Essential Art House: Fellini's '8 1/2'

Nearly a half-century since its release, 8 1/2 is a testament to Federico Fellini’s singular artistic vision and to the enduring joy of creative experience.

Essential Art House: 8 ½

Director: Federico Fellini
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Cineriz, Francinex
Release Date: 2010-04-13

Let's just get this out of the way from the beginning: 8 1/2 is a cinematic masterpiece. Federico Fellini's seminal 1963 movie is among the greatest films of all time. Evidence to the contrary is both critically suspect and scant. Not only is 8 1/2 (perhaps) the finest movie about filmmaking ever made it can, also, lay legitimate claim to being among the most influential motion pictures of the 20th century. Nearly a half-century since its release 8 1/2 is a testament to Fellini's singular artistic vision and to the enduring joy of creative experience.

Released worldwide in 1963, 8 1/2 signaled a critical junction in the celebrated Italian director Federico Fellini's career. Over the course of his three previous films [La strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957) and La dolce vita (1960)] Fellini's vision grew ever more confident, whimsical and surreal. With 8 1/2 he delved further into the surreal dreamscape of his imagination and away from traditional, narrative-focused storytelling. This creative focus, which blended daring artistry with indulgent self-regard, would become his unique cinematic hallmark.

8 1/2 stars Marcelo Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi, a famous Italian film director caught out between the chaos and flattery of fame and the paralysis/fear of a creative roadblock. Exhausted by the success of his last film and stalled in his efforts to move forward with his next project, Guido seeks refuge at a health spa. Even there, though, the director cannot find solace. A constant stream of people – his anxious producer and writer, pleading actors vying for a role in his next movie, his mistress (Sandra Milo) and, of course, his aggrieved wife (Anouk Aimée ) – come calling for his attention.

The immediate and existential pressure builds to a crisis for Guido and he withdraws into his own thoughts and recollections. In an attempt to overcome his creative impasse, Guido journeys through a series of personal flashbacks, daydreams, fantasy sequences, and magically surreal visual episodes. In terms of plot, 8 1/2 is a progression of encounters – real, remembered and imagined – between Guido and his conscience. The narrative journey is Guido's struggle to make sense of his passions – carnal, spiritual, creative – and reconcile the many incongruent aspects of his life.

The plot of 8 1/2 is almost incidental to Fellini's purpose, which is to immerse the viewer into the creative experience of Guido. It's a surreal trip through the intense, emotional, and uncertain vortex of creativity. In Guido's attempt to re-capture and harness his artistic inspiration he struggles with the limits of success and freedom.

8 1/2 can never fully be divorced from its inimitable director. Allusions to autobiography are obvious but Fellini was always coy when others drew so simple a line from his personal life to his screen work. With Mastroianni (who came to international fame in La dolce vita) serving as Fellini's muse and Guido as his on-screen alter-ego, the director clearly felt a greater freedom to observe, examine, and indulge in his own history.

8 1/2 is perhaps the best example of Fellini's ability to combine his sly meta-narrative (rife with self-absorption) with the bold vision of his storytelling. This is a film brimming with confidence and bathed in ego. Fellini is excused for many indulgences of taste and focus that lesser filmmakers would never be granted. His genius rested, partly, in his ability to balance and control the demands of his outsize talent with the wavering tendencies of his ego. His passions were many, but his heart was pure in its love for the creative process.

For audiences that may be unfamiliar with the masterpieces of world cinema, Janus Films and Criterion Collection's Essential Art House series is a wonderful introduction to such influential works, such as 8 1/2. This ongoing set of DVD releases is (primarily) aimed at movie lovers who mix slightly outside the traditional art-house set. These individual releases are merely cheaper and pared down versions from Criterion's acclaimed collector sets. While the DVDs' technical aspects (digital transfer, picture quality, audio, etc.) remain top-notch, these discs are not loaded with the extras that have come to define Criterion DVDs.

This Essential Art House series should also be appealing to movie lovers who cherish such films but have no need for all of the bells and whistles that come with the more expensive Criterion sets. 8 1/2 stands well enough on its own in this released DVD version and is well worth the price.

8 1/2 is Federico Fellini's unapologetic love letter to cinema and himself. It's a film full of symbolism that cries to be read, but insists only on being felt and experienced. The film's mastery comes from its enduring ability to remind audiences of the emotion, adventure, intimacy, wonder, confusion, and experience that is unique to cinema.




Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.