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"8 1/2"
Directed by Federico Fellini with Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee, and Sandra Milo, black and white, 138 minutes, music by Nino Rota, 1963

Cover of DVD

Cover of Blu-Ray edition

By Carter B. Horsley

This surreal and imaginative 1963 masterpiece by director Federico Fellini is an excursion into the psyche of an artist overwhelmed by the challenges of continuing his creativity after a tremendous success.

Marcello depressed

Overwhelmed Marcello

Marcello with hat


He is also challenged by the fact that he - Guido played by Marcello Mastroianni - is the best looking man in the movies.

Marcello smiling


In this movie, he plays Guido, a movie director.  He shares Cary Grant's whimsical mirth and drop-dead-to-die-for good looks, but he is not as farcical. Despite such blessings, his life apparently is not perfect.

At the start of the movie, we are in the backseat of his car stuck in a traffic jam and we do not see his face. The front seat begins to fill up with smoke and he finds the doors and windows locked and desperately tries to kick out the windows without success.

At last, he discovers the car's sun roof and escapes to rise up in the clouds tethered like a kite held by one of his assistants who eventually pull him down from the clouds and his veritable life-and-death experience.


Guido floating in the sky

He then is pestered by a critic, his friends, his producer and others about details for his next magnum opus.

Marcello and critic

Marcello with critic

He goes to a spa where old ladies blow him kisses and he runs Daumier, a film critic, who tells him his film script is no good.  He also runs into an old friend with a new mistress, played by Barbara Steele, the star of numerous bad horrow films.

Cl;audia at spa

Claudia Cardinale, a heavenly angel at the spa

Then he sees a vision of loveliness, portrayed by Claudia Cardinale, who offers him a refreshing drink of the spa's waters but when he accepts it he sees that she is not the gorgeous Cardinale but a plain-looking woman.

The film shifts its timeline not just with past and present but also dreams but the shifts are not razzle-dazzle but mesmeric.

In one early scene he encounters his father at a cemetery who complains, calmly, that he wished the ceiling of his vault was higher and then is escorted by Guido outside where he descends, with Guido's help after being kissed passionately on his lips by his mother, into a grave in front of an enormous long, unfinished wall of serious architectural import.

Marcello putting his dad in grave

Guido helps his father into a grave

The Blu-ray edition of the film contains a booklet with several excellent essays as well as comments by Fellini.

In his essay, "A Film With Itself As Its Subject," Alexander Sesonske, a professor emeritus of film studies and philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara, provides the following commentary:


Ah, the spa's waters

"Its surface flow of images dazzles us with sharp contrasts of black and white, startling eruptions from offscreen, unexpected changes of scene, and a virtuoso display of all the possibilities and effects of camera movement.  We find almost a catalog of humanity in its stream of faces; some of them are momentary visions, while others persist through the film and long after in our memory, such as Saraghina, that lumbering monster transformed into the embodiment of joyous life and movement...



"But Fellini's brilliance reaches beyond the surface to include an intricate structure of highly original, highly imaginative scenes whose conjunction creates an unprecedented interweaving of memories, fantasies, and dreams with the daily life of the hero alter ego, Guido Anselmi.  This, more than anything probably, made 8 1/2 the most influential film of the 1960s, liberating filmmakers everywhere from the conventions of time, place, and mode of experience that had prevailed in cinema for decades...

"In a film in which almost every scene is memorable, within its own pace and ambience, its characteristic forms of movement and emotional tone, some scenes are extraordiary: a childhood reminiscence of a farmhouse overflowing with warmth, love, and security, and an ascent into an enchanted darkness where the magical words asa nisi masa promise welath and happiness; a boyhood flight from the stifling confines of a Catholic school to the voluptuous marvels of Sarahina's rhumba, with its grotesque aftermath of cruel punishment and guilt; young Guido being told that Saraghina is the devil, though a Dantean descent into hell reveals a cardinal enthroned at the center of the inferno, solemnly repeasting that there is no salvation outside the church; a whirling, riotous harem scene that mocks the absurdities of male fantasy.

Marce;;p with Anouk

Mastroianni with Anouk Aimee, who plays his wife

In a 1964 interview with Gideon Bachman, Fellini provides the following commentary:

I don't think that I create heroes in my films in the conventional romantic or poetic sense. But there is always someone, like Guido in 8 1/2, who fights against the monsters, against neuroticism and fear, against the real dangers. His story can be told in many ways, but it is always the same story... Take 8 1/2. It could have been a fairy story. The Saraghina could really have been a dragon that spat fire, Guido's wife could have been an inquisitor who condemned him, and the cardinal could have been another monster from the flames of darkness... I simply told it as I did because for me this was the most congenial manner. It reaches people better; I think it's the more modern way. But the hero is really there: he is the one who in all the fairy tales succeeds in possessing the feeling of his own life, after cleaning up all the monsters that want to devour him.

"I feel that an artist always talks about himself, and that the simple, daily things that go into a film should bear witness to being the fruits of the artist's anguish and concern. I don't want to sound as though I know the final answer. I keep seeking. Actually, that's all I want to show: that I am seeking. I don't want to make pictures so that they can be 'understood.' This whole business about clarity seems to me to be be some kind of an aristocratic game, like heirs gossiping at a funeral. All I want in my pictures is a real man, who lives a real life, who worries about money, about his wife, about the Church and about his work. You know what I don't understand? I don't understand when people say they don't understand. You watch the story of a man who tells you about his work, his mistresses, his troubles, his relationship to God. There is nothing to understand. There is just listening and feeling whether the problems of this man are your own problems. That's all."

Marcello with Sandra

Mastroianni meets his mistress, played by Sandra Milo, at the train station

In his May 28, 2000 review of the film, Roger Ebert made the following observations about the film:


Anouk Aimee as washerwoman/wife

"Mastroianni plays Guido as a man exhausted by his evasions, lies and sensual appetites. He has a wife, Anouk Aimee, chic and intellectual, who he loves but cannot communicate with, and a mistress, Sandra Milo, cheap and tawdry, who offends his taste but inflames his libido. He manages his affairs so badly that both women are in the spa town at the same time, along with his impatient producer, his critical writer, and uneasy actors who hope or believe they will be in the film. He finds not a moment's peace. Happiness, Guido muses late in the film, 'consists of being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone.' That gift has not been mastered by Guido's writer, who tells the director his film is 'a series of complete senseless episodes,' and 'doesn't have the advantage of the avant-garde films, although it has all of the drawbacks.'


"Fellini's camera is endlessly delighting. His actors often seem to be dancing rather than simply walking. I visited the set of his 'Fellini Satyricon' and was interested to see that he played music during every scene (like most Italian directors of his generation, he didn't record sound on the set but post-synched the dialogue). The music brought a lift and subtle rhythm to their movements."


The movie's score by Nino Rota is very memorable, haunting and enchanting.

Marcello in bath

Marcello taking a bath in his harem and flapping his hands like a child

The movie has a great many marvelous scenes: Marcello dancing by himself in a hallway; his running away from acquaintances in the spa's great lobby; juxtaposition of interesting faces; multiple flares in a scene near the "spaceship"; the harem scene where he is undressed and carried in a large towel to a soapy bath while still wearing his signature Borsalino-like wide-brim black hat; his whipping of women in the harem; a burlesque queen prancing about; his wife scrubbing the floors in the harem; his fascination with magician and his mysterious lady assistant in a plaza...

Marce;;p with whip

Marcello taking charge at his harem where the women over 30 are sent "upstairs"

His producer insists he shows up at a news conference about his film at the "spaceship" ends up with Marcello crawling under the table and shooting himself before being amused by a construction worker doing a jig and then commandering his assembled actors and friends and workers and the press to prance around a large circus-type ring in a dance that is almost reminiscent of the dance of death at the end of "The Seventh Seal" (see The City Review article).

Marcello and friends on ring

Marcello not using his whip in keeping his "gang" dancing around the circus ring

This scene is couple with a couple of hundred of his group descending a broad construction staircase at the base of the "spaceship," in what would appear to be, wrongly, the film's spectacular finale.

Claudia smiles

Claudia Cardinale laughs and observes that "no one can tell you anything"

Marcello then escapes in a car with his "perfect" woman, Claudia and who ravishingly laughs at him and us while crouching in a doorway.

The Blu-ray edition of the film contains some excellent extra features including an audio commentary by Fellini's friend Gideon Backman, an hour-log documentary from 1969 on the director's notebook, details about the original last sequence Fellini planned for the film on a train car, a 48-minute documentary on composer Nino Rota, a great  27-minute interview with Sandra Milo, who was for 17 years Fellini's mistress; and an interesting 18-minute interview with Lina Wertmuller who served as an assistant director on the film.  The features are fascinating.

out of 5 stars

This film is ranked 7th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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