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  • Post last modified:August 7, 2020

8½: The Mighty Ego


812The life of a filmmaker can be tortured. With this instant classic, Federico Fellini opened a Pandora’s box of anxieties; over the years we saw directors like Paul Mazursky (Alex in Wonderland), Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), Woody Allen (Stardust Memories) and François Truffaut (Day for Night) try to turn the headaches of their professional and personal lives into pictures on a big screen. But Fellini’s 8½ was hard to copy – it’s a bit of a mess and only the brightest filmmakers are able to hold such a folly together.

Making his ninth movie
The famous Italian filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is about to shoot his ninth movie and feels the burden of his accomplishments – and failures. The story is meant to be science fiction, but it’s about as ill-prepared for filming as Guido himself and the cast. Over a series of days, the director struggles with his writer’s block and is hounded by his collaborators and financiers who all need him to make decisions regarding the production. Carla (Sandra Milo), Guido’s mistress, arrives and he tries to accommodate her… which becomes increasingly difficult when his wife Luisa (Anouk AimĂ©e) also comes to the set; of course, she knows perfectly well that her husband is cheating on her and has grown tired of the constant lying.

As Guido half-heartedly tries to please everyone, and figure out what the movie should be about, he’s tormented by memories and fantasies…

A feeling of panic
Remarkably well photographed by Gianni Di Venanzo, this is one of the most beautifully staged films ever made. The opening dream sequence sets the tone immediately as the camera silently surveys several cars in a traffic jam; all kinds of Fellini archetypes are there, including an older man who’s trying to impress his lady friend who pretends to ignore him. In Guido’s car, there is suddenly smoke and the director desperately tries to get out, banging with his fists on the windows; eventually, he’s liberated and floats away in the air from the traffic.

This feeling of panic is a recurring theme and the film’s darkest aspect. During the shoot, Fellini frequently had to remind himself that he’s making a “comedy”, but he kept coming back to everything in his life that haunted him, even to the degree that he wrote a character who’s a critic. This man is always close to Guido, pointing out to him that his next film is already a failure. Another dream sequence starts out as a fantasy where he’s celebrated by every beautiful woman in his life… but even that ends in misery as the women turn on him and ask him why he discards them as soon as they reach a certain age. Answers are sought in his childhood, and even in church, but Guido fails to find much relief. Fellini and Di Venanzo move effortlessly between reality and fantasy and flood the screen with both vivid images of elaborate sets and intimate half-lit closeups of Mastroianni’s tortured face; he’s supposed to be 43, looks older… but is still convincingly attractive to us and everyone in the film who wants his attention.

The women risk coming across as a fleeting parade of pretty faces and bodies in this circus, but actresses like Claudia Cardinale, AimĂ©e and Milo carve out memorable characters. As Fellini analyzes himself through Guido, the women’s primary task is to puncture the director’s mighty ego.

As the film draws to a close out in the desert where a huge rocket-launch pad has been built (almost as a symbol of Guido’s lack of ideas), the chaotic nature of Fellini’s film takes it one step further and gathers all kinds of characters and people from Guido’s dreams, memories and current life. It’s awkward (dancing priests?), angst-ridden – and so true to life.

8½ 1963-Italy. 135 min. B/W. Produced by Angelo Rizzoli. Directed by Federico Fellini. Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi. Cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo. Music: Nino Rota. Costume Design: Piero Gherardi. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Guido Anselmi), Claudia Cardinale (Claudia), Anouk Aimée (Luisa Anselmi), Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele, Rossella Falk.

Trivia: Laurence Olivier was allegedly considered for a role. Later turned into a Broadway musical, which was also filmed as Nine (2009).

Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film, Costume Design. 

Last word: “I only did one film with Fellini but he made me feel the centre of the Earth, the most beautiful, the most important. I truly miss him, his sweetness, tenderness, his thin voice even. Acting for him was like an event, there was no script, the set was noisy, it was chaotic, anarchy reigned, yet he was able to isolate himself and get on with the job, you thought you were doing everything spontaneously, any which way was you pleased, but at the end of the day you’d done exactly what he had in mind. Marcello was a sociable, happy person, and loved acting, the only person he took seriously on set was the director. He was charming, everybody liked him, he was the quintessential Latin lover.” (Cardinale, Italy Magazine)



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  1. Theo

    Anniversary of 8 1/2 coming soon. I really liked this analysis on 8 1/2 and Fellini 🙂

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