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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.