Film Critic’s Choice: ‘8 1/2'
Is it possible? Can “8 1/2" be close to 50 years old? The calendar may say yes, but to see this classic of personal cinema one more time is to be in the presence of a kind of picture-making that defiantly remains forever young.
First released in 1963, Italian director Federico Fellini’s landmark examination of self-portraiture and the creative process opens a run at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills in the first newly struck 35-millimeter print in almost two decades. Though much has changed in cinematic fashions and styles in the interim, this film retains an ability to enthrall and delight that has not diminished over the years.
The personal nature of things begins with that idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind title, which refers to the tally of films Fellini had made to that point in time: six previous features plus three vignettes or half films, making this production No. 81/2.
More than that, “8 1/2" is a film about a man making a film that closely resembles the film that we are actually watching. Though this is a tough concept to get into a sentence, it is the gift of “8 1/2" to make it as clear as glass while it is unfolding.
The man is filmmaker Guido Anselmi, played by Fellini’s devastatingly handsome alter-ego Marcello Mastroianni, a potent combination of swagger and uncertainty. Guido is both working on a personal film with an unusual structure and agonizing that he’s not going to be able to pull it off — an all-consuming worry that everyone around him is at pains to encourage.
“How could the story of your life interest anyone?” a journalist screams at him, his producer pleads “Remember, the audience has to understand the film,” and his dour screenwriting collaborator repeatedly skewers the script, calling it “a series of completely senseless episodes.”
In reality, Fellini used a trio of screenwriters — Brunello Rondi, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli — and, according to the original 1963 press notes, had each one work on different portions of the film, unaware of the sections the others were writing, with the director mixing and matching as he went along.
Despite all of this, “8 1/2" has the capacity to feel like it’s simply happening in front of our eyes, as a director in love with his own imagination fearlessly trusts, both on and off the screen, that his instincts are correct.
The film opens with a landmark dream scene as Guido, trapped and suffocating in his car as an indifferent world looks on, breaks through the roof, floats off into the air like a gigantic balloon, only to be pulled back to Earth by the small-minded forces of reality.
Guido awakens in a spa where he is both taking a cure and trying to work on his new film, a process that is pure chaos. The director has hired actors without being sure what he wants them to do and has surrounded himself with people he doesn’t really like. No wonder his producer worries that “we’re the joke of the film industry.”
The director’s personal life is equally problematic, as he divides his time between his unhappy wife (French star Anouk Aimee) and his bouncy mistress (played, in another twist on reality, by Fellini’s real-life mistress Sandra Milo).
Guido’s only escape is through his memories and his imagination, which are often linked. Thus we get wonderfully shot (by cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo) recollections of a childhood in which he was the delight of his nurse as well as a fantasy of having all the women in his life, including that childhood nurse, sharing the same house with a director who keeps everyone in line with the aid of a cracking bullwhip.
Personal though “8 1/2" is, it’s important to remember that among the things that make it memorable are Fellini’s keen eye for other people, for the eccentricities of human nature, all set to one of composer Nino Rota’s most irresistible scores.
Finally, though, this film belongs to a tormented creator who defiantly insists, “I have nothing to say, but I want to say it just the same.” Though a journalist mockingly asks, “Why piece together the tatters of your life, the people you couldn’t love?” “8 1/2’s” exultant final scene of taking life as it comes provides an irrefutable answer. “I understand,” one of the people in his story tells Guido, “you can’t do without us,” which is how moviegoers will feel about this film both today and for some time to come.