Tag Archive: Federico Fellini


Where do we draw the line between an artist and his art? Through the works of Woody Allen it is easy to tell that the man loves and loathes his home of New York. He is a neurotic and nebbish man who both worships women and alienates them. If you watch any Quentin Tarantino film, you should come away knowing that he knows more about genre cinema than perhaps any other man on the planet. Considering the number of Scorsese films that deal with religious guilt and the sexual degradation of the male psyche, it is not much of a stress to feel that Scorsese was torn as an artist by his Catholic upbringing. If you can summon basic powers of perception (with some psychological intuition) and have seen a large swath of any directors filmography, you can learn a lot about not only the art but the artist. The scripts they choose to direct, the direction they choose to take the subject matter, the consistent (or perhaps telling inconsistent) tone of their films all speak leagues to who the artist truly is. It’s a fun game for students of film to play as we attempt to gleam little tidbits about her celluloid heroes, but rarely do filmmakers themselves ask these sorts of questions. Yet, the battle between art and the men who make it and the psychological forces that shape said art lies at the very center of Federico Fellini’s masterful 8 1/2 which makes for one of the most cerebral and rewarding films I’ve seen in months.

In an obviously highly autobiographical film (of Fellini’s career/childhood), Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, an Italian film-director who has retreated to a remote resort in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet so he can work on his next film. His rest is short-lived when his film’s producers, his mistress (Sandra Milo), and even his wife (Anouk Aimee) arrive at the resort and begin tearing him in opposite directions. As Guido’s writer’s block and creative slump worsen, we are ushered into the unfiltered recesses of his mind where glimpses of his childhood, sexual fantasies, and reality all intertwine. Guido reflects on the many, many women in his life (from his mother to the first prostitute he ever visited) as well as the role of the church and religious sexual oppression all while trying to find the inspiration to make his next film which he hopes will include all of these elements. To sum up the film as simply (though perhaps misleadingly) as possible, it is a semi-autobiographical film about a director trying to make a semi-autobiographical film while simultaneously destroying every accepted rule of structure and style up to that point.

With certain directors (Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, etc.) it’s impossible to take any one film of their library as a completely separate entity and not as part of their entire canon. I’ve reviewed three films (including 8 1/2) from Fellini’s library now. I have also written about 1954’s La Strada and 1969’s Fellini Satyricon which places 8 1/2 more in the art-house category of Satyricon than the neo-realism of La Strada. While I haven’t seen La Dolce Vita, it was the last full-length film that Fellini wrote and directed before 8 1/2, and in many ways, 8 1/2 is Fellini attempting to follow-up his most commercially and critically successful film yet, failing to do so, and ultimately realizing that he could make a metatextual commentary on the creative process of delivering a follow-up to a rapturously beloved film. The fact that Fellini turned this head-spinning tale of his own attempts to make the movie he’s currently working on into a psychological study of his relationship with women adds the substance that would be missing if Fellini were simply chronicling his own writers block (in an admittedly clever, “meta” way). . This was one of Fellini’s first real art-house films and while it doesn’t totally embrace the surrealism of Fellini Satyricon, Fellnii still masterfully fuses the dreamlike and the real (often in the course of one scene) in what can only be deemed a technically masterful cinematic accomplishment.

In the entire time I’ve ran this blog, I’ve never been so at a loss for how to describe a film on its artistic or technical merits. I finished watching it over four hours ago and I still find new things to mull over in my mind. I’ll recall an overt religious or sexual symbol in a scene that only really clicked when the reason for its import was revealed later in the film. I’ll realize that something happening in one scene probably wasn’t really occurring and was part of one of Guido’s fantasies. I’ll mentally click that the artificial and overtly theatrical nature of early scenes was part of Fellini’s overall commentary on the film-making process. There is so much to talk about in this movie that I desperately crave a dialogue with another person to truly engage with the material. I know that I enjoy the postmodern, dreamlike quality of the film, and I can articulate why I think that makes Fellini such an ambitious and artistically significant (and immensely influential) director, and while those sort of statements are pat enough praise for a lesser film, 8 1/2 deserves an almost academic level of analysis and I don’t see how I can deliver that in this post.

Regardless, this is the format I have and I’ll try to stick to the avenues of praise that I know. Marcello Mastroianni is essentially playing an idealized and semi-fictional version of Federico Fellini himself, and while I don’t know much about Fellini’s personal life other than he married La Strada star Giuiletta Massina and she was to him what Liv Ullmann was to Ingmar Bergman, I can tell you that Marcelo Mastroianni fully inhabited the deeply sexual and ultimately confused hedonist, artist, and lover that was Guido Anselmi. Guido is a slightly pathetic man, unable to make any real decisions over the course of the film, and Mastroianni shows the way he’s being torn apart at the seams in intimate detail. Yet, he’s also a man capable of so much life and passion, and through Guido’s fantasies and his (more rare) happier moments with the women around him (such as his muse Claudia [the breathtaking Claudia Cardinale]), Mastroianni has a chance to explore one of the most dynamic characters of Fellini’s career. Anouk Aimee gave the most impressive performance of the film though as Guido’s long suffering wife Luisa. It’s ironic because I felt the exact same way about the terrible, terrible, terrible musical remake of the film, Nine, where Marion Cotillard (playing Anouk’s character) was the film’s sole saving grace. For a character that was as much caricature as a fully-formed creation in her own right, Anouk Aimee breathed a fire that only a woman scorned can deliver.

Because I feel so ill-equipped to eve discuss this film in a worthwhile manner until I’ve had the chance to discuss it with someone else, let me just state that for a movie that is nearing its 50th anniversary (next year), it’s aged remarkably well. The black-and-white cinematography is as striking in this film as it was in La Strada, and Fellini’s visual flair is really matched only by Bergman, Kurosawa, and Malick. There’s a reason why this film is viewing 101 for every film student in the country, and as someone who regularly bemoans the over-rated status of many “classic” dramas (i.e. dramas before the mid 60s when films were too idealistic and romantic for my tastes), this film hasn’t lost an ounce of its magic even if its inspired an endless stream of less creative imitators. I mentioned that the film was remade into the absolutely terrible, soulless film Nine earlier, and my undying hatred for that film couldn’t even stop me from appreciating how brilliant Fellini’s form is in this picture. It took me about halfway through the film before Fellini’s goal became clear (and I’m sure this film will require several more viewings to fully appreciate), but once I realized what Fellini was trying to accomplish and once the barrier between reality and fantasy in the film became even more thin, it was a non-stop voyeuristic ride into the psychology and creativity of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. If you like foreign cinema or truly challenging (but ultimately rewarding) film, 8 1/2 is required viewing.

Final Score: A+

Two of my favorite directors of all time are Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Pound for pound, I don’t think there are two more artistic and stylistic directors out there. They ram more symbols and activity into one frame of a movie than most directors have in their entire oeuvre of films. When I watched Fellini’s earlier film La Strada, I got the impression that he was a director in a similar vein to those two artists, but I never expected I would watch one of his films that I would put int he same league as classics like A Clockwork Orange or Mulholland Drive. I was wrong. I just finished Fellini Satyricon, and though (much like when I first watched the two films I mentioned earlier) I feel the need to watch this film four or five more times to know completely and grasp the fully the film I just watched, I also knew when the final credits rolled that I had watched a brilliant masterpiece.

Fellini Satyricon tells the story of Encolpio, a young Roman (in ancient Rome) and his many, many trials and tribulations. Encolpio’s former best friend is Ascilto, though they are no longer friends because of Ascilto stole Encolpio’s (for lack of a better word) sex slave Gitone, a young, very handsome boy. Encolpio and Ascilto (like most Romans) are openly bisexual and pederasts. I would be lying if I didn’t say upfront that this is one of the most homo-erotic films that I have ever seen. The film continues through escalating troubles as Encolpio is captured and enslaved, kills a demigod, fights a mintoaur in a labyrinth, and must find a cure for his impotence.

As gripping and interesting as the plot gets through its many different episodes (which are often as epic as one of Homer’s poems), the real strength of the film rests in Fellini’s direction and his sense of visual style. There are the times when one’s senses are almost unable to grasp everything that is happening on screen quickly enough to register them the way they must be experienced. Fellini does not let your brain rest. Nearly every scene is filled in both the fore- and background with so much activity and little detail that you find yourself paying attention to pretty much every aspect of the film. It was one of the most visually inventive films I’ve ever watched, and it managed to accomplish in the 1960’s without the aid of computers. Fellini just composed his film like a masterful painting and simply let reality do the talking.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the way in which Fellini composes the movie much as if it were a stage play and being the master of surrealism, combines the two mediums seamlessly. The film’s opening scene could have been Shakespeare had not been about two gay ancient Romans. From the expository nature of the dialogue literally explaining what the characters were doing on screen at the second to the grand poetry of the lines themselves, it seemed as suited for the stage as well as the silver screen. There are times later in the film a well where stories within stories occur and Fellini manages to combine “reality” with “fiction” in marvelous and original ways.

The only reason I can’t recommend this film to everyone is for the same reason that I can’t recommend A Clockwork Orange or Eraserhead to everyone. It takes a certain intellectual capacity to be able to pay attention for the length of this film in the way it deserves and to constantly be processing all of the sensory information that Fellini throws at you. However, if you think you are up for the challenge of this film and you have a history of being able to handle films by artists like Lynch or Kubrick, then you simply have to watch this movie. It’s one of the best movies that I have seen in a good, long while.

Final Score: A+

If you were to ask really movie buffs to name the most influential directors of the non-English speaking world, three directors’ names would invariably be mentioned: Akira Kurosawa of Japan, Ingmar Bergman of Sweden, and Federico Fellini of Italy. I haven’t seen any Bergman pictures yet (although there are many to come for this blog), but I’ve seen several Kurosawa pictures, and they are always spectacular. La Strada marked my formal introduction to the films of Federico Fellini, and when the final credits rolled, this incredibly complex and artistic film left me confused as to what it is that I had just watched.

The plot of the film is simple enough and is not where my confusion lies. Gelsomina is an impoverished country girl that is sold by her mother to traveling circus performer Zampano (played marvelously by Anthony Quinn). Gelsomina is quite dim-witted but generally innocent and pure. Her facial expressions and physical gestures give the obvious impression of an attempt at a sort of female Charlie Chaplin. Her actress Giulietta Massina is not given many lines but she is capable of expressing a wide range of emotions simply through her physical expression which is an impressive feat. Zampano, on the other hand, is a dim-witted womanizing brute and drunk who puts Gelsomina through an incredible amount of suffering throughout the course of the film. Rounding out the primary cast is Richard Basehart as The Fool, another traveling performer who gets entangled in a doomed love triangle with Gelsomina and Zampano. The film basically follows Gesolmina’s life as she is dragged from place to place with the menacing Zampano, and that is really the entire film.

This film feels so much like the biggest possible spiritual predecessor to any sort of modern indie art house film. Symbolism is rife throughout. Nothing really major ever happens through out the entire film. There isn’t any sort  of grand statement to be made about life or politics or the world. It just follows the minutiae of its two main characters (and the one major supporter) and lets their lives do the talking. That’s where my confusion with the film lies. I’m not entirely sure what in the hell the point of the film was. Nothing important or significant enough ever happens (with one glaring exception) to ever be able to wrest any sort of higher meaning away from the film. All of the scenes contain their own sort of beauty and power, but I still haven’t been able to figure out what is the over-arching thread that ties them all together.

The cinematography and direction of the film was outstanding however. You can clearly see the influence that Fellini’s camera working would have on generations of future film-makers and it was really ahead of its time. That was probably the aspect of the film (along with the acting) that managed to keep me engaged with the material even after I’d decided I was completely lost on where this film was taking me. This film really, really, really isn’t for everyone. But if you enjoy artier pictures and you don’t necessarily need a plot that is coherent or even important, you should check it out for its role in cinematic history as a product of a man considered to be one of the all time greats.

Final Score: B