8 1/2: Fellini’s Masterpiece, Inspiration for Nine

(Otto E Mezzo,  Italy)
Readers of our website and film students in various schools I have taught often ask me: Who is your favorite director? What’s your most admired movie? I have been reluctant to answer those questions, because I have too many favorite directors and too many movies I like.
Yet while growing up, three directors occupied a special place in my evolution as an avid moviegoer (on my way to becoming an obsessive movie fan and then a more “serious” film scholar and film critic. None of these directors was American. There were all foreign: The very Italian Fellini, the very Japanese Kurosawa and the very Swedish Bergman.
In preparation for Rob Marshall’s musical movie “Nine,” which is based on the Broadway musical “Nine,” which itself is inspired by Fellini’s “81/2,” I revisited the picture and consulted my notes (some written on yellow pads), taken over a period of three decades or so. Here is a movie I can watch once a year and never get tired of, with each viewing yielding new and interesting insights, not to mention visual, narrative, and emotional pleasure.
Fellini’s “81/2” is a playful, self-reflexive film about filmmaking, in which the great Marcello Mastroianni stars as a film director named Guido, who is having a mid-life crisis while in the process of making a new film.

This celebrated autobiographical film is a dense and complex work, rich in ideas and images. Essentially and quintessentially postmodern, “81/2” represents a radical break with traditions of the past, in the same way that the first works of the French New Wave did.

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), the egocentric director-protagonist, is literally the center of the universe, the creator on whose word everything waits, the man sought after by everyone. At this juncture of his career, coming from a huge hit, Guido can do anything he wants, but the endless possibilities not only confuse him but also cause a major creative block.
Just as Fellini’s previous masterpiece, the splashy and stunning “La Dolce Vita,” made in 1960, (also on my Top Ten List) confirmed popular notions about the rich and famous, the new international café society, “81/2” confirms some popular ideas we may hold about artistic geniuses and the tumultuous yet exciting processes of creativity and productivity.
Interspersed between scenes with his wife, mistress, and his professional colleagues are scenes from his past, his fantasies and nightmares. In the course of the film, the tormented Guido is conflicted between his love for his wife, his desire for the mistress, his ideal of innocence as a boy, and his carnal fantasies of bordellos and their prostitutes, who introduced him to sex.
At first, we are able to differentiate these various levels of existence and consciousness, but eventually they begin to merge in a magical way to the point where we don’t want anymore to distinguish between Guido’s past, present, and future. It becomes irrelevant.
The metaphor of the film is that of a circle, and the whole narrative is structured in a circular manner. Circles are continuous, with no clear beginning or end. The multi-ringed circus of 81/2 is a stunningly recreated version of an artist’s inner life, his continuously evolving and shifting stream of consciousness.
Guido must come to grips with himself as a precondition to “creation.” Ultimately, the movie may glorify the creative crisis, but it’s visually arresting—the black and white cinematography, with their dark and light contrasts are truly magical and extraordinary to behold.
Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni)
Claudia (Claudia Cardinale)
Luisa Anselmi (Anouk Aimee)
Carla (Sandra Milo)
Rossella (Rossella Falk)
Gloria Morin (Barbra Steele)
Mezzabotta (Mario Pisu)
Producer (Guido Alberti)
French Actress (Madeleine LeBeau)
Writer (Jean Rougeul)