Which film would be shown as the second in our Fellini marathon was up for grabs for a while. Kevin and I had decided that is basically came down to either 1960’s La Dolce Vita or to the slightly later (1963) eventual winner, 8 1/2. I re-watched both just make a comparison, and the 45-minute shorter run time of 8 1/2 along with its more coherent storyline pushed it over the top for me. That’s not to say that it’s exactly a linear movie – Fellini basically didn’t mess around with that sort of thing in his later career – but La Dolce Vita’s episodes felt a bit too disconnected (especially with Amarcord coming up) to jump it over 8 1/2.
That’s not to say that 8 1/2 isn’t a difficult film – it is. And I think that only watching it twice in short succession did I start to get a feel for how Fellini navigates between reality and fantasy, between the present and the flashback, and I really feel that this play with reality deserves a fuller analysis. To do it, I’m going to watch the film yet again – a third time in about two months. I’m going to indicate reality in regular font and fantasy/flashback in italics.
Fellini starts with his fictional director alter ego Guido Anselmi trapped in a traffic jam indie a tunnel. Traffic is not moving at all. When a mist begins to flow into the car, he finds he is trapped not only in the traffic jam, but also in the car. He makes a scene, beating at the windows, until he finally finds a way to escape from the roof, whereupon he begins flying, upright and arms outward in a clear reference to the helicopter-borne crucifix that opens La Dolce Vita. He flies through clouds, beyond a massive framework skeleton we will learn is the launchpad in his new film, and becomes a kite at the beach, a rope around his leg used by his producer and a figure in Catholic religious garb to yank him back down. He falls, limp, into the sea.
Guido wakes from his dream, accompanied by doctors in a rest spa. Photos of prospective actresses sit on his bed as he is clearly still at work despite his worn-out condition. He goes into a large bathroom but cannot escape the buzzing of his telephone even there. The Ride of the Valkyries brings us to the spring at the spa, where it is being played by an orchestra while patients line up for spring water. When Guido reaches the front of the spring water line, Claudia Cardinale appears among the ruins, floats mysteriously to the spring and presents him a glass of water. The actual, much more homely drawer of the spring water rips Guido back to reality. He meets with a critic associated with his producer, whom we will see throughout the film, who lambastes Guido’s latest script for its “ambiguous realism” and hands him a paper with critiques. Guido excuses himself from the critic when he sees and old friend, Mezzabotta, who is at the spa with a much younger girlfriend, Gloria. Guido’s reading of the critic’s thoughts carries us to the opening of the next scene.
Guido meets his lover Carla at the train station and instead of allowing her to come stay with him at the spa, puts her up at a nearby hotel. Carla asks for Guido to find her husband a job in some capacity, and they engage in a bit of hanky-panky. Afterwards, while she reads a comic book he sees a vision of his mother in the room. She is polishing the glass doors of a tomb – his father’s tomb. Guido has a short discussion with his dead father (the same actor who played the Mastroianni’s father in La Dolce Vita). Guido helps his father down into a grave, then is confronted by his mother, who gives him a passionate kiss and turns into his wife.
Guido returns to the spa and rides an elevator with some evidently important people in the Catholic church. He emerges to be confronted by various members of his production crew asking for guidance, including the French actress, one of his main actresses for the upcoming film asking about her role – he can’t give her specifics. Claudia Cardinale’s agent is also there asking for definition on a role she is being offered.
Night time at the spring. There is dancing and and aged lounge singer and excessive dessert conversation (including the French actress asking about her part) while Carla sits nearby at a table alone, signing to Guido. A telepathic performer appears, reading people’s thoughts with the help of his assistant. Guido, who knows the man from his past, submits to a mind-reading, which results in the seeming nonsense of “Asa Nisi Masa”. Guido flashes back to a time when he was a child, perhaps at a retreat. His nurse forces him to take a wine bath and he is put to bed. His companions tell him that the eyes of the portrait in the room will move, and he must remember the spell – “Asa Nisi Masa”. The fire goes out in the courtyard and we dissolve to the next scene.
An attendant at the spa informs Guido that his wife Luisa has telephoned from Rome. After another confrontation with the french actress he calls her back. He lies to her about being lonely and invites her to come visit. He has another chaotic meeting with his production team that ends in his long-time production director Conocchia threatening to resign. He enters his room and there, taking down his sheets is Claudia Cardinale. He begins to envision a role for her, and she joins him in bed, promising to stay forever as he sees a vision of his wife sitting on the corner of the bed, wearing a towel, her back turned to him.
He is awakened by the telephone in the middle of the night by Carla, saying that she is ill and asking him to come to her in her hotel. He arrives and she has a fever of 104 – something that is apparently not unusual for her – her husband is used to it, she says. She asks him why he stays with her, but he is thinking about his meeting the next day with the Cardinal.
Guido meets with the Cardinal, and it is explained to him by the Cardinal’s assistants that his idea of having his character meet the Cardinal at the steam baths could never happen because it would have to be held in a particular location – yet this meeting between he and the Cardinal is at the spring. The Cardinal talks only about the cooing of a bird sacred to Diomedes. Guido sees a fat woman and goes into a flashback of his childhood, where he and his friends go and pay to watch the corpulent prostitute Saraghina dance a solo Rumba by the sea. There he is caught by the local church officials and shamed melodramatically by his mother and the villagers, forced to kneel on pebbles and told in the confessional that Saraghina is the devil. He leaves crying but returns to Saraghina’s home by the sea.
The critic pooh-poohs Guido’s Saraghina scene, and the denizens of the spa are sent off to the steam baths. A voice comes over the loudspeaker that the Cardinal is waiting to see Guido in the steam baths. He is prepared by a cadre of attendants and then is given five minutes at a window, seeing the cardinal at first in silhouette from behind a sheet. The Cardinal gives him a brief speech about how there is no salvation outside the church and the interview is over.
In the city, Guido runs into his wife, who is there with her best friend Rosella and some friends of the family, the man of the couple who has apparently fallen for Luisa. Guido, Luisa and Rosella are swept off to the set of the spaceship launch pad – a set which is perhaps the only tangible evidence of his upcoming film having any plan at all. Guido is at a crossroads, both in the production of the film and in his life.
Luisa joins Guido in his room and confronts him over his betraying her and his lying. She asks him what he wants from her, but he refuses to respond. The next day in the city, Carla shows up at the restaurant where Guido, Luisa and Rosella are eating. Guido pretends that he didn’t know she was in town and that their affair had ended years before, but Luisa is not buying it. She had seen her the night before and that evidently is the reason that she confronted him then. Luisa mocks Guido for persisting in his lies, but Guido slides into a reverie. Carla begins to sing, and Luisa approaches her to compliment her voice. They greet each other as friends and dance among the tables. Then we cut to the harem scene – Guido surrounded by every female character from the film, all of the women that he has ever loved, all of them lavishing love and attention on him. Only Rosella is not a member of his harem, as she watches from a balcony above and comments on his predicament. A new character, Jacqueline (his first showgirl, evidently), objects to being sent “upstairs” on account of her age, but Guido is adamant that the rules must be followed. The harem revolts against him but in swashbuckling fashion he re-establishes control with a bullwhip. Luisa, in a monologue, admits that it has taken her 20 years to understand that this is the way it is supposed to be.
Guido comes to in a theater where screen tests for his film are being shown. Luisa and Rosella are there, as well as the critic. With a wave of his hand, two servants approach the critic, place a black bag over his head and lead him to the aisle, where he is hung. The screen tests begin when Conocchia, who has not resigned after all, arrives. Some characters wear Carla’s traditional costume, others Luisa’s, others Saraghina’s…and all of the problems of his life play out on the screen in front of all. Luisa leaves the screening and Guido catches up with her in the hall, where Luisa makes it clear that she is leaving for good. The screening devolves into chaos, and an assistant of Claudia Cardinale’s announces that she has arrived. They go outside. It is night, and she drives them to a blind alley where they stop, her face illuminated and his in darkness. She tells him that he does not know how to love. He tells her that there’s no part in the film, no film at all in fact. But his production team arrives to tell him that there will be a press conference at the site of the launching pad the next day.
The nighttime cars fade to daytime cars, and Guido is dragged, kicking and screaming, to the press conference. Journalists, journalists everywhere, nor any question to be answered. In the chaos Guido is dragged up to the head table. Someone tells Guido that he has “put it in his right-hand pocket” and Guido retreats underneath the table to shoot himself in the head.
The launch pad is ordered to be torn down. Guido has quit production on the film, and the critic tells him he has made the right choice. Guido is about to drive away from the launch pad, but the mind-reader shows up, saying that they are about to start. Claudia Cardinale is there, and Saraghina, and his father and mother, and Carla, and Luisa and Rosella and others. And while the critic drones on, Guido tries to explain in his head to Luisa his confusion. Luisa accepts his explanation out loud, and the mind-reader becomes the leader of a circus scene with a five-piece marching band accompanied by a suddenly-appearing orchestra. Guido begins to direct and has all of the characters from his life come down off of the launch pad, join hands, and dance together in a great circle on a platform large enough to hold hundreds. Guido himself leads Luisa into the ring, the dancers disappear into the night and the band exits the spotlight, leaving only the young flautist, upon whom the spotlight fades.
8 1/2 is less a narrative and more of an exploration of a character, one who, like us, has his faults. Guido’s faults mostly come down to indecision – indecision in whom he will love, indecision in what he will create. In the end he creates nothing, but he loves everybody. The only problem in that decision is that not all of the others are willing to share his love.
The shift of the narrative between reality and fantasy (including, in at least two instances – the appearance of Claudia Cardinale at the spring and the hanging of the critic – a temporary fantasy that intervenes in a scene that is otherwise real) is a key component of the film. The film begins in a dream sequence where Guido is alone despite in reality being surrounded by many people, and it ends in a fantasy where he is surrounded by everybody who he feels close to, even some who are dead, despite in reality being basically alone. It occurred to me that perhaps every proper scene in the film shifted from reality to fantasy.
Looking back at it above, I don’t think that quite holds up. While there definitely is a trend for scenes to devolve into fantasy (and while I don’t think there is much reason to define any extended fantasy scene as returning to reality – that transition is typically a jump) not all scenes, particularly in the beginning of the film, hold to that pattern. Scene 2 certainly does not. Neither does scene 4, unless you want to take the appearance of Claudia Cardinale’s agent as being fictional. That argument could perhaps be made if his infatuation with her is purely fictional – certainly her first two appearances and probably her third are fantasy, and perhaps he never actually offered her a part in the first place. But that’s probably pushing it.
Likewise, scene 7 does not end in fantasy, unless we are to take the entirety of scene 8 to be fantasy. There’s a bit better argument there, I think, as Guido’s obsession with the Cardinal may be just as unreal as his obsession with Cardinale. It’s quite a bit odd that the Cardinal grants him a meeting at the spring – despite assurances that the Cardinal would not meet anybody at an outside location. It’s also quite odd that the Cardinal does nothing but talk about the birds before Guido falls into a flashback. And, finally, if he had already had his meeting with the Cardinal, why would he dream of having that meeting again later in the steam baths? These points all might suggest that the meeting with the Cardinal at the spring didn’t actually happen. However, perhaps the original meeting might not have been terribly satisfying (and with nothing but bird talk, that makes sense), which would drive Guido to imagine another meeting. Also, the idea that a reverie breaks into the Saraghina flashback seems unlikely. So all in all, I’m not really sure whether that should be taken as real.
Scene 10, where we first go to the launch pad, also has no real glimmer of fantasy in it.
But it certainly does appear to me that the end of the film is quite more heavily invested with fantasy. Once we break into the delicious harem scene, I’m not certain that we see anything real outside of the screen tests and the order to tear down the launch pad. Claudia’s appearance seems to be entirely fictional, and culminates in the sudden appearance of his production team, who could not possibly have found them. The whole thing is suspect. Then, there’s the press conference, again certainly fictional by the end (his suicide may be symbolic of the cancellation of filming) but the entire scene is outlandish and unlike the other transitions to fantasy, there is no obvious break, so I prefer to believe that the entire bit is again unreal. So of the final perhaps 45 minutes of the film, maybe 5 minutes of it can be taken as actually happening, a ratio which is more or less reversed in the first 45 minutes. In the end, maybe I’m overthinking it a bit, but even without that the shift towards fantasy is an interesting aspect of this film.
8 1/2 is one of those films that not only stands up to repeated viewings, but which gets better. On my original review, despite enjoying it more than La Dolce Vita, I still was tapping my feet waiting for the film to end. When we screened it during the marathon, I was far more engaged, and today, even though I spent half my time writing about what I was watching, I was more or less rapt. That, and that alone, makes the film an incredible success.