In many ways it is difficult to highlight a film that stands out in the vast array of work by the Italian Fedrico Fellini. Many of his films won awards (as did 8½) but Lorna May creates a telling argument for 8½ being the finest work by Federico Fellini. It is, after all, a film that has inspired generations of filmmakers and taught us all a new cinematic language.
The slightly odd title of this surrealist comedy-drama refers to the film being the eighth and a half film as a director by Federico Fellini. His previous work consisted of 6 features, 2 shorts and a collaboration with another director, the latter 3 treated as “half” films. But that “half” has a more philosophical meaning to it.
In a half is the soul of our charming hero Guido (Marcello Mastroianni 1924-1996), a famous Italian film director, who suffers from repressed creativity while he’s trying to film a sci-fi epic. Half thoughts, half dreams and half desires characterize him. He can’t take any decisions for fear of taking the wrong turn. “Half a man” who ironically, doesn’t believe in the “other half”. He doesn’t believe in anything except for the ghosts of his childhood who haunt him during the day and night.
A black and white dream of perfection. A cinematic miracle. A kaleidoscopic subliminal message of love.
The film opens with a dream sequence. Trapped in a traffic jam feeling increasingly claustrophobic our main protagonist has a panic attack-his breathing is heavy. Taken by mysterious external forces, he’s suddenly flying over the city, just to fall back down on a nearby beach.
This is the very essence of the non-linear structure of the film; an extended conscious dream fusing itself with reality. Everything is blurred. One event which happens in reality becomes framed with another which is part of a memory, a dream or a fantasy. We’re never quite sure what is real and what is not. It’s an intentional choice to show us the multi-layered cake that is life, and the mess in the artist’s mind.
Guido (also being Federico Fellini’s alter-ego) is what you can call a sympathetic bastard. He’s vain, arrogant, impolite at times, but handsomely nonchalant and enigmatic. Easy to love. While trying to recover from his anxieties in a luxurious spa, he hires a critic to examine his ideas for the film. The critic brutally denigrates his poverty of poetic inspiration with the flavorless observations of a cold intellect. Guido is submerged by violent yet nostalgic childhood memories that in turn, mold into complex dreams of Freudian symbolism. Reality itself seems like a dream, a hallucination dipped in old-fashioned Catholic education that generates certain complexes. That eternal sense of guilt.
Federico Fellini, director par excellence who has become an adjective (fellinian), has written some of the best characters in the history of cinema. Guido, being one of them is also surrounded by an entourage of eccentric and mesmerizing women. These women are the kind of muses that belong in film. The mistress (Sandra Milo): an over-dressed, over-exited wanna-be. The caprice for the unsatisfied artist. The estranged wife (Anouk Aimée): too motherly to be sensual. She’s only loved when she’s not around. The prostitute (Eddra Grale): the childhood phantom. Voluptuous and monstrous. She dances on the beach for the joy of the schoolboys. The muse (Claudia Cardinale): who often appears to Guido as a daydream. Pure, light and good hearted. Soft-spoken and beautiful, “grown up among images of ancient beauty”. Beautiful is the scene in which Claudia appears in the flesh and tells him that he “does not know how love”. Her statement becomes distinct when he has a chance to reconcile with his wife, but instead, he shuns the reconciliation-he is a director, a control-freak, even when he himself has lost all control.
Guido tries to throw himself into his memories to see if this can conjure inspiration for his film. His sexual awakening as a boy to the songs and the intense carnality of “the prostitute”, a woman who lived by the sea, the prohibition of the priests and a fantasy in which he lives in a household of all the women in his life who serve him and spoil him with abandon.
Underpinning the whole visual treat is a score by Nino Rota (1911-1979). A memorable score connects the very essence of the film-emulating the mood and rhythm of the movie’s non-linear structure of seemingly unrelated scenes. A black and white dream of perfection. A cinematic miracle. A kaleidoscopic subliminal message of love. Life is clearly a game in which each of us is on the stage performing our roles, and the only sane response to its turmoil is to join the circus, hands in love and celebrate the moment.