8 1/2 on Federico Fellini’s Centenary

Marcello Mastroianni in “8 1/2”, 1963 | Cinerix, Francinez


There is no other film that has made me aware that one’s taste in cinema evolves as the years past by more than Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2. The first time I watched it, many many years ago, when I knew nothing about cinema and I wanted to watch as many films as possible in the shortest amount of time, I couldn’t finish it. The second time, some years later, I did make it to the end, but did not make much sense of it. I watched it again last week, anticipating today’s centenary of Fellini, and it was like I was watching it for the very first time, perfectly aware that I was viewing a masterpiece (a word I don’t use lightly) in cinema-making and artistic vision. And I know every time I will watch it again from now on, the more it will be revealed to me, the more absorbed in its revelations and mysteries I will be. Don’t all great films unlock new depths every time we watch them?

This intricate portrait of a famous film director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), who is experiencing an acute crisis of confidence and creativity, draws largely on Fellini’s own experience that he encountered just as he was having a hard time to find an idea for his next film, notes Chris Wiegand in the book Federico Fellini: The Complete Films, the film that would become 8 1/2. Just like Mastroianni in the film, Fellini lost hold of the film even before starting shooting, and one day on the set he began writing a letter to his producer, Angelo Rizzoli, explaining his difficulty in directing the movie, while constantly being interrupted by the arrival of different cast members. When he finally could not take it anymore and got away for a breath of fresh air, he realised he had found the story idea: “I got straight to the heart of the film,” he told film critic Giovanni Grazzini. “I would narrate everything that had been happening to me. I would make a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make.” That’s 8 1/2.

Images above: Federico Fellini and his alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni on the set of “8 1/2”, 1963,
photographed by Gideon Bachmann


”Simply stated, I love to invent stories. From the caves to Titus Petronius
to the troubadours to Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen, I
would like to be in this tradition with films that are neither fiction nor
non-fiction, but approximate autobiography, archetypal tales of
heightened life, told with some inspiration.”

From the astonishing opening sequence – Guido’s nightmare where he is trapped in a traffic jam, unable to get out of his car and eventually succeeding to rise out of the car and float away only to be pulled down from the sky by a rope by his crew members eager to tie him down by his contractual obligations – to the memories of his childhood (another autobiographical element of Fellini’s) and the recurrent appearance of a mysterious vision, Claudia Cardinale, this is the imaginary world behind the chaotic life of a director. But everything is so spectacularly filmed in crystal clear black and white, with the camera constantly moving, making great use of surrealist elements (this is a surrealist comic film, after all), in the true vein of Luis Buñuel, that you can always tell when the reality ends and the fantasy begins, even though it is done so seamlessly. Guido’s escape to the dream world is so obvious because he feels at ease there. And 8 1/2 is a free space for dream and memory. It is a celebration of images over ideas.

Talking about the evolution of his work, Fellini said that “as I progressed I acquired more faith in images and increasingly tried to do less with words while filming.” This is the medium of cinema and Fellini was the master of its art. It’s Fellini’s tribute to cinema, the film that marked the apotheosis of his talent, the one that defined “Felliniesque” for good, freed from any remaining commitment to neorealism (as good as I Vitelloni and La strada may be and as much a fan of them as I may be) and unapologetically embracing personal fantasy and pure cinematic creation. Because Federico Fellini was the ultimate dreamer and how fortunate for us that he reached the point in his career when he could give shape to his dreams in film: “The best part of the day is when I go to bed. I go to sleep and the fête begins.” He said that Ernst Bernhardt, the psychoanalyst, “made me grasp that our dream life is no less important than our waking life, especially for the artist.” Fellini’s cinema is not fact, but feel, not a real life depiction, but an invention of new life.

There had been made other films about film-making before, like The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), but Fellini’s opened the path towards a specific new type of cine-fiction, focused on a director’s creative dilemma, on an artist’s dreams and demons, which proved to be a direct influence on François Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (1973), Woody Allen’s Starsust Memories (1980) or Pedro Almodóvar’s Dolor y gloria (2019). There has probably been no other filmmaker more often identified with his work on a personal level than Fellini and there is probably no other film more a mirror to the profession of filmmaker than 8 1/2.

Marcello Mastroianni and Sandra Milo in “8 1/2”, 1963 | Cinerix, Francinez


Federico Fellini on the set of “8 1/2”, 1963, photographed by Gideon Bachmann

8 1/2 cemented Marcello Mastroianni’s reputation as Fellini’s alter ego. Apart from the role itself, of a director in a creative dilemma, he also dresses like Fellini. Black suit, black slim tie, hat and those legendary sunglasses, behind which he seeks the respite from all the media circus, all producers and actors and women that gravitate around him, all the creative decisions he must make – the same kind of respite he finds in his dreams world. No one has worn the black suit better on screen. Marcello Mastroianni remains the quintessential example of the sartorial Italian, the personification of proverbial Italian masculine style. And his look in 8 1/2 is to remind all mankind that the single-breasted black suit, fitted white shirt and thin plain tie are the canon of perennial style. More than ever before, we are in dire need of this reminder, of the staying power of classics, in a time when the caprices of fashion seem to get hold of an entire generation against personal identity and ineffable taste.

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