only way to make all this vanish is for him to disappear. He crawls under the table and takes a gun out of his pocket. The sequence ends with the sound of a gunshot and the close-up of Guido’s head resting on the ground.
Alan A. Stone, Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard University, wrote in his essay titled 8 1/2: Fellini’s Moment of Truth (1995) that this sequence is like a “frenzied cocktail party for the press” and is also where “Guido’s worst dream seems to have come true. Fellini here appears to be portraying his creative implosion and perhaps recognizing the awful truth.” He argues that the suicide is a symbolism for Guido to end the project and realize his failure; in fact,
in the next scene we find out that he has not committed suicide. Guido is walking away from the spaceship set, and he is saying good-bye to the crew until the next project. The voice of someone ordering the dismantlement of the big platform makes final the termination of the project.
Fellini has one more surprise for the viewer. The last scene is, according to Alan Stone, “…a kind of redemption.” A procession of all the characters in Guido’s life, all dressed in white, make their appearance. Everybody is there: Claudia, the women of his imaginary harem, and even his mother and father. Four clowns followed, by the child Guido, enter the scene playing a joyful circus like music to lead the procession that will take everyone around in a circle. Guido takes his wife’s hand and joins the happy circle dance. The set changes in the last sequence into a circus ring where, illuminated by a fading spotlight, there is only the young Guido playing the flute. Among the several psychological hypotheses that interpret the film and its finale, Stone’s is that “Fellini went through a Jungian analysis during a mid-life crisis, and (that) 8 1/2 is his cinematic transcription of what he worked out on the couch.” He adds that the theory of 8 1/2 being a healing expedition explains the final reconciliation of Guido with his wife; and that when he says to her: “accept me the way I am”, he has also come to terms with who he is. The final scene, the young Guido playing in the fading spotlight, emphasizes the recognition by Guido/Fellini of the “child in himself.” Fabrizio Borin, when describing 8 ½, states: “Eight and Half remains an inimitable recherché, a psychoanalytic journey in which the couch is replaced by the trolley, and mounted on it a movie camera that speaks’ sotto voce, fluttering in the entrancing wind.”
In conclusion, I believe that is accurate to refer to Federico Fellini as an auteur because his films are an exceptional example of artistic vision and creativity, and innovating directorial ability.