Review by Michael Jacobson
Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, Guido
Alberti, Jean Rougeul, Eddra Gale January 12, 2010
Director: Federico Fellini
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 138 Minutes
January 12, 2010
"Happiness consists of being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone."
a student and lover of great cinema, I’ve always found the works of Federico
Fellini to be like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates…you never
know what you’re going to get. I
tend to sit down to a Fellini film with the same kind of breath-holding anxiety
one would get sitting across from his accountant at tax time. The news would either be wonderful or horrendous…not much
every picture that enthralled me like Nights of Cabiria, there seemed to
be one that made me want to claw my brain out of its skull, like Satyricon.
And here I was, about to watch possibly the most hotly debated film
in the Italian master’s career, 8 ½.
For every reviewer who thought it an artistic apex for Fellini, there
was one who considered it the beginning of the end for him as a coherent and
so I watched with the same nervous apprehension I always feel at the beginning
of a Fellini film, but it didn’t take long for that apprehension to melt away
into acceptance, and ultimately, embracement.
Here was a strange, obviously somewhat autobiographical tale about a
director who is waist deep in a new film that he has no concept of, and the
pressures of his world causing his problems to rise. Guido (the always wonderful Mastroianni) is drowning, but at
the same time, Fellini is keeping his own head above water.
opening sequence of Guido’s nightmare is unforgettable, and sets the tone
perfectly. In a quiet, impossible
traffic jam, he finds himself trapped in his car, which is filling with smoke.
Others around look on expressionlessly as he struggles to breathe.
Escaping the car is almost like a birthing experience; he literally
floats away from the jam and into the clouds.
But he is not entirely free…a rope on his leg suggests he is being
flown like a kite, and one tug sends him cascading back to his reality.
reality is his latest film, which seems to be under full production at a
European health spa. Actors and
crew members wander in and out of his path, all wanting their little piece of
him. His producer (Alberti) is
understandably nervous…Guido’s ability to reassure is growing weaker all the
time. His writing collaborator (Rogueul)
acts as a conscience and Fellini’s own personal critic, often voicing
displeasure at scenes we’ve just watch unfold!
personal life isn’t any better structured than his professional one.
At one point, he invites his mistress Carla (Milo) to the spas, and not
long after, invites his wife Luisa (Aimee) as well!
His failure in both relationships is indicative of his own psychological
turmoil…he retreats from a good if somewhat rigid wife into the arms of a
silly, shallow woman who’s whore-like affluences both arouses and repulses
Guido. Later, his bedroom scene
with his wife conjures up memories of the breakfast table scene in Citizen
Kane. The camera focuses on
one, then the other while they bicker. Only
when it pulls back at the end of the scene do we realize they are not even
sharing the same bed.
film’s structure is loose…Fellini toys with reality and fantasy endlessly
(isn’t that, after all, what making films is all about?).
Guido’s inability to focus on his latest picture leads to many
sequences straight from his imagination, from the death of his father, to his
Catholic school upbringing, and most noticeably, to his dream girl Claudia (Cardinale),
who often emerges from the shadows like an angel of light to him.
It’s only fitting that when Guido meets Claudia for real, she is clad
in black, grounded in reality, and even has the poignant audacity to point out
the truth that Guido doesn’t want to hear:
“You don’t know how to love.”
fantasy sequence involves the exaggerated appearance of the Saraghina (Gale), a
local prostitute that Guido and his friends would visit at the beach, paying her
to dance for them. She is an almost
impossibly big woman, grotesque yet sensual, and is the embodiment of the kind
of warping that decades of living can bring to a memory.
the most fantastic sequence involves Guido in a harem.
This represents Fellini at his most masterful and most cinematic, as
lights, shadows, sweeping camera moves and careful editing creates a hypnotic
sequence, where Guido imagines himself the whip-cracking lord over a farm of
beautiful women who, of course, are all the women in his life, from his mistress
to his wife to his actresses…even the Saraghina is there.
Amusingly (or distastefully) enough, there is an “upstairs” room at
the harem where you are banished to once you reach 30.
taps into a more subtle aspect of Guido’s psychological profile:
if the more overt one is the wish to have control over the women in his
life, the slyer one is his fear of growing old.
As an aging friend tells him earlier in the picture, “you’re not the
man you once were, either”. Guido seems to be reflecting Fellini’s own fears
of living past his usefulness as an artist.
Fellini once remarked that the most a film director may hope for is ten to
fifteen years tops to exist as a viable artist, and by the time of 8 ½, he
had been making pictures for thirteen.
might be right to say, then, that Fellini’s own nightmare of the time didn’t
resemble Guido’s opening scene so much as his climactic one, as he his being
pulled helplessly towards a press conference he is totally unprepared for.
There, like a sheep to the slaughter, he is trapped by his own image,
abandoned by those closest to him, and left like a target for a mob of frenzied
reporters who gleefully announce, “He has nothing to say!”
again, Guido’s failure became Fellini’s triumph. If Guido’s impasse left him with only an unconventional and
unconvincing impression of a satisfying ending, Fellini’s left him with one of
his greatest cinematic achievement. It
may have been, as some called it, the beginning of the end for him, but like
Guido’s dream and its allusion to Icarus at the start, the daring flight was a
spectacular one, and would be remembered much more than any fiery fall.
TRIVIA: The title of the
movie is actually the film number in Fellini’s catalogue…including his first
effort as a co-director on Variety Lights, he estimated his total number
of pictures up to that point as seven and a half!
Criterion has once again done film fans a huge service by delivering a strikingly beautiful high-definition print of 8 1/2. The black and white photography is startlingly clear...sometimes, the harsher contrasts make for clearly defining the reality against the softer dreamlike sequences, but overall, the blacks are deep and well-defined and the whites are clean and crisp. Absolutely wonderful!
The uncompressed mono offering gives this Blu-ray a little more dynamic range
than before. The soundtrack is livelier than most single-channel
offerings, and cleanly presented. Dialogue was originally post-dubbed, but
comes through without any issues. Nino Rota’s score,
which ranges from comical to sublime, comes across with clarity and beauty, and
gives the track some of its dynamic range.
As is continuing to be the norm with Criterion Blu-ray releases, 8 ½ boasts features that are plentiful and informative. It begins with a delightful 7 minute introduction from director Terry Gilliam. It also boasts one of the most enjoyable commentary tracks I’ve heard…compiled mostly from a scene-specific script and read along in perfect time to the images on screen, it also features thoughts from critic and Fellini friend Gideon Bachmann and New York University film professor Antonio Monda. It plunges in to the depths of the film, offering insights, trivia, interpretations, and even bringing to light the occasional negative comment made over the years…in other words, it’s a cornucopia of all kinds of information; take from it what you will.
There are also three 50 minute documentaries…the first is “Fellini: A Director’s Notebook”, a special created for public television not long after the making of 8 ½. Like most of Fellini’s work, it’s interesting, enigmatic, and lends itself to all kinds of interpretations. The second is “Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert”, which explores the famed film composer’s life as much as possible…not an easy task, as he was a reclusive man who tended to let his music do his talking, but a good effort nonetheless. And the third is "The Last Sequence"; a documentary from 2003 on Fellini's 'alternate' ending for the movie.
There are also interviews with actress Sandra Milo, director Lina
Wertmuller (who got her start on the set of 8 ½), and renowned
cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who talks about the work of Gianni de Venanzo
on this movie. The disc rounds out with a photo gallery, the amusing
original trailer, and an unlisted
extra: a letter from Fellini to the
PBS producer of “A Director’s Notebook”.
For fans of the film, this package is as good as can be hoped for.
8 ½ is cinema for lovers of cinema…it won’t please all tastes (it never has), but for those willing to surrender to Fellini at his creative apex, when his exploration of images, fantasies, ideals and nightmares were at there most potent and relevant, and when his fearless experimentation led to a revolutionary new kind of film regardless of whether the world was ready for it, this is as good as movie making can get. It’s the kind of filmgoing experience that starts out fascinating and grows even more rewarding with subsequent viewings. With this superb DVD offering from Criterion, no serious film student should be without this remarkable world classic in their library.