8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini)

I remembered the atmosphere of this movie but not the story or characters, so watched it again – turns out it’s 98% atmosphere. What story? What characters? Even Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido is a weak and confused lead. Instead it’s an impressionistic glimpse into Fellini’s life and work, a film about filmmaking, or about itself. I’m not saying anything that everyone doesn’t already know, but I had to be reminded – there’s not really a story of Guido casting and shooting some big picture, just fragments: agents and critics and hangers-on as the director deals with his fame, personal life and artistic indecision.

Opens with a wordless dream sequence – film director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) floats away from an oppressive traffic jam, flies over the ocean but is roped and pulled down by business partners.

Guido is “taking the cure” at a vacation retreat, prescribed holy water, keeps running into people he knows in a sort of choreographed dance of acquaintances. Soon he’s on his film set, arguing with a writer (Daurmier?) who criticizes the script, placating coworkers and avoiding making decisions. Soon I lose all ability to describe plot or characters as it spirals inevitably into the spinning whirl of an ending.

I’ve seen an even five of Fellini’s 7 1/2 previous films. Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo shot about half the Italian movies I’ve heard of – this was his first for Fellini, having just worked on L’Eclisse.


Claudia Cardinale of The Leopard the same year, supposed to be starring in Guido’s film, seems good-natured about the whole thing.

wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée, shortly after Lola) with mistress Carla (Sandra Milo of Juliet of the Spirits)

His buddy Mario Pisu with new mistress Barbara Steele

Magician Ian Dallas, who according to IMDB inspired the song Layla. He and his apparently psychic partner pull magic words from Guido’s psyche cueing a flashback schene wherein young Guido is told that these words could make a portrait come to life… a “motion picture,” if you will.

Saraghina, wild woman of Guido’s youth

Guido and Carla

A. Sesonske:

8 1/2 is a film about making a film, and the film that is being made is 8 1/2. Notice how everything Guido says about the film he is making turns out to be true of 8 1/2, even the sailor doing a soft-shoe dance; how all the screen tests are for roles in the film we are seeing; how some camera movements create an ambiguity between Guido, the director in the film, and Fellini, the director of the film, thus taking self-reference one step beyond the work to its maker.

Fellini: A Director’s Notebook (1969)

“I composed a poem on the ruins of your film.”

This masquerades as a documentary on Fellini’s working methods, but is really a self-conscious fake-doc made by Fellini himself. Suspension of disbelief lasted about 30 seconds – you can’t convince anyone you’re making a documentary, interviewing random people on the street, when all the voices are badly dubbed.

In 1966-ish the director was to film Mastorna, “perhaps the most famous unmade film in Italian cinema.” Its half-built sets sit unused on huge lots, so Fellini shoots them here, haunted by poets, then roams Rome at night. All the places he goes are full of people who seem like… well, like characters in Fellini films.

Giulietta Masina introduces the “man with the sack” sequence from Nights of Cabiria, which at this point had never been seen, claiming it’s based on a true story. Some Satyricon, then we get a frenetic sepia-toned ancient-Rome silent short watched by a screaming audience (including a raptly attentive young Fellini).

Recreating Fellini’s childhood cinema:

A cab ride with a clairvoyant, and a subway ride with a professor. This last one is great because he tries to talk about lost societies beneath Rome but Fellini keeps interrupting, asking him to speak into the camera – then their train accidentally travels through time, proving the professor’s point.

We visit Mastroianni, who gives us a fake screen test, then off to an early morning slaughterhouse to summon the feeling of ancient sacrifices, where the workers keep transforming into ancient Romans. Then a stream of non-actors come to Fellini’s office to submit themselves for film roles.

That’s F.F. at left:

Criterion: “Producer Peter Goldfarb … had suggested the project as a way for Fellini to deal with his inability to make the film The Voyage of G. Mastorna. As Tullio Kezich and others have pointed out, 8 1/2 is strikingly prophetic of this development in Fellini’s career.”

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