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8 1/2: Fellini's Moment of Truth

Fellini's last great film has baffled a generation of critics. Alan Stone explains why.

Alan A. Stone

Out of the ruins of Italy after the Second World War came an astonishingly impressive film industry with a sobering but passionate vision -- neo-realism. Led by such directors as Rossellini, Visconti, and DeSica, Italian filmmakers without resources or established stars quickly earned a respected place in the forefront of post-war cinema. Within months of the Axis surrender, Americans were sitting in movie theaters empathetically watching the plight of Italians who had been their enemies. What is more, Italy had regained a measure of its national dignity. There can hardly be a more convincing demonstration of the importance of film, the uniquely 20th century art form.

Working as a jack-of-all-trades with that first generation of great Italian directors was the enterprising Federico Fellini. He would eventually have the opportunity to create his own quirky version of neo-realism, matching the material poverty of provincial Italy with the spiritual loneliness of its inhabitants. His predecessors had featured the raw voluptuous sexuality of Anna Magnani and the statuesque beauty of Sophia Loren. Fellini's heroine and his wife was the childlike, almost physically stunted, Giulieta Masina. He made her a star and established his own international reputation as a filmmaker with La Strada (1954), which paired the diminutive Masina with the brutally masculine Anthony Quinn. La Strada earned Fellini his first of four Best Foreign Film Oscars and a devoted American following.

La Strada is the story of a young woman, not quite right in the head, who is sold by her mother to a circus strong man. At another level it is a parable about Italy under fascism and the possibility of Christian Salvation. The Catholic Church applauded the film while the intellectual left criticized it as a betrayal of neo-realism. Filmgoers all over the world argued about the moral of the story, but there was a clear and coherent narrative structure; everyone thought they understood what they had seen and knew what they were arguing about. Fellini claimed that this was exactly what he had wanted to achieve. His credo was that film should ask questions not give answers.

Less than a decade later, in 1963, Fellini made 8 1/2, a film that juxtaposed dreams, visions, fantasies, and realities in a cinematic version of the director's own stream of consciousness. Moviegoers had to guess what was real and what imagined, with little help from the director. Almost no one knew for sure what they had seen after one viewing. Not only were there no answers, audiences could not agree about the questions. Even the title was an obscure insider's reference to the number of Fellini's films. But 8 1/2 is so beautifully made and so filled with unforgettable images that one can just lean back and enjoy the phantasmagoria. Indeed, Pauline Kael tells us that this was one of the first films that people intentionally went to stoned.

Fellini's 8 1/2 was not simply an acid-head's delight. It was the culmination of the director's narcissistic turn, in which he severed his roots in neo-realism. Fellini was becoming more interested in symbolic images than coherent ideas, more concerned about his actors' faces than their acting, more preoccupied with his own psychological ruminations than with politics or reality. His films became a series of tableaux seemingly dredged up from the unconscious.

8 1/2 was described at the time of its release as a "spectacle of the spirit," but in retrospect it was also the moment of creative implosion when Fellini lost his way in a maze of Jungian archetypes, Freudian fixations, and Sartrean despair. Even La Strada had its mysteriously memorable scenes, but they were effectively woven into the plot. And Masina, though a diminutive waif, was much more than a freak of nature.

Fellini's symbolism began to overstep the boundaries of his narrative. The huge statue of Christ carried by helicopter above eternal Rome in the opening scene of La Dolce Vita is memorable, but no one really knew what it meant. One overreaching critic compared this scene to the image of "a patient etherized upon a table" in the opening lines of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock. Fellini, however, was more showman than symbolist poet and his use of these spectacular images increasingly lacked artistic discipline as well as narrative connection. His casting choices also began to veer toward circus side-show creatures and gothic faces whose mere presence gave a bizarre dimension to the scene. The figure of the ugly but strangely sexual Saraghina in 8 1/2, emerging from the ruins of a concrete bunker to dance on the beach while the boys keep rhythm in a frenzy of onanistic pleasure, is the ultimate example of Fellini's mysterious and perverse aesthetic which summons up images from some Freudian world of the unconscious. Thereafter, such scenes became his most recognizable signature and in the end his greatest weakness. In subsequent films, like Satyricon and Casanova, the actors are given no opportunity to develop their characters; they are reduced to striking poses rather than acting parts. In City of Women, a film that showed the director at his worst, even the marvelous actor Marcello Mastroiani seems lost in Fellini's obsessive and totally unenlightened ruminations about female sexuality.

However, in 8 1/2 the central character is Fellini himself, and the haunting tableaux are intriguingly connected to his life, personality, and work as a filmmaker. Given all these marvelous scenes and the absence of a clear story line, critics can weave their own interpretive tapestries. The impulse to construct something more intelligible out of 8 1/2 seems almost irresistible. The film has spawned many interpretations and accommodates them all.

The complex ambiguity of 8 1/2 defies easy summary. At the most obvious level, the film is an autobiographical excerpt from the life of Fellini, who is played by his alter-ego Marcello Mastroiani in the part of Guido. The film begins with a brilliant dream sequence; and, just like a real dream, only when you wake up do you realize you were dreaming. The audience sees a strange traffic jam in a tunnel and hears an eerie silence. Then, fumes start to come out of a car's dashboard. A man is suffocating and desperately trying to escape -- the doors won't open and the windows won't roll down. Then we see strange people in the surrounding cars, typical of Fellini's freak-show casting.

This dream is a nightmare freighted with the symbolism of modern alienation: each of us trapped in his own lonely automobile, all of the automobiles trapped in a traffic jam, everyone going nowhere, a man suffocating in the next car, alone in the crowd, unnoticed and uncared for. Finally the victim struggles out of the car window and miraculously floats his way out of the tunnel in which the traffic jam takes place and soars up to heaven, a freed spirit. Fellini then presents his audience a series of images some of which will be repeated in the film. We glimpse the image of a strange rickety tower in the clouds. We see a man on horseback galloping down a beach. The soaring figure in the sky now has a rope around his ankle. Another man pulls on the rope and, like a dream Icarus, the figure comes hurtling toward the water. Suddenly the scene changes and we see Guido awaken with a startle. Only then does the audience realize they have been watching Guido's nightmare. Guido awakens in a spa where he is being interrogated and examined by doctors. The rest of the film might be understood by a psychoanalyst as an interpretation of this nightmare.

The film portrays Fellini's crisis as a film director and his mid-life crisis as a man. He wants to make a true and authentic film but he's out of ideas. He cannot decide what actors and actresses to choose. A rocket launching set has been built at great expense -- this is the tower we saw in the dream scene -- but he does not even have a definite screenplay that requires it. The film takes a mystical turn as lines of people in robes march in procession to the subterranean baths. Guido seeks answers from a Cardinal of the church, looks to his rescuing angel, Claudia Cardinale, but all to no avail. He is pressured on all sides by his producer, by his screenplay writer, by actresses and their agents, and by the media. He invites both his mistress and his wife to join him and they add to the demands and stresses of the beleaguered director, who seems incapable of human intimacy. Baffled, he escapes into fantasy, imagining himself the absolute potentate of a harem. He calls up childhood memories (among them the Saraghina episode), but remains at a creative impasse.

Throughout the film, characters confront Guido with the limitations of his previous films. He cannot make a love story, his films are all about loneliness, he offers no hope, his ideas have no philosophical depth, he is 50 years behind the avant-garde in other art forms, and in this film he has no poetic inspiration. I can imagine no criticism of Fellini's work that he does not anticipate in 8 1/2. In a final scene, a frenzied cocktail party for the press, Guido's worst dreams seem to have come true. Fellini here appears to be portraying his creative implosion and perhaps recognizing the awful truth. He is condemned by the critics and the press as a fraud, a man who is lost. His long-suffering wife abandons him. He crawls under the table, puts a gun to his head, and a shot rings out. Suddenly all is silence and then we hear the wind blowing.

The suicide is a symbolic act standing for Guido's decision to sack the whole film and acknowledge defeat. Then somehow comes a kind of redemption. The women of his fantasy harem appear dressed in white. Fellini's familiar file of three or four circus musicians appears, dressed as clowns and playing a cheerful tune followed by Guido the child. Guido the director, reinvigorated, picks up a bull horn and begins to take charge. The entire film cast descends the stairs of the launching pad following his direction. Guido asks his wife to accept him as he is and she does -- all dance and the film ends with the child Guido dressed in white, playing his flute in a fading spotlight. Perhaps because I believe 8 1/2 was really the end for Fellini, the mood of this last scene and Guido's renewed optimism and hope are not entirely convincing. He seems closer to whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits than to genuine elation. His wife's forgiveness seems inexplicably out of character, particularly since Guido shows no contrition about his infidelity and no capacity to connect with her or any other human being.

Although I have suggested that the film produces an almost irresistible impulse in the critic to interpret it, Pauline Kael had no difficulty whatsoever resisting. She despises intellectual pretension and particularly Fellini's. She says of 8 1/2, "Fellini throws in his disorganized ideas, and lets the audience sort out the meanings for themselves." And then comes her withering one-liner in which she dismisses this remarkable film. She quotes the anonymous wife who said to her drunken husband, "if you had any brains you'd take them out and play with them."

As Kael's line might suggest, masturbation and masturbation guilt are important and not so subtle themes in 8 1/2. Masturbation is the subject of the famous scene in which Guido and his schoolmates pay the giantess Saraghina to dance for them on the beach. And the theme of masturbation guilt is certainly there when the little Guido is punished for this sin, made to wear a dunce cap and kneel on gravel. When he confesses to the priest, he is told that Saraghina is the devil. Presumably all this is about onanism, profane love, Satan in the guise of sexual temptation.

Kael's contemptuous critique is meant to cut deeper. She considers 8 1/2 a display of mental masturbation: a narcissistic, indulgent "display of self-imprisonment." Kael, by the way, absolutely refused to tolerate the standard defense of so much of Fellini's later art -- why does it have to mean anything? She skewers the Guido/Fellini of the film for the line, "I have nothing to say, but I want to say it." Even if we accept Menand's recent characterization of Kael as the critic whose mission was to keep New Yorker readers from feeling that any film was over their heads, we can see 30 years later in Kael's reaction to 8 1/2 a flash of angry light. The film is certainly self-centered, perhaps even disrespectful of its audience, and there is also in it the narcissistic confusion of self-absorption and creativity.

Kael's devastating criticism was, however, a minority opinion. The film not only earned Fellini an Oscar, it also won him first prize at the Moscow Film Festival. This supposed display of self-indulgence was received as a "spectacle of the spirit" on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and rightly so.

I have privileged Kael's criticism of 8 1/2 because, viewing the film in retrospect and in the trajectory of Fellini's career, I believe -- with Guido's collaborator, Daumier -- that it was the beginning of the end. Everything that goes right in 8 1/2 goes wrong in his subsequent films, except Amacord where he rediscovered his earlier inspiration, garnering his fourth Oscar. But in 8 1/2 we see the blueprint for Fellini's disintegration as a filmmaker. I have already mentioned his stylistic tendency to emphasize images over ideas. There are convincing aesthetic arguments for this development in film, and certainly it can be said that Fellini's mysterious tableaux, even in such films as Satyricon and Casanova, live on in one's consciousness long after the story lines in standard films have been forgotten. At his best, as in 8 1/2, Fellini paints with his camera, creating huge canvasses that belong in the Louvre. Unfortunately, art films that abandon story-telling appeal to a narrower and narrower audience. Other Italian film directors, including Pasolini, Antonioni, and Visconti, left neo-realism far behind and, like Fellini, at the height of their aesthetic ambitions lost most of their audience.

Fellini had an even greater problem than these colleagues. He was as much a fake and charlatan as a genius. His wife said that he only blushed when he told the truth. And he said about himself, "I make my films because I like to tell lies, to imagine fairy tales....I mostly like to tell about myself." Unlike Bergman, who seems to have found constantly renewed inspiration in the creed of self-revelation, Fellini hit a wall. In his last great gasp of creative energy, 8 1/2, he brilliantly portrayed this depressing experience. Fellini's miracle in 8 1/2 is that he told the truth about himself. Freud said that people only see themselves as they really are when they are depressed; Fellini's 8 1/2 is an inspired depiction of that moment of self-comprehension.

If Kael is too dismissive, other interpreters oversimplify. On one classic reading of 8 1/2, its many tableaux echo Dante's vision of purgatory. The "communal ritual" stair descending scenes in the spa, the steam rooms, the cachectic and mysterious Catholic Cardinal, the warning that there can be no salvation outside the church, the scene in his father's cemetery, and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", all conjure up, in this reading, Dante's afterworld of the soul. Hence the "spectacle of the spirit" is treated as a perhaps obscure but explicit reference to various cantos of Il Purgatorio. Fellini's 8 1/2 assuredly has Dantean overtones, but it is too improvised, too eclectic, and too autobiographical to be captured by specific cantos.

Next there are interpreters who understand the film as woven from strands of dream, memory, fantasy, vision, and reality. This is undoubtedly true, but the task these critics assign themselves is to decide which is which, as though one could and should decipher stream of consciousness and decide what actually happened to Guido and what he imagined. Few would accept the much bolder hypothesis that human consciousness, like Fellini's portrayal of it in 8 1/2, is just such an indecipherable blending of memory, fantasy, and reality.

The psychological themes in the film -- creative block, inability to make decisions, feelings of suffocation, loneliness, alienation -- and Guido's mock suicide have suggested that the film depicts depression or melancholy. 8 1/2 doesn't tell a coherent story according to these critics because it portrays the director's mood -- it is a tone poem. This reading certainly seems plausible. Today psychiatrists might go further and describe Guido as suffering from a bipolar mood disorder. The unconvincing happy ending might be that often inexplicable moment when the switch of manic optimism gets turned on in the brain.

The foregoing interpretations can be readily assimilated into a rather banal autobiographical account that seeks to explain away all the mysteries of 8 1/2. What we are told is that Fellini undertook a Jungian analysis during a mid-life crisis, and that 8 1/2 is his cinematic transcription of what he worked out on the couch. The idea that 8 1/2 is a therapeutic journey would even help us understand Guido's lines to his wife after the mock-suicide at the end of the film, "accept me as I am," implying that he has now learned to accept himself as he is. The final scene suggests, it is almost embarrassingly trite to say the words 30 years later, that he has discovered and accepted the "child in himself." His mistress certainly gets that message. Her lines to Guido are, "We understand. You need us." The "Guido/Fellini -- as child" does lead the clown circus band into the final celebratory scenes of 8 1/2 and reinvigorates the director. This psychotherapeutic reading appropriates the images of Dante's Purgatorio as Jungian archetypes. The shifting levels of consciousness in the film replicate personal psychoanalytic experience traveled by way of associations. The depressed mood drove him into a Jungian analysis.

Unfortunately this reductionistic interpretation, although the most coherent reading of the film, is the least edifying. It makes "sense" of the film in a way that suggests self-conscious obscurity and condescending ambiguity rather than passionate inspiration.

Should we accept this explanation of 8 1/2, a film that even today is considered a cinematic benchmark? Consider two scenes which have been "decoded" by a Jungian. In one, a mind reader at the spa reads Guido's thoughts and writes on a large black board "asa nisi masa." The mind-reader does not know the meaning of what she has written but Guido assures her she is correct. He then presumably associates, and the movie, which follows his stream of consciousness, shifts to a scene of remembered childhood where he and other children, having been bathed in wine to strengthen them, are put to bed. When they are supposed to be asleep they of course begin their mischief. A little girl, no doubt a relative, sits up in bed and tells Guido the magic words, "asa nisi masa," the very words the medium wrote on the board. Almost everyone in the audience will think that these scenes are the director's reenactment on film of an important memory from his childhood. "Asa nisi masa" seem to be the kind of magical words one learned in childhood and magic is Fellini's stock-and-trade as a film-maker. But an indefatigable Jungian who is also a Fellini fan recognized that the director had added a pig-Latin syllable to each of the three syllables of the Jungian "Anima," the female soul of the male. What filmgoers take for a magical childhood memory is also an elaborate intellectual conceit, an inside joke. Perhaps it was a present to his Jungian analyst.

This is by no means the only proof of this Jungian "decoding;" the signs of it are everywhere. A final test is to watch the entire film once again in light of this analysis. 8 1/2 confirms this Jungian reading and yet transcends it.

Fellini's directorial artistry is in the visual nuances. If he was transcribing his experience in Jungian analysis, he was also improvising the scenes as he made the film. And like all sublime art, Fellini's improvisations surprise and convince almost in the same moment.

Fellini would be delighted that his film soars above all the critics' interpretations. It is like Guido's miraculous escape into the sky in that opening dream sequence. And if Fellini crashed like Icarus after 8 1/2, his flight was nonetheless one of the most memorable in the history of this century's most important art form.

Originally published in the Summer 1995 issue of Boston Review

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