8 1/2

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, Guido Alberti, Jean Rougeul, Eddra Gale
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  138 Minutes
Release Date:  December 4, 2001

Film ****

As 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 middle ground.

For 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 relevant filmmaker.

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.

The 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.

That 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!

Guido’s 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.

The 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.”

Another 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.

But 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.

That 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.

It 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!”

But 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.

BONUS 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!

Video ****

Criterion has struck a beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer for 8 ½, which brings Fellini’s cultivated imagery to life with startling clarity.  Images are sharp and crystal clear throughout, save for the obvious dream-like sequences that are presented in sometimes softer ways, with less harsh blacks and more median use of grayscale.  The print itself is quite pristine…in watching the disc twice, I never really noticed any distracting spots or scratches.  Grain is non-existent, as are compression artifacts…whether the scenes are well-lit or deliberately dark, there is clarity and good detail, with nothing to mar the overall effect.  An outstanding effort!

Audio ***

The original mono soundtrack is more than serviceable; considering that this movie, like most Italian films of the time, was post-dubbed, the audio is very well presented.  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. 

Features ****

As with all Criterion double disc sets, 8 ½ boasts features that are plentiful and informative.  Disc One starts with 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.  Disc One also includes the terrific original theatrical trailer and a 7-plus minute introduction to the film by director Terry Gilliam.

Disc Two features two 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.  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, 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.