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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

* * * *

Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale

What's left to say about a film as beloved and influential as Federico Fellini's 8 1/2? Not much, I fear. I can merely affirm its dreamy, sublime greatness. It isn't my favourite Fellini film - that honor goes to La Dolce Vita which, in addition to being a great movie, was the first Fellini film I ever saw and so has a special place in my heart - but it is a great and very entertaining movie. It's easy to see why it influenced so many subsequent films, some of them great in their own right, some of them... not so much.

8 1/2 is about a director in distress. Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is stuck, lost in a kind of artistic block created in part by the difficulties in his personal life, half-heartedly working on his new film, a science fiction epic, that he would just as soon walk away from. He arranges for his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo) to come keep him company - tucking her away at a nearby hotel - and then later encourages his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimee) to come out as well. The former is a woman he is passionate about but embarrassed by, the latter he loves but cannot seem to connect with. He spends most of his time with Luisa trying to dodge her suspicions about his fidelity, denying what she knows to be true and trying to reassure her of his love. All of this just makes things worse since all she really wants is for him, finally, to be honest with her and stop telling obvious lies to her face, thus adding insult to injury.

His wife isn't the only person who's questions he's dodging. Everyone has questions about the movie, questions he evades because he doesn't know the answers yet. There is no movie, really, because he can't conceptualize it and he does everything he can to avoid admitting as much, usually disappearing into his imagination. Drawing on memory and fantasy, Guido explores his relationships with the women in his life, from Luisa and Sandra, to Seraghina (Edra Gale), the local prostitute who fascinated him as a child, to Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), an actress whom Guido casts as his "ideal" woman in his fantasies. All of these relationships seem like they might be of use to Guido in developing his movie but, as he says, "I thought I had something so simple to say... I really have nothing to say. But I want to say it all the same."

8 1/2 can be a difficult film in that it has its share of surrealistic touches and flows in and out of reality and fantasy. The best way to approach it, I think, is to just go with it and not think about it too much as you're watching it; sorting out what's real and what's fantasy can be done after the fact - not that it really matters. The film begins with Guido dreaming that he's soaring away, only to find himself being pulled back to earth by his assistant. 8 1/2 is Fellini allowing himself to soar away, breaking through the boundaries of narrative to make a film that is pure in its exploration of the creative process. Fellini himself described 8 1/2 as "a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make."

On its release in 1963 the film received 5 Oscar nominations, including Director and Original Screenplay, and won as Best Foreign Language Film. It went on to influence the work of such directors as Francois Truffaut, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Woody Allen, and Bob Fosse and, most recently, was the direct inspiration for the musical Nine - a far less successful film, in part because it has a forced feeling that 8 1/2 lacks. There is a freedom, a feeling of joy, in 8 1/2 that makes it a delight to watch - and the more you times you watch it, the more you appreciate its finer touches. 8 1/2 is definitely a movie well deserving of its status as a classic.

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