Directed by: Federico Fellini, Written by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and
Arguably Federico Fellini’s chef d’oeuvre, 8 ½ remains one of cinemas most respected and influential works. It has spawned a musical, “9,” and inspired numerous other films including Synecdoche New York. Watching it today, however, I can’t say it struck me to the degree it probably struck audiences upon its release. 8 ½ is the story of Guido, an ambitious cinematic director, struggling to make a semi-autobiographical work. He continuously finds himself distracted by his philandering love life and concern that his film is not profound enough.
8 ½ stands out for disjointed, not quite-realist plot lines, and its densely populated dream sequences. This trait, however, is one that has not transmitted well through the ages, as while black and white film continues to have its aesthetic charms, its hard for it to dazzle color-adjusted viewers. 8 ½’s real shortcoming, however, is in its premise. Authors/filmakers writing about struggling artists/filmmakers is no novel concept. Guido’s character prevents 8 ½ from standing out within this sub-genre. We know Guido’s mind is predominated with sexual fantasies, the worst of which are certainly misogynistic. We also get some sense that he contextualizes his sexuality as a rebellion against Italian Catholicism, perhaps keeping him from engaging in more gender-based-self-criticism. Finally, we are given the impression he is a Marxist sympathizer, and he is subject to pressure to produce films with philosophical messages. Over the film’s 2 hour 16 minute run time, none of these traits are presented in a way to particularly individualize Guido. He is neither sufficiently troubled by nor sufficiently comfortable with his sleaziness, for instance, for it to color his personality. His politics are underdeveloped, as is his Catholicism. While none of this is unintentional (perhaps were Guido less bland he would have had an easier time becoming inspired), it makes it hard to take much out of his story. His lack of a sense of direction may be a compelling struggle, but his audience is left in the same uninspired headspace as he is, making for an unsatisfying viewing experience.
8 ½ can still be enjoyed as a milestone piece of cinema, and its structure and staging certainly inspire. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by not finding the magic in it that has sparked the imaginations of numerous filmmakers through the ages.