Essential Art House: Fellini’s ‘8 1/2’

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.

RATING 9 / 10