8 1/2 weaves fluidly through the visually intoxicating landscape of Federico Fellini’s subconscious, seemingly to seek inspiration and validation for his life and work. In an opening scene that symbolizes much of Fellini’s films, a suffocating man, trapped inside his car, inexplicably begins to float into the skies, only to be abruptly tugged back to the ground. But it is also an indelible image that shatters any preconceived illusion of “typical” elements in a Fellini film. The film, 8 1/2, literally marks Fellini’s work on 8 1/2 feature films (the “1/2” derived from collaborative direction films), and proves to be a transitional film in his artistic career. In addition to being his final film shot in black and white, the subtle forms and religious iconography of his earlier neorealist films have been replaced by precisely composed, comic absurdity and exaggerated, hyperbolic imagery – of what was to become his signature, Felliniesque, style. His alter-ego on this surreal, introspective journey is Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a successful director of films “without hope” who takes a holiday at an exclusive health spa in order to overcome a creative dry spell. But Guido is not a suffering, tortured artist. He is narcissistic and self-indulgent, preferring to spend his time networking with wealthy resort patrons and arranging liaisons with his oversexed mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo) than in formulating ideas for his next film. In fact, Guido’s words prove hypocritical and contrary to all his actions. His creative retreat is spent surrounded by people who are most familiar with him: his mistress, his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), his producer (Guido Alberti), and several actors who want to appear in his film. He claims to be in the process of creating a simple film that “would bury all that was dead” between Luisa and him, but approves plans to construct an elaborate movie set for a science fiction film. He supplements his mineral water treatments with cigarettes and alcohol, leading a life of excess instead of undergoing physical (and psychological) cleansing and purification. Unable to derive inspiration from his chaotic environment, he immerses himself in the distraction of childhood memories and indulgent fantasies: conversing with an emotionally inaccessible father; reciting the magic words to a hidden treasure; sneaking out of class to watch the carefree Saraghina (Eddra Gale) perform a sensual dance; attempting to tame the women in his life using circus props. In essence, Guido is searching for balance: between childhood traumas and idealism, the sensual and the intellectual, artistic integrity and commercial success. Inevitably, Guido is as much a reflection of Fellini as he is of ourselves: striving for greatness, only to achieve the ordinary and familiar… with episodes of momentary abstraction in between.
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