When it was released in 1963, Federico Fellini’s 8½ won two Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film. In 1987, thirty European filmmakers and intellectuals declared 8½ to be the most important, influential example of European cinema to date, and as a result, they also designated Fellini the continent’s most important director (Bondanella 93). Films that followed in its wake undoubtedly felt the pervasive influence of 8½, with the post-1960s surge in self-reflexive, postmodern meta-cinema being easily understood as the creative offspring of Fellini’s iconic production. Because of its tremendous influence and vaunted position in the annals of modern cinema, 8½ has also garnered a reputation as a difficult film, becoming a staple of graduate film courses and academic journals. Yet, when we peel away the layers of critical reverence and academic over-analysis, we find a film suffused with personal emotion, soaked in melancholic memory and captivated by the creative power of cinema.
8½ is an intensely personal film. The title alludes to the film’s position in Fellini’s filmography: he had previously directed six feature films, plus three shorter or collaborative works (which he counted as half a project each). The self-referentiality of the title is indicative of the film’s central themes as 8½ is fundamentally preoccupied with questions of creativity, the role of the artist and the nature of artistic inspiration. The narrative is primarily concerned with filmmaker (and Fellini avatar) Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), who is in the process of producing his next major film. Pressured by studios, actors and the grating voice of the critic, Guido has retreated to a spa to recover from his overwhelming anxieties. There, he is forced to deal not only with his increasingly restless crew, but with the disintegration of his marriage to Luisa (Anouk Aimée) and the often-unwanted incursions of his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo).
The plot, such as it is, is comparatively and deceptively simple. However, 8½ derives much of its artistic potency from the deft manner in which it mingles this conventional reality with the iconography of dreams, fantasies and memories. Indeed, one of the things that makes 8½ so special and so engaging is its refusal to delineate any clear boundary between real-life and the life of the mind. Guido’s dreams and memories are inextricably bound up with his everyday experiences, and fantasy figures regularly intrude upon his fundamentally mundane existence with little to distinguish them from more tangible encounters. As he struggles to develop his languishing film, Guido meditates on his past, his identity and the forces that shaped him as an artist. In these moments, the narrative proper is invaded by a tidal surge of sensuous, almost tactile imagery. In some of the most striking sequences in the film, Guido is brought back to his youth, experiencing again the warmth of nights spent at his grandmother’s house, or reliving the disciplinary terror of a Catholic school. In one of the film’s most surreal scenes, Guido recalls a hazy childhood afternoon when he and his friends paid a local prostitute to dance for them on the beach. However, as much as this scene might suggest a bittersweet recollection of adolescent erotic awaking, its fundamental surrealism conjures up a deep and abiding sense of horror. The prostitute, La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), is an immense, dishevelled woman well into middle age. Her unwashed black hair, piled like a bird’s nest atop her head, and her squalid, quasi-subterranean home on the seashore cast her as the quintessential hag, a grotesque sea-witch.
Fantasy sequences abound in 8½. In one of the film’s most notorious scenes Guido meditates on his history of problematic relationships with women. Projecting himself back into his grandmother’s house, Guido imagines himself cared for and pampered by a coterie of former lovers and discarded romantic interests. Here, the flailing director fantasizes about being carefully bathed in the wine vat where, as a child, his female relatives would wash him. Now, he is tended by lovers, past and present, who dry him off with soft, white towels. Even without his wife Luisa being explicitly conflated with his mother, the scene has clear Oedipal undertones. As the fantasy progresses, Guido even imagines himself as a circus lion-tamer, using a whip to discipline the unruly members of his household. While some critics may have denounced the scene as misogynistic, its function in the film is to highlight Guido’s poor treatment of women and his selfish tendency to seek a nurturing mother in each of his lovers. Indeed, like many of the film’s most visually arresting scenes, this sequence gives visual expression to Guido’s anxieties (and those of Fellini, his real-world counterpart). The opening sequence of 8½ presents a similarly arresting example of the director’s/protagonist’s psychological state being symbolically rendered in celluloid. In the first moments of the film, we find Guido trapped in his car, in the midst of traffic jam. The framing of the scene suggests something more sinister than a routine, tedious commute. Limbs extend from vehicles, framed so that they appear to have no connection to a body. This surreal tone continues as Guido climbs from his car and attempts to flee the traffic jam. Soon, he is floating amongst the clouds, but on looking down, he sees a rope tied around his leg. He is tethered to the earth, held down by a man whom we will later be introduced to as the agent to one of his stars (Mino Doro). Yet, upon waking in the comfort of his luxuriant spa, the surrealism of this fantasy sequence is not banished to some distant dreamworld; it invades every aspect of the film.
Each scene in 8½ pulsates with a lively otherworldliness. Despite the ennui of its protagonist the film is steeped an effusive, joyous passion for life and for art. Even in its strangest, most surreal moments 8½ does not aim to alienate its audience but rather to convey visually the emotional power of dreams and memories. Many of thefilm’s most celebrated scenes employ the illogical language of dreams to give form to the director’s own personal experiences. The seafront dance of La Saraghina and the boys’ subsequent punishment by enraged Catholic priests seems to recall – in exaggerated, dreamlike fashion – Fellini’s own youth in the coastal town of Rimini. The fantasies he houses in the villa of Guido’s grandmother similarly serve as distorted reflections of the time Fellini spent visiting his grandmother in the small town of Gamettola, in the inland portion of Emilia-Romagna (Bondanella 9). Here, according to Peter Bondanella, the young Fellini would encounter numerous eccentric and intriguing figures, including local Romani, witches, itinerant workers and “a frightening castrator of pigs” (9). The surreal sequences that proliferate throughout 8½ can therefore be understood as personal memories, as well as fantasies, dreams and desires, that have been transformed by the passage of time and the language of cinema into a stunningly strange mise-en-scène. In contrast to neorealist directors like De Sica or Rossellini (with whom he had previously worked), Fellini’s aim was not to present a realistic portrayal of the world around him (Pamerleau 171). Rather, works like 8½ endeavour to reflect psychic reality, striving to communicate emotions and impressions as opposed to concrete reality. Viewers often struggle with Fellini because his films frequently defy explanation. He is a director who eschews ideology and does not try to communicate ideas through his work. Instead, Fellini attempted to convey emotional truth and tried to replicate the intangible sensation of dreams and fantasies. Speaking to a BBC journalist about his notoriously difficult films, Fellini once noted that “It is understandable that when one is so sincere, little is understood.. . . It is a lie that is clear. Everybody understands a lie. But the truth or sincerity pronounced without ideological protections – and therefore other lies – is extremely difficult to grasp” (Bonandella 4). As such, the joy of watching 8½ does not come from searching for an ideological subtext or a unifying explanation for the film’s meaning. The pleasure of 8½ ultimately derives from relinquishing oneself to the rich sensuousness of the film, losing oneself in its exquisite blend of memories and fantasies, and getting lost in the sweeping tide of emotions conveyed by the images onscreen.
The new CultFilms release of 8 ½, intended to coincide with the centenary of Fellini’s birth on the 20th of January 1920, is very much a celebration of the sensuousness of this work. Clearly aware that this is a film whose pleasure is emotive and sensory, the company has carefully restored the film from a 2k scan. Regraded in full HD, this new Blu-Ray enables the viewer to appreciate the stunning monochrome photography by cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo. Because Fellini’s use of shading, shadow, and high contrast black and white was so essential to the creation of 8½’s surrealistic filmscape, this careful restoration beckons the viewer into this strange world through its crisp replication of these tones. The HD restoration also renders visible details that might have been obscured in previous transfers, creating a sense of immersive depth. The CultFilms release of 8½ also includes new, improved English subtitles and illuminating interviews with collaborators such as actress Sandra Milo and assistant director Lina Wertmüller. There is also an interview-laden documentary on 8½ that focuses in detail on the film’s legendary lost sequence.
The CultFilms restoration of 8½ is a wonderful tribute to Federico Fellini on what would have been his 100th birthday. Whether you are looking to upgrade your copy of 8½ or tentatively exploring the film for the first time, the new CultFilms restoration is the best version of the film currently available. The CultFilms team clearly understand that it is the emotive, sensual qualities of the film that make 8½ so special, and their restoration is careful to ensure that its stunning visuals are presented in rich and glorious detail.
You can purchase 8½ directly from CultFilms via their website: https://cultfilms.co.uk/films/8-12/
Copies are also available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00EFW291M
In addition to their restoration of 8½, CultFilms have also released a wonderful Fellini boxset to celebrate his centenary. If the quality of their 8½ restoration is anything to go by, the boxset (which includes 8½, La Dolce Vita, Giuietta degli Spiriti and I Vitelloni) will also be well worth picking up, both for fans of Fellini and for anyone interested in exploring his work for the first time.
Federico Fellini Four Films is available via the CultFilms website: https://cultfilms.co.uk/films/federico-fellini-four-films/
Peter Bondanella, The Films of Federico Fellini. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
William C. Pamerleau, Existentialist Cinema. Palgrave, 2009.