Otto e mezzo, or 8 1/2, feels like an early morning dream. Memories collide with the deep subconscious; a film director suffocates, afflicted by self-doubt and repressed shame. Federico Fellini makes a bold statement with his surrealistic opening sequence, fully separating himself from pragmatic storytelling and Italian Neorealism. New concepts. No boundaries. Years ago during college, the maestro initially struck me with his technique and originality — “The Beautiful Confusion” (the film’s original title). At this point in my life, 8 1/2 connects on a deeper level, and not just because of my own creative journey. Otto e mezzo connects because of its supporting cast; the life projections, or ideals, that find their way into 5 a.m. hazes and linger until they receive the necessary attention. Somehow, Fellini’s characters speak louder with each viewing.
Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) looks outward as Fellini looks inward. This is evident upon the director’s first awakening, as he’s figuratively pulled down to earth by his own producers. Guido needs to finish his latest movie; a production with no clear ending. That’s the practical goal. But he also needs to complete himself as a human being. When Guido feels trapped, he dances and hums to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”; a defense mechanism to drown out the noise. In these moments, Fellini’s loose alter ego contemplates true happiness, represented by Claudia Cardinale’s idealistic figure. She’s quiet and calming; Guido breathes easier. Life, in his imaginary world, makes sense. Still, Claudia prevents him from moving forward. Fellini takes viewers on a revelatory journey, examining Guido’s most influential relationships and their long-term effects. Asa Nisa Masa. Scene by scene, Fellini depicts his own beautiful confusion. And he does so with imagination, creativity and virtuosità cinematica.
Opportunity drives Fellini’s narrative. Everybody wants some Guido and what he represents. Mastroianni brilliantly communicates this through routine pleasantries, followed by solitary moments of reflection. Guido moves and stops. His associates, or projections, do the same. Information, subtle as it may be, emerges within each frame. Fellini accentuates nervous energy and moments of absolute peace. Sandro Milo, both a fictional and real-life mistress, symbolizes temptation as Carla. The married Guido, with all his power, entertains the glamorous, image-driven woman, and his shame conjures up memories of La Saraghina, a prostitute that Guido once paid for entertainment as a young boy. Carla and La Saraghina excite Guido and overwhelm him. That energy contrasts Claudia’s angelic presence. Unsurprisingly, women from the past and present dominate Guido’s dreams, only to jolt him back to reality. Fellini disperses visual signals throughout — kickers that deeply affect Guido’s train of thought and make it difficult to decipher what’s real and what’s not. Guido attracts individuals with his spirit and sensibilities, but shame and doubt persists. People keep talking talking, taking – and Guido retreats. His ideal, Claudia, remains unattainable. Meanwhile, Guido shames his real-life wife, unable to set boundaries. Fellini takes viewers to bizarre settings, as Guido tries to find balance between spirituality, creativity and relationships. It’s that push and pull that Fellini so poetically communicates. The framing and locations tell Guido’s story, along with his own reactions. He drifts from realm to realm, unsure what’s behind the next door — maybe a producer, maybe an elevator confessional. Through it all, the director maintains his suave demeanor, yet Mastroianni’s nonverbal behavior suggests that Guido is breaking, unable to identify feasible goals beyond the present.
Guido often transitions from darkness to light. Fellini doesn’t hold the frame too long, just enough to produce stand-alone images that will speak if one pays close attention. It’s not about pretention; it’s about the characters. It’s about the characters’ character, and Guido’s emotional isolation. Viewers see the work process; Guido feels the discomfort of unresolved frustration. And he should, too. In a supplementary FilmStruck interview, director Terry Gilliam notes that “[Fellini] doesn’t lie about his weaknesses,” and they’re on full display in 8 1/2. Guido’s wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée), shows up during production, and she’s dismayed by her emotionally aloof husband. He’s dreaming of his mother, an ideal partner, a prostitute and his own mistress. Naturally, Luisa loses her cool when Carla interrupts an outdoor meal. This sequence is particularly telling given Fellini’s use of physical space (there’s nobody around) and the characters’ interactions. It’s a chess match, and Guido seems to enjoy playing the game. He’s a child at heart, which Fellini reinforces time and time again through symbolic flashbacks. Even the famous (and retired) Italian actress Caterina Boratto makes an appearance, representing the Virgin Mary and cinematic glory; another female figure that influence’s Guido’s thoughts. It all comes back to cinema and work, but the director can’t decipher if he’s lost it completely or just lost his sense of self. Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo brings Fellini’s vision to life, guiding the viewer to specific points and filling the frame with clues. Train stations become funeral processions, and Guido unknowingly directs his own demise. Just as producers pull Guido down to reality, Fellini pulls viewers deeper into Guido’s subconscious. The moments of realization transcend the typical viewing experience.
8 1/2’s original ending featured a train, destination unknown, full of implications about time, memory and acceptance. In the final cut, Guido continues to struggle, unable to face his critics at a press event, leading to a fateful decision. An epiphany sparks a spiritual celebration, and the supporting cast (the inner circle) recognizes the effort and shift in mood. They react positively. Perhaps that’s what matters most in personal and professional relationships: authenticity, clarity and mutual support — identifying those who will remain loyal through failure and success. That’s how the film speaks to me. 8 1/2 reminds that change happens by accepting personal flaws and understanding how those imperfections affect others. Sadly, too many get lost in the spiritual confusion of it all. Like everybody else, Guido is a work in progress.
Watch ‘8 1/2’ at FilmStruck.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the Founding Editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.