Synopsis: Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a director whose new project is collapsing around him, along with his life. One of the greatest films about film ever made, Federico Fellini’s 8½ (Otto e mezzo) turns one man’s artistic crisis into a grand epic of the cinema. An early working title for 8½ was The Beautiful Confusion, and Fellini’s masterpiece is exactly that: a shimmering dream, a circus, and a magic act.
Otto e mezzo 8.5
eyelights: its intricate weave of fantasy and reality. the gorgeous photography. the impressive locations. the subtle humour.
eyesores: the dishonest, troubled protagonist. his grating entourage.
“I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”
I’ve never been much of Fellini fan. In fact, if there’s one of the great directors that I’m inexplicably indifferent about, it’s Il Maestro. It’s not like I’ve seen tons of his films, either: I can only confirm to have seen ‘Otto e mezzo’ (naturally), ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘ Le notti di Cabiria’. I may also have seen ‘La strada’. I was so dulled out by his brand of cinema that they all blend into one. After those “duds” I decided to simply avoid his oeuvre.
Then came the musical ‘Nine‘, which I’d heard was based on ‘Otto e mezzo’. Having seen the latter, I couldn’t fathom making a musical of it. I half-considered seeing it, merely out of curiosity. When I stumbled upon ‘8½ Women’, however, I knew I just had to revisit the Fellini’s highly-influential classic. I figured that the best way to appreciate these other two would be to see it first, as reference. Still, I treaded with caution, maybe even mild aversion.
I really needn’t have: ‘Otto e mezzo’ is a superb film.
Plot-wise, it’s a simple one: a film director is in a spa for a rest cure. While he is there, he worries about his next project: he has director’s block and has no inspiration whatsoever – even though it’s already in production. Before he can even figure it out, or rest, the whole crew descends upon the spa in an attempt to move the project along, making demands that he is utterly incapable of fulfilling. So he escapes via deceit and fantasy.
‘Otto e mezzo’ is interesting because it was made at a time when Fellini himself was uninspired and under pressure to produce. It was so inspired by his own experiences that he named it after his own oeuvre, having made six feature films, two shorts and one collaboration (hence the ‘”½”). It would, ironically, become his most acclaimed and influential work, at the time noted by some as the greatest achievement since ‘Citizen Kane’.
This film has been analyzed to death and there’s no way, given that I have no film studies background, that I can explore it nearly as thoroughly as it already has been. Furthermore, there is no way that I can do it justice, given its status and significance. And so I will limit myself to listing what it is about ‘Otto e mezzo’ that I quite liked this time around (frankly, there’s precious little that I didn’t, and what there is relatively trivial).
‘Otto e mezzo’ is beautiful motion picture. The black and white photography is fantastic, everything is choreographed like a dance and Fellini really makes use of the frame, the people, the locations. I don’t know enough about film technique to properly address this, but pretty much the whole movie is a breathtaking postcard.
It helped, of course, that the picture was set in the middle of all these gorgeous period and classic architecture pieces. You don’t get anything like that in North America – this is stuff you can only find in Europe. And the only apparent set, the giant spaceship being built for Guido’s film, is of an impressive scale.
Then there’s the cast, which was all shot in the most endearing light. One could write this off as mere photography, but there were some jaw-droppingly beautiful people in there, such as Claudia Cardinale (who never did anything for me before, but who was strikingly beautiful here) and, of course, Marcello Mastroianni (who is incredibly handsome).
I really loved the fact that ‘Otto e mezzo’ is spoken in at least three languages: Italian, English and French. It gave it a distinctly International flavour that you wouldn’t get anywhere else (of course, the fact that I understand some of it biases me). It would have been nice if the subtitles didn’t speed through, though; Italians speak very quickly.
Slightly discrepant music (often classical) was used to enhance the scenes, and even give them a surreal or comedic quality. I really enjoyed that aspect. By making the soundtrack separate from the on-screen action, it took on a life of its own and made each of those sequences slightly askew. This was contextually perfect.
‘Otto e mezzo’ is primarily satirical (Fellini had considered the title ‘Comedy’, but reconsidered). It’s not flat-out hilarious, as the humour is more contextual (as opposed to, let’s say, one-liners or slapstick). But anyone able to appreciate the absurdity of life will no doubt relish the little moments interspersed throughout.
For starters, there’s the fact that Guido is at the spa trying to rest and can never get any: someone always comes along to make demands of him. Instead of looking well, he looks tired, anxious; he’s 43 but has a head full of graying hair.
Not only is he constantly hounded by the cast and crew, but there’s a guest who keeps asking him all sorts of heavy questions that he’d rather no have to answer – so he finds all sorts of ways to avoids him. Fellini no doubt had experience at this.
There’s also the matter of the critic, who considers Guido and himself as intellectuals and proceeds to inundate him with verbal diarrhea , blathering on at top speed (it was hard to keep up). Guido did his best to tune him out. Again, Fellini surely lived this..
Part of the irony of having the producer pop up or follow him everywhere is that an auteur depends on his inspiration to create (not on writers, et al). Here, however, Guido is being pressured into making the movie – which is often the antithesis of inspiration.
There’s this funny scene when Guido’s lover shows up at an outdoor café where he and his spouse are having beverages with her sister. The moment the lover realizes that they’re there, she wants to get away before the spouse sees her. But it’s a large outdoor café, there’s almost no one there and there’s no place to hide. So she does this awkward “dance”, unsure which direction to go in. It was super awkward and amusing.
The (day)dream sequences
To better express Guido’s inner life, Fellini introduced a bunch of dream and daydream sequences into the picture, giving it a slightly surreal quality. It wasn’t always clear when they began or when they ended, and that was very indicative of how Guido coped with the turmoil around him. Frankly, I loved every such moment.
The film begins with Guido dreaming of suffocating in a car that’s stuck in traffic while people are watching. It started off with a dramatic tone, but it soon became slightly abstract, indicating that it wasn’t reality. It was perhaps all too literal, but it set the stage properly, giving us a shortcut into Guido’s mindset and current state of being.
In his quest for comfort, if not a respite from his current stresses, Guido also daydreams of his dead father, who seems mildly disappointed with him. He gets very nostalgic and also reminisces about his childhood, in particular about a woman that he and his friends goaded into dancing for them. She would return in many other daydreams.
He also fantasized about being the only man in a household filled with all these women that he knew or imagined, who are all getting along and are happy. They treat him like a king, which he relishes. And when they rebel, he asserts his authority by cracking a whip – for which they all respect him. Even his spouse is supportive of him in this fantasy.
I loved this sequence because it told us so much about what he wanted from his relationships but was unable to attain, as well as his fears and prejudices. Also, many of the women were absolutely lovely to look at here. And it informed the film ‘8½ Women’, which I had just watched the night before – I saw where the influence came from.
What’s interesting is that, as ‘Otto e mezzo’ continues, Guido’s fantasies start to intrude/distract him from reality: he rarely is able to stay grounded in what is happening around him and tends to escape at the slightest chance. Further to that, reality and fantasy begin to blend to such a degree that we can’t easily separate them. I suspect that neither can he.
This becomes quite apparent when the producers hold a massive outdoor press conference at the spaceship set and Guido has a public meltdown, eventually hiding under the table, imagining himself committing suicide. But does he actually hide under the table? Or is that merely his escape fantasy? That is not at all clear.
At the end, he decides to cancel the production and then imagines himself reconciling with everyone in his life (and in his memories) magically and suddenly finding the strength to direct them in a short pageant/line dance. It’s clearly an expression of relief, but has he given leave of his senses entirely? Either way, it’s a pleasant sight.
Not everything in the movie was, however. For starters, I found Guido slightly despicable: he was dishonest with the people around him and was unfaithful to his spouse. Not only does he lie to her about his affair, but does so poorly that she confronts him about it. And yet he perists. I had a hard time rooting for him because of this.
And then there’s the self-centeredness of the cast and crew, who were on Guido’s back all the time, irrespective of the fact that he clearly needed time to relax; they were all so demanding. I mean, I know that this is realistic, and that this likely happens all the time on movie shoots, but it was still annoying to see.
Otherwise, though, I found ‘Otto e mezzo’ lovely to watch. I suspect that the reason I can appreciate it now is that I enjoy subtlety a lot more than I did back in the day. I also enjoy cinema more so I can understand Guido’s perspective a lot more than I did then. I can now see how this is considered one of the best films about filmmaking.
Filmmakers, in particular, must really relate to it.
“All the confusion of my life… has been a reflection of myself! Myself as I am, not as I’d like to be.”
Date of viewing: May 20-21, 2014