Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 : Art, Artist and Everything in Between

Federico Fellini’s Eight and a Half has been ranking very highly in lists of most important films of all time since its release in 1963. For decades, critics have praised it for its originality, for its brilliant cinematography and perceptive portrayal of the art life. What is equally if not more famous that the film itself, however, is its opening sequence. The first of many dream sequences used throughout the course of the film, the first couple of minutes of 8 12 , in their own surreal and fantastic way, define the entirety of the film, set its tone and the mode of narrative it utilizes. Jumping from the mundane to the fantastic, like evaporating out of one’s car in traffic to float in the air only to be pulled down to the ground again, that is what Eight and a Half uses to tell its story. It is experimental, unorthodox, and at certain segments, plain bizarre, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The idea for the film began in October 1960, with Fellini writing to his producer about a potential film revolving around a man who is suffering from creative block having to distance himself from work because of a disease. Everything about Fellini’s original concept was blurred and unspecified, still he travelled around Italy location-scouting in an attempt to define a film that he wanted to name The Beautiful Confusion. In 1962, work on the film started, but under pressure from his producers, he was forced to rename it to 8 12 , which is the number of films he had made up to that point. Actors were cast, dates fixed, cinematographers hired and sets constructed, but Fellini was still undecided about many elements of the film, even the profession of his protagonist. Amidst all the changes that happened since he first came up with the idea, he felt that he had lost his film and was ready to confront the cast and the staff and call off the project, and then it dawned on him that he wanted to tell the story of a director who lost and no longer recognizes his own film. Just how much of himself Fellini put into Eight and a Half and its protagonist, Guido, we do not know, but it is still a deep dive into the artist’s life and the creative process. Torn apart between work, personal life and the intrusions of critics, journalists and the public into both, Guido looks for an escape and finds none except in daydreams and journeys into the sweet past. We experience the film entirely through Guido’s point of view: the frequent use of close-ups, the voice dubbing Italian cinema is famous for, and leaps into his very psyche and subconsciousness put us right in his shoes.

By attempting to resolve his inner struggles, Guido hopes to resolve his film’s. Producers force him (or at least try to) to cast actors, sit for screenings, and make decisions, but for him, these are mere trivialities if the film is undefined and adrift. Once again, Guido takes shelter in the fantastic world of dreams, where he can revisit childhood memories of spending nights at his grandmother’s villa, dancing with a prostitute as a schoolboy and even reliving the punishments of his strictly Catholic school; communicate with his parents and ask them about the next world, if it is just as complicated as the one they left; but most importantly, through his escapes into the subconscious, Guido gains control, something he entirely lacks in the real world.

The film Guido wanted to make in the beginning was lost, despite hiring harsh critics to evaluate its ideas, building massive and expensive props, casting actors and promising others. So, he drops any hopes of saving it and instead focuses on attempting to solve his already complicated personal life. His mistress visits him unexpectedly, and soon after, his wife does as well, and he is stuck in the middle, hopeless and helpless. He tries truth, lies, evasions, but nothing seems to work. Control now can only be found in the subconscious, thus, we are treated to one of the most unsettling and brutally honest dream sequences of the film. All the women that he no longer has to control over in real life are now his sexual objects in a harem of his own, and when they attempt to oppose and revolt against him, he quite literally whips them back into submission. His extreme lack of control in the real world is matched by an extreme thirst for it in his dreams.

The ending of the film was shot twice. In Fellini’s original ending, Guido and his wife are in a train heading for Rome, and he looks up, lost in thought, and sees the cast of his film smiling at him. Afterwards, Fellini shot an alternate ending that ended up being used in the film instead of the original. In the end, Guido attempts yet another escape from the pressure amounting from all sides, only to realize that he has to see the whole ordeal from another point of view, and sadness and angst turns into happiness and dance.

To say that Eight and a Half is influential is a big understatement, it inspired dozens of films and filmmakers around the world, with some of them even citing it as the main inspiration for some of their films (Day for Night by Truffaut, All That Jazz by Fosse, Stardust Memories by Allen...), and when one watches it, its power and genius is felt. Federico Fellini’s magnum opus is a brutally honest dive into the artist’s life that, even while constantly drifting between harsh realism and dreamy surrealism, ends up being one of the most comprehensive character studies ever put to screen. 


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