What happens when one of the world's most respected directors runs out of ideas, and not just in a run-of-the-mill kind of way, but whole hog, so far that he actually makes a film about himself not being able to make a film? Sounds like a perfect time for self-indulgence and a colossal waste of celluloid on cinematic masturbation, but Federico Fellini is anything but content to ramble and mumble when he takes to the screen. What resulted in his case is probably one of the greatest films ever made, 8 1/2.
8 1/2 is a non-movie within a movie, which leads to a movie within a movie. Layers of self-reference are hip nowadays, but this kind of almost impossibly deep introspection is as rare as it ever was. That's because most films could not sustain this kind of self-examination, because most filmmakers could not subject themselves to this kind of analysis without panicking or lying.
Attempting to describe the film's meaning is sort of like the story of T.S. Eliot being asked by a woman in the audience at a poetry reading what he meant by a certain line, which she read aloud again. He replied that it meant exactly what she had read. 8 1/2 means exactly what it says, and attempting to condense it is pointless and not even interesting.
Because 8 1/2 is not content to say one thing about anything. Not that its meanings are not precise, but they are just completely unrelenting. The film digs in and reveals a truth, then jumps down underneath and reveals the truth beneath that, then scrapes down and finds the underlying truth there. The audience never gets a chance to catch its breath before something else new and startling is uncovered.
The acting in this film is transparent. Indeed, much of that effect is created because Fellini casts characters as themselves. For instance, the character of Claudia is played by Claudia Cardinale, the character of Rossella by Rossella Falk, the character of Mario by Mario Pisu, the character of Connochia by Mario Connochia, etc. By becoming a half-documentary and half-fiction, Fellini explicitly admits to the autobiographical nature of the work while at the same time saving time on casting and helping his cast understand their characters.
But none of this creative casting would work without a viable actor to bring to life the autobiographical character of Guido Anselmi, and that part is played with baffling brilliance by Marcello Mastroianni. The audience can look away from the screen and be forgiven for thinking that no one had ever acted before Mastroianni. The nuance, the humor and the hubris all evident in Mastrioanni's performance are all so effortless that we never doubt that Guido Anselmi is Federico Fellini is Marcello Mastroianni. It's a kind of psychic trinity that is one-in-three and three-in-one, except it actually makes sense when the audience sees it happen before its eyes.
What is not hidden in 8 1/2 is the sheer joy of filmmaking. In every shot, the bodies of women, the eyes of the characters, the shadows of old men's faces, the bright whiteness of childhood memories--the real danger Fellini flirts with is not self-indulgence, but sensory overload. Every new image and line of dialogue either brings a smile or a new, startling revelation. Two hours and twenty minutes of this could blind you.
I guess that is ultimately a part of the meaning. Fellini is self-indulgent only, precisely, to get at the root of self-indulgence, which doubles back on itself like the structure of the film itself to become again precise and probing rather than self-indulgent. Fellini's self-conscious narcissism becomes a savage attack on itself and himself. It is almost painful to watch, and would indeed be unbearable if it all were not so beautiful and so true. Finding an artist who can so accurately paint his own psychic landscape and then double back like this to puncture and challenge and explore it again and again, as if with a big hammer, is really quite a trick. It's the kind of volunteer work you don't usually find volunteers for.
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