“Could you leave everything behind and start life all over again? Choose one thing and be faithful to it? Make it the reason for your existence?” The character of Guido Anselmi asks of Claudia Cardinale. The glowingly young and beautiful Claudia answers by asking him if he could. He has no answer.
8 1/2 AKA Otto e Mezzo, dir. Federico Fellini, 1963 is a film about a filmmaker without a film and without answers. Guido spends most of the film at a spa under the pretense of working on a new film, as he attempts to make sense of his life, while besieged by the questions and demands his producer, crew, actresses, critics, his mistress and his wife. Haunted by memories and dreams of his childhood, blending his fantasy and escapism with reality, Guido must confront the fact that he has, in fact, no answers at all, while discovering that he still has something to give.
I recently watched the wonderful Criterion Collection Blu-ray of this old, personal favorite. Certainly I had never seen such a beautiful copy in my life, which was a revelation in itself. But more importantly, somehow, this man’s tale resonated with me more now than it ever has.
8 1/2 is a film that anticipates every criticism you may have of it. Through Guido’s own expressions of self-doubt, the words of the ensemble cast, but most especially through the character of The Critic that Guido has hired to help him with his new film — 8 1/2 knows it is a selfish film, a sentimental, romanticized version of a man’s life. The film, and Guido himself, are well aware that Guido objectifies human beings — especially women — that he expects to be able to hide behind fantastic imagery, a beautiful soundtrack (by Nino Rota, also of The Godfather), and a cool suit and pair of shades. Guido lies, cheats and literally dances his way through the throngs of his troubles and the very real human beings that his selfishness and self-doubt affects. But in the end, as Guido comes to face the truth of his situation and own up to his lies and deceits (his affairs, his lack of a film, his inner-doubts and demons) we as the viewer find pity for him and our own imperfect selves.
The film is full of images of cleanliness, new beginnings and escape, personified by Guido’s fantasies of the young Claudia. While set at a spa (from Latin sanum per aqua – health through water) Guido pursues his dreams of escaping the messy reality of his life. Meanwhile, his crew and producer fret over the cost of the gigantic space-ship they are constructing for the non-existent film, in which Guido imagines the human race will escape a post-atomic Earth in search of a new Eden.
When Guido’s producer forces him to attend a press-conference to announce the film before the hulking and unfinished rocket-ship, he must confront the truth. His panic causes him to seek refuge under a table and fantasize, or not, that he’s put a bullet through his head. But as he gets in his car afterwards, it is clear that he has come clean last. The film is cancelled. And finally — having accepted his role in the human drama and as director again — the entire film’s cast gathers as he directs them in a dance, holding hands, in a circle.
He confesses to his lovely, yet embittered wife (Anouk Amiee), “Luisa, I feel I’ve been freed…Everything is confused again, as it was before. But this confusion is me.” And he is able to join with her and the rest in the dance again. There may be no answers, but he’s begun again in honesty.
Behind these sunglasses, this confusion is me.