An Appreciation – 8½
It’s well known that Fellini had an admiration for the circus, and he crafted his films much like a ringmaster. This may have contributed to the “Maestro” nickname that was attached to him. There is a playful tone throughout 8½, even though Guido’s internal struggle is a serious one. Like many Italian directors of his time, Fellini would dub all of the dialogue and sound in post-production. During shooting he would play music to set the tone of a scene, causing his actors to move together in an unspoken synchronicity. There are no dance sequences or big musical numbers (not counting the final scene), but the use of music played a large role in setting the mood, and while we can’t necessarily pinpoint certain instances of it, the effect is felt in the otherworldly existence of these characters.
Guido is a walking bag of contradictions. In his treatment of others and his views of himself, he is both fascinating and repulsive. He brings the film production to a halt with his indecision, remarking that he is in search for “truth” but denies the honesty of himself. He is both a victim of and a perpetrator of his own vices, particularly his carnal desires. A flashback shows a young Guido meeting the voluptuous prostitute Saraghina (Eddra Gale), and this experience may have helped perpetuate his contradictory views of sex and relationships. His wife (Anouk Aimee) is smart and modern, but time has altered their marriage to a shell of its former self. He has a mistress (Sandra Milo) that shares a physical connection with him, but whom he shares no deeper bond. Guido is so bad at managing his life that he accidentally invites both of them to set at the same time. He idolizes an actress he pushes to get cast (Claudia Cardinale) but is disappointed when he realizes that she is an actual person like everyone else. These conflicting actions, along with Guido’s guilt for doing things he knows are not right, have an underlying Catholic element. Maybe Guido is looking for some kind of reconciliation for the shame he’s inflicted on himself and those closest to him.
This all culminates in the harem scene, in which Guido falls into a deep dive dream sequence where he confronts all the women of his life. The scene is shot almost entirely from his perspective, with the actresses addressing him by looking directly into the camera. At first, they seem to cater to his every whim, serving him like a master. But soon enough, the scene shifts where the women revolt. It’s this turn of events that make the scene work. By having the women initially fulfilling his desires and then turning on him, Fellini is not condoning Guido’s selfish thoughts but condemns him. He is the monster of the scene, punctuated by the closing moments with his wife alone cleaning up the aftermath of his destruction.
Guido is a man who has succumbed to the abyss of his own self-indulgence. He no longer believes in himself, and therefore no longer believes in his work. It’s a strange fact that – even though this is one of the best films about filmmaking – we don’t see a lot of the daily operation that goes into a production. Guido is never seen behind the camera or actively staging scenes. He’s an artist that has lost control of his art. The only time we witness him “directing” is in voiceover while doing camera tests with his actors. But the funny thing is that none of the screen tests look as though they belong in a sci-fi epic. In fact, nearly all of the dialogue is taken from intimate conversations he’s had with his wife and mistress. The awkwardness is amplified further given that both of them are present in the screening room to see the tests. Since there is not much movie making happening, the narrative fills in the voids with parties, social activities, and interviews with the press. There is a lot of talking, but not much doing. Guido’s malaise seeped through every facet of the crew, as though everything is at a standstill while the leader goes through his inner turmoil.
What are we to make of the final scene? It’s clear that somewhere along the line, Guido’s grasp of reality has slipped into complete delirium. We focus in on the massive launch pad set, as Guido gets overwhelmed by questions, adoring fans, and the flashing lights of the paparazzi. The atmosphere is so chaotic that Guido appears to be suffocating under the stress. As a last-ditch effort, he grabs a gun and apparently shoots himself (although this bit is left ambiguous since we don’t actually see the act committed). Is it his literal death, or is it more symbolic? Is it the death of his ego? In a way, this maybe his form of confession, to make amends to those whom he has hurt or let down. The first step in rehabilitation is to admit that there is something wrong, and maybe this is Guido’s way of doing just that.
8½ ends with all of the performers we’ve been introduced to – both real and imaginary – joining hands and parading behind a chorus line. It’s safe to say at this point, we have fully dropped off the ledge into complete fantasy. It’s a daring choice because Fellini doesn’t necessarily end with all of the strings tied up. There are plenty of questions for us to think about after we walk away. The power of 8½ is that its creator was able to take a very specific kind of story and mold it into something that can appeal to a wider audience. He lets us into the mind of an artist and keeps us there through their entire creative process. We may not align with its themes or the choices the characters make, but Fellini’s willingness to bare it all, good and bad, shows that he was able to do what Guido was not: find his own personal truth.