8½ on DVD
Federico Fellini's masterpiece 8½—with La Dolce Vita and Nights of Cabiria, one of his finest achievements—is a dazzling, hallucinatory meditation on the nature of filmmaking, the madness that can accompany the creative process, and the fragile nature of inspiration. It could well have been titled The Loneliness of the Middle-Aged Artist.
Director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), contractually obliged to begin filming, finds that he has "nothing to say"; 8½ is a mental and physical delineation of what he goes through in the few days before production begins. To energize himself, Guido checks into a spa, where his fertile imagination overloads. The resulting flights of fancy offer a glimpse of what has made the muse shun him.
Guido is in an emotional wasteland. While married to Luisa (Anouk Aimée), a sensitive and intelligent earth-mother he sees infrequently, he indulges in an illicit affair with the sensual Carla (Sandra Milo), whom he "casts" as a slut in a bedroom. He lies to one and all, and loves no one.
This void turns into a harrowing vortex on the movie set, where he is confronted with the demands made on him by a menagerie of actors, producers, and screenwriters. With no answers, no creative inspiration, and salvation nowhere in sight, the project is overwhelming, and Guido gives up on it.
The film—titled 8½ because Fellini had completed seven movies and two episodes up to then—is widely considered autobiographical. Fellini's other films also loosely fit that category, in that they amply express his unique and personal vision of the world. When he came to make the movie, Fellini seems to have experienced a physical and emotional trajectory similar to Guido's; unlike Guido, the maestro came up with a gem.
In lesser hands, this subject might have easily become a tedious exercise in futility, but Fellini turns it into a compelling exploration of life's relation to art, and the powerful link between reality and fantasy. The 43-year-old Guido exists in a zone in which the past permeates the present without warning, in the form of memories of his dead parents, or of youthful misconduct at school. Memories and hallucinations offer a respite from the stress that threatens to destroy him.
To escape having to make decisions and find myriad solutions as his film develops, Guido lingers on what matters most to him—the women in his life. He doesn't understand them, feels threatened by them, regrets his dishonesty toward them. But at least he accepts all this about himself; he is who he is.
He dreams of the ethereal Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) as a chaste, otherworldly beauty he hopes will be his inspiring muse. He remembers his boyhood excitement watching the sensual, corpulent Saraghina (Edra Gale) dancing for cash on the beach. His ultimate fantasy places him in a harem containing all the women in his life, who coexist and accept his rule: his wife cooks and cleans, while the rest devote themselves to providing ever-escalating pleasures.
This is far from politically correct, and Fellini, through Guido, wavers between imposing his own interpretation of things and accepting the blame. The harem scene is one of the wildest fantasies in a film brimming with the extravagant. Not only is Guido equipped with a whip to tame his rowdy concubines, but a rebellion by an older member, relegated "upstairs" because of her age, gets out of hand. While one of the women swings from a chandelier, the others freely voice their opinions about the man in their lives: "a brute," "a lousy lover," "a dictator." This madcap and preposterous scene is done with real operatic flair. Fellini's love of the circus is plain to see in the entire spectacle, and more explicitly in the final scene, where the complete gallery of characters—both from Guido's film and from his life—march in a circle behind a clown.
Viewers unfamiliar with Fellini's work may find 8½ a bit unsettling at first, but once you tune into his creative flow, everything becomes simple, though hardly simple-minded. It's heavy on dialogue, but 8 ½ is also a visual tour de force in which the mostly fluid camera tries to get to the core of the situation, to the truth behind this glimmering façade. At times, the soundtrack plays against the image, as people say and do the opposite of what they feel—as when Guido's wife and mistress meet each other and feign pleasure.
Though 8½ won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, its detractors denounced it as self-indulgent and superficial. But Fellini incorporates into the film itself every possible critique and putdown of the kind of visionary filmmaking that Guido has in mind, rendering such objections ultimately irrelevant.
This special edition from the Criterion Collection is a collector's dream. The image is razor-sharp, without a single instance of graininess. The focus is constant, and the mono sound is rich and consistent, allowing the viewer to fully appreciate the enormous contribution that Nino Rota's score makes to Fellini's vision. Even the use of silence is innovative—at one point the soundtrack contains nothing but the sound of wind blowing. At another, the camera glides over the faces of monstrously made-up divas mouthing silent words with gusto at the cocktail party given for the film. The subtitles are clear and succinct (but why have them superimposed on the image instead of under it?).
The many extras in this two-disc, dual-layer edition include documentaries about Fellini and Rota, and interviews with Sandra Milo and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro discussing his mentor, Gianni Di Venanzo, and his work on 8 ½. There's also a short intro by director Terry Gilliam (Brazil), for whom 8 ½ was a major source of inspiration, and an audio commentary by Fellini experts. A must-see.