At the beginning of his career Federico Fellini made 6 feature films and 3 shorts. Counting the shorts as ½ of a movie, that meant he had made 7½ films. So what should he call his next film? Well, how about 111.1? Oh, wait, that’s in base 2. So let’s try 8½. Looks a lot better.
All those early features were in the school of what is known as Italian Neo-realism, which was in vogue after the War. He made some of the best ones, including La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. But 8½ marked a new direction in his cinema. After this one, all his films would be fanciful to one degree or another. Like this one, they would include dreams, recollections, metaphors, surrealism … just about anything he could throw into the pot of his fertile visual imagination and bring to a slow boil. They became beautiful instead of realistic. Or they could be ugly, though they were always colorful, even a black and white picture like this one. How can that be? By really artful photography where the extreme whites and extreme blacks almost register as color, in my mind, anyway.
When I first saw this back in Texas, I was transported from the very first frame. Marcello Mastroianni is trapped in a car in a tunnel, bumper-to-bumper, side-to-side. The other cars are filled with weird-looking people. His car begins to fill with smoke. He pounds on the windows and people just watch him. Finally he crawls out the window and … floats … along the tops of the car roofs. By this time I had figured out that this was a dream, and a pretty nasty one. At the end Fellini blew my mind again, with an amazing point-of-view shot looking down from a great height at the ocean, tethered like a balloon held only by a string around his leg. The string breaks, and he falls down into the sea. And we were off to the races. Along the roller coaster ride to the end I would see … a fat whore dancing on the beach for a group of boys … odd people at a spa lining up for healing water … a man wrapped in a sheet, surrounded by women who are fighting over him, as he fends them off with a bullwhip … a giant outdoor set that was meant to hold a giant spaceship, as the movie he was supposed to make next was rumored to be science fiction.
And that’s the problem. It was only a rumor. Guido hasn’t a clue what the movie is going to be about. The screenplay doesn’t exist. He has been stringing along the producer, the actors, the crew, the paparazzi … everyone. Oddly enough, this is the position Fellini found himself in before he got started on this movie. Finally he had the brilliant notion of making a film about a director who was burned out, artistically and personally. And he made one of the best films ever made.
To this day I don’t really understand the ending. Did he really shoot himself, or was that another bad dream? Or was the final dance around a circus ring with everyone who had influenced him the dream, a post-mortem fantasy as he heads into the afterlife? And you know what? It doesn’t matter, at least to me. I’m not into analyzing films, prying hidden meaning from symbolism. I only know what I like, and I am madly in love with this film. It is a film that marked a turning point, so that from then on all cinema could be divided between before 8½, and after 8½. It’s that good.