The Greatest films of all time: 9.8 1/2 (1963) (Italy)


Finally Federico Fellini after his efforts in the 1950’s on neo-realism with films such as “La Strada”, and partly realistic, partly intellectual, and partly Avant Garde “La Dolce Vita”, and reading Carl Gustav Jung’s collective psychology and experimenting LSD, he creates the “8 ½”. The title of the film refers to its being Fellini’s eighth and a half film as a director, with previous six features, two shorts, and a collaboration with another director, Alberto Lattuada, as a “half” film. A surrealistic, symbolic, satirical drama-comedy of real life mixed with dreams and imaginations, “8 1/2”, is a film that marks Fellini not as a great filmmaker, but brings out a style in cinema that’s totally Fellini’s. Borrowed from other previous surrealistic works on the screen such as Luis Bunuel’s, and symbolic and allegorical films of Bergman (Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), and intellectual neorealism of Antonioni (L’Avventura), adding Jungian’s cultural psychology, Fellini creates a style of his own in “8 ½”.


Opening with a dream scene, the protagonist, a film director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) stuck in a traffic jam, choked by the smoke in his car and unable to get out, while watched indifferently by other commuters, the film introduces its exaggerated critical symbolism. When wakes up, he looks sick in a huge medical spa, examined by a doctor, while his film assistants all around him. The remedy prescribed by the physician, “spring water and mud bath, and suspension of all the treatments after a week for two days”, soon injects the comic feature of the film. Then walking in a spring water park, he is browsed and looked by others, mostly women oddly. Walking to get his spring water in a glass like others, when the water is offered to them from a fountain tab, is a scene of comic ridicule.


Guido who is stiffed in his creativity and does not yet have a script, and jumps from his dreams to illusion, allusion and in between to his real life, goes to the train station to pick up his mistress, Clara (Sandra Milo). Both married but in an affair, she bringing five suitcases with her and expecting to have party all the time, is faced with Guido’s cool and spaced out mind and attitude. In the evening at the hotel room, he demands her to put on heavy make up and act like a whore, go out in the hallway and come back to him in bed. Again while in sleep on the hotel bed, and his mistress up and reading, he dreams of his deceased parents. His father does not seem happy with him who’s failed in life, and farewells him while he goes down back to the grave.

The real life scenes mixed up with Guido’s night and day dreams are often hard to tease apart. Soon in the film studio, he is flooded by questions of his associates in an exaggerated manner. Then in the evening, there is La Dolce Vita’s type party, when at a table the director is questioned about the connection between communism and Catholicism and if Italy is a catholic country. Here the intellectual food for the thought is added to the surrealistic and symbolic comedy-drama of the film. On the stage there is a telepath who with an old lady assistant, they read the party people’s minds. After reading a few others, they read Guido’s mind of thinking the mysterious “Asa Nisi Masa” word that takes us to his early childhood to discover its meaning. Living with his siblings, all taking bath in a huge tall barrel of water, attended by their unhappy and brawling grandmother. When all in bed, the siblings say the magic words “Asa Nisi Masa” to have a man on the picture in the bedroom, to move his eyes and shows where the treasure is.


The film is somewhat autobiographical and reflection of own Fellini’s struggle to find his style of filmography. Throughout the film, he confesses of hard search for such a style to reveal the hidden façade of life at least of Petite-bourgeoisies’ with symbols, allegory and dreams mixed in real life situations in an exaggerated, mocking and comic style. A novel and innovative existentialist as well Avant Garde, Fellini stays away from too much intellectually meaningless show offs like some other Avant Garde’s works in Europe at the time. In the film, Fellini critics such Avant Garde works through the comment of his hired film critic, Carini (Jean Rougeul) who comments on his ideas for the film as being “intellectually weak, spineless and confusing”.


Keeps going back to his dreams, visions and introspections, he sees none of the females characters in his real life relationships and his actresses as ideal, but an unnatural young beautiful woman, Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) who keeps appearing to him in his daydreams at times. In the search of purity, beauty and spontaneity in his personal life and work, he sees Claudia such a symbol. In other words, now more mature and thoughtful, Fellini in “8 ½” cannot imagine the real life we’re living in without its spices of symbolism through the dreams, daydreaming, illusions and allusions. Therefore he is not only surrealist, existentialist, neorealist, Avant Garde, or intellectual, but perhaps a mish mash of all! Through Claudia, he is into “creating order and cleanliness”, but he fails as he creates confusion, and ponders it would be better after all going to the village museum and find “all beauty of the classic arts”!

Like all Italians, Fellini also struggles internally with his upbringing as a catholic, but with all his earthy dreams, wishes, reflections and thoughts that often do not match the rigidity of the religion. When he goes to the Vatican to get the approval and support of the cardinal for his film, while listening to his preaching, his eyes falls on a middle aged woman, a housekeeper on the background in the field that takes him back through a flashback of his childhood memories. As a boy he is seen in the school yard when a group of boys calls him to go with them to watch “Saraghina”, a prostitute whom they usually go and watch. An overweight middle-aged woman with heavy makeup who notices the boys pleasure of watching and recognizing her, dances and shows off for them. But soon a teacher priest from his catholic school chases Guido and takes him back to school where he is tried with shame and guilt. At the end, he has to confess to a priest, who asks him “Didn’t you know Saraghina is the devil?” that he answers back “I didn’t know, I really didn’t know”! Running out of the church, he goes back to Saraghina where she lives in a shack on the beach, but this time alone.


In a spacious spa for his treatment later on, Guido walks with so many others, to the different sections of mud bath, massage and “inhalation”. The attendees are asked to breathy deeply, as if they are in the gas chambers of a concentration camp. While everybody in the steamy spa having difficulties breathing and looking like dying, and one of them asks “where are we?”, Guido is called on a speaker that the cardinal is waiting to see him. One of his film associates while walking him out calls him lucky to see the cardinal and asking him to put in good words for him as the eminence can do anything even “fixing my Mexican divorce”! Before seeing the cardinal again, a Vatican representative advises him to repent to the eminence who can do anything for him in return. The cardinal while in the spa as well interrogates him, why he wants to be happy, as “Who said we were put on this earth to be happy”? “There is no salvation outside the church. Whatever is outside the city of God, is the city of Devil”! But there is a city of real life and real people with all their earthy flaws that Guido like anybody else keeps going back to, against all the religious preaches, warnings, and guilt trips.


Confessing at the end, Guido (or Fellini) “I thought I had everything clear in my mind. I wanted to make an honest film…no lies, no compromises. I thought I had something so simple…A film that would be helpful to everybody…that would finally bury everything that’s dead within us. Instead, I find I don’t have the courage to bury anything.” All that aside, all of us in reality going back to our real lives, as Guido sleeping in a separate bed in the hotel room, from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) who has come to visit him on the stage of his filmmaking, bickering and fighting about their marriage that has been on the verge of separation for years. In the morning at the restaurant table, seeing his mistress, Clara alone at a far table, Luisa starts fighting with Guido over her, but a few minutes later, both ladies hands in hands like close friends chat and walk away from him, while he seems content and happy.

The next scene in another daydream of Guido, finally in his own harem with all the women in his life, from his childhood’s Saraghina the prostitute, to all his career’s women, under the management of Luisa, his wife with the assistance of Rossella (Rolssella Falk), her best friend and his confidant. Like a sheik, Guido punishes whoever does not follow the rules of the harem and sends her upstairs, and all the rest of women including his wife obeys and guarantees the execution of the rules. The place is in fact Guido’s grandma’s villa where he is bathed in the gigantic water barrel by the women like in his childhood. But soon like any one-sided rules and dictatorship, the ladies of the house like protesting slaves rebel against him.


Still confused and indecisive about his film and even choosing the right actresses, and despite the frustration of his producer, Guido decides to call off the film and walks away with his Claudia who arrives as an actress for the screen test. Guido worshipping Claudia, exclaiming that he desperately as a burnt out man needs her as his ideal woman. But Claudia criticizes him as incapable of love and leaves him.


Soon back again to real life, everyone is on an outdoor film stage with a huge spaceship that supposed to be in the film, with all the crews and the press swarming Guido with their questions and comments. Overwhelmed as often and to hide himself from them all, he crawls under a long table and finally shoots himself in the head. The scene or at least the suicide part that seemed to be real, will soon appear to be another thought or daydream, as in the next scene Guido alive walks around. Here he finally discloses to Luisa that instead of creating a film to help others and solve the mystery of life, he needs to help himself and asks his wife for help that she will accept to try. In the final scene, a group of musical clowns, led by Guido in his boyhood, transforms the huge spaceship film stage into a circus with all the men and women in the director’s life hands in hands dance around the circle happily.        

Winning the Academy Awards for the best foreign film, and on the top 10 film list of British Film Institute, ranking 3rd in a 2002 poll of film directors conducted by the same institute, the winner of the prestigious grand prize at the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival, “8 ½” has since been a universal accolade. Ranking 2nd on the 1992 and 2002 and number 4 in 2012 of Sight & Sound Director’s poll, “8 ½” has been praised and occasionally disliked all for the same reason of his brave unconventionality and confusion that throws onto the audience from his own principal protagonist, Guido or in fact Fellini himself.



In closing remarks “8 ½” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “8 ½” is original in its own specific and unique avant garde style that still to this day could not been seen anywhere else other than Fellini’s own works. The film brought to the screen a different intellectual work with hints of surrealism, symbolism, critical comedy and tragedy, reminding us of Dante’s. The film is such as aforementioned not only in content, but in style of filmography, set, plot and costume designs and intelligent mixing with classical music scores.  
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “8 ½” is in its brilliant mixing of reality with daydreams, imagination in story plot on the script and in its technical cinematography, directing and acting to convey the confusion in mind and creativity of a filmmaker.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “8 ½” has been not only on many other filmmakers, but novelists, critics and poets so that soon after the release of the film, a group of young writers in Italy founded “Gruppo ‘63” a literary avant garde to follow such style that Fellini created. The film has influenced Arthur Penn in his 1965’s “Mickey One”, Paul Mazursky’s 1970 “Alex in Wonderland”, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1971 “Beware of a Holly Whore”, Francois Truffaut’s 1974 “Day for Night”, Bob Fosse’s 1979 “All that Jazz”, Woody Allen’s 1980 “Stardust Memories”, Nanni Moretti’s 1981 “Sogni d”oro”, Vadim Abdrashitov’s 1984 “Planet Parade”, Carlos Sorin’s 1986 “La Pelicula del rey”, Tom DiCillo’s 1995 “Living in Oblivion”, Peter Greenway’s 1999 “8 ½ Women”, Grigori Konstantinopolsky’s 1999 ““8 ½$”, Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 “Synecdoche New York”, and “Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 “The Great Beauty” to name some.
  4. Survival: “8 ½” has survived well to this very day for its introduction to the cinema a novel style of intellectual filmography that is still entertaining while introspective and still only Fellini’s own.



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