After six full features and three shorter works, the Italian director and screenwriter Federico Fellini (1920-1993) – one of the great geniuses of cinematic history – calculatedly and playfully released his semi-autobiographical Otto e mezzo or 8½. This “eighth and a half” flick, which had for its protagonist Guido Anselmi – a famous Italian director suffering from midlife crisis and creative block, blurred the boundary between dream and reality and contained a memorable soundtrack by Giovanni “Nino” Rota (composer also for the first two Godfather movies). A candid and comic examination of the tribulations and prerogatives of the artistic soul, it announced, according to Alexander Sesonske (former professor emeritus of film studies and philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara), the arrival of “modernism” in cinema. “If the mark of modernism in art is self-reference”, wrote he for a 2001 Criterion DVD of the 1963 film, “8½ surely goes beyond any predecessor in having itself as its subject.” This film about film went on to be included in the Vatican’s compilation of the best 45 films ever released in 1995 upon the 100th anniversary of cinema.
As Guido Anselmi (played by the actor Marcello Mastroianni) struggles to handle journalists and crew, wife and mistress, he is tormented by memories of a strict Catholic upbringing and has recurring hallucinations of an ideal woman. Although his creative and moral confusions remain unresolved, he is, ultimately, through a megaphone, able to direct every major figure who has touched his life – from priest to prostitute – into the grand finale of a life-affirming, almost dizzying circus ring. The scene may have been inspired by a dream of Fellini’s. His words:
Because so many of my ideas came to me in my dreams at night, and I didn’t know how or why they came, my creative forces where left dependent on something over which I had no control. A mysterious gift is a great treasure, but there is always the fear that as it came, mysteriously, it could thus be taken away, just as mysteriously.
I dreamed once that I was directing a film and was shouting, only my voice didn’t make any sound. I was shouting and nothing came out. Everyone – actors, technicians – they were all waiting for my instructions. There were even elephants, trunks poised, waiting for direction, so the movie had a certain resemblance to a circus ring. I couldn’t make anyone hear me. Then I woke up. I was very glad to find out it was a dream. Usually I enjoy my dreams, but I was glad to leave this one.
~ As mentioned in I, Fellini (2001) by Charlotte Chandler
A fantastic trailer released by the British Film Institute for a 2015 restoration:
Watch the surreal opening of 8½ below. As Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian has noted, “its opening alone is one of the most incredible things in cinema”.
And here is Fellini winning his Oscar:
A History of Italian Cinema (2009) by Peter Bondanella
A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (2014) by Joseph Luzzi
Making a Film (2015) by Federico Fellini and Italo Calvino
Fellini on Fellini (1996) by Federico Fellini
Featured: Still from 8½. Property of Cineriz/Francinex/Columbia Pictures/Embassy Pictures. Used for illustrative purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.