8 1/2 (1963): Fellini’s Innovative, Oscar-Winning Masterpiece

(Italian title: Otto E Mezzo)

Federico Fellini’s masterpiece “81/2” is a playful, self-reflexive film about filmmaking. 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. His fantasies and memories keep intruding on his work.

Detailed Plot (Narrative Structure, Scene by Scene)

Guido Anselmi (Mastroianni), a famous Italian filmmaker, is suffering from a director creative block. In the first scene, he is stuck in his car amidst a huge traffic jam.

Stalled on his new sci-fi movie, which is to include autobiographical references, he seems to have lost interest in work and life, due to all kinds of artistic, marital, and personal problems.

While attempting to recover from his anxieties at a luxurious spa, Guido hires a well-known critic (Jean Rougeul) to review his ideas for his film, but the critic rejects them as weak, spineless, and confusing.

Meanwhile, Guido has recurring visions of an Ideal Woman (Caludia Cardinale), young, “pure,” naturally smiling woman, who is contrasted with Guido’s voluptuous mistress Carla (Sandra Milo). When Carla visits him from Rome, the disinterested Guido puts her in a separate hotel.

The film’s crew relocates to Guido’s hotel, but he evades his staff, ignores journalists, and refuses to make any creative decisions.

With pressures and anxieties mounting, Guido retreats into childhood memories, spending the night at his grandmother’s villa, dancing with a prostitute (Eddra Gale) on the beach as a schoolboy, and subsequently being punished by his strict Catholic school.

The film critic claims that these memories are too sentimental and ambiguous to be used in Guido’s movie.

He plans to meet a Cardinal in a steam bath (a scene which Guido plans to replicate in his movie), Guido admits that he isn’t happy. The Cardinal responds with quotes from the catechism and offers little insight into his condition.

Guido invites his estranged wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) and her friends to join him. For a while, it seems the couple will reconcile, but Guido abandons her for his crew.

The crew tours a life-sized rocket ship set built on the beach, and Guido confesses to his wife’s best friend Rosella (Rossella Falk) that he wanted to make a movie that was pure and honest, but he can’t bring himself to say anything honest.

Carla surprises Guido, Luisa, and Rosella outside the hotel, and Guido claims that he and Carla ended their affair years ago. Luisa and Rosella call him on the lie, and Guido slips into a fantasy world where he is the master in a harem of women from his life. They bathe him and spray him with powder, but a rejected showgirl starts a rebellion. The fantasy women attack Guido with harsh truths about his sex life, forcing Guido to whip them back into shape.

The impatient producer (Guido Alberti) forces Guido to review his screen tests, but Guido still can’t make any decisions. The screen tests are for roles portrayed earlier in 8 12, such as Carla, the prostitute, the Cardinal, etc. When Luisa sees how harshly Guido represents her in the movie, she flees and declares their marriage is over as Guido is unable to deal with the truth.

Guido’s Ideal Woman arrives in the form of an actress named Claudia, and Guido takes her to visit a proposed set, explaining that his movie is about a burned-out man who finds salvation in an Ideal Woman. Claudia listens before remarking that the protagonist is unsympathetic because he is incapable of love.

Guido calls off the film, but the producer and the staff announce a press conference at the rocket ship set. Guido attempts to escape from the frenzied journalists, and when pressed for a statement, he crawls under a table and shoots himself in the head.

The crew begins to disassemble the rocket ship, and the critic praises Guido for making a smart decision. Guido then has a moment of revelation, he was trying to solve his personal confusion by creating a film to help others.  He now realizes that he needs now is to accept himself and his life for what they really are, and asks Luisa to do the same.

Some musical clowns, led by a young Guido, transform the rocket ship set into a circus, leading all the men and women of Guido’s life down the steps of the set.  Using a megaphone, Guido directs them into a circus ring. It is Carla who opens his eyes, claiming that Guido can’t do without the people in his life. In the end, after doubts and hesitations, Guido and Louisa join the men and women, who hold hands and run around the circle.

Film’s Conception

The film was conceived in the summer of 1960, when Fellini and his wife-actress Guilietta Masina visited the island of Ischia, near Naples. Fellini later said: “I went for a rest cure, at a moment when things were at a low ebb. I was in limbo, taking stock of myself. I needed to reconcile my fears. I asked myself the usual questions: `Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going?'”

Marcello Mastroianni

Having starred in Fellini’s previous film, the smash hit “La Dolce Vita,” the great Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi,  Fellini’s alter-ego, a director coming off a huge hit. Desperately needing rest, he goes to a spa to regain his strength, clear his mind, and recharge his batteries.  But peace of mind and relaxation are not in his cards, and he is constantly interrupted by his producer, screenwriter, his frustrated wife (Anouk Aimee), his mistress (Sandra Milo), and others, all of whom want something from him–more details about his new project, more attention, more love, and so on.
Facing a creative block, Guido spends his time fending off all those who harass hi, including collaborators, fan audiences, and reporters, while hovering between past, present, and future to the point where all three time frames blur in a fusion of fantasy and reality.
Production values are seductive in each department, cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo, music by the great composer Nino Rota, production numbers and costume design.  The Oscar-nominated and winning movie is a treat to the eyes and to the ears.
Fellini might have been influenced by Jungian thought during the production of 8 1/2. He once claimed that reading Jung “encouraged and favored the contact with deeper and more stimulating areas, and provoked fantasy in me.”
Fellini also once said that 8 1/2 was an attempt to explore these deeper areas of himself, “to throw off my back the upbringing I have had; that is, to try to uneducate myself, to recapture a virginal unavailability and a new type of person with an individual education.”
Critical acclaim for the film was universal, and many reviewers compared Fellini to Proust, Joyce, and Bergman. For example, Dwight Macdonald called 8 1/2 “the most brilliant, varied, and entertaining movie since Citizen Kane.”
Fellini was born to a farming and trading family in the coastal town of Rimini in 1920. As a young man, he wound up in Rome and tried to become a journalist. Fellini began his film career in the Italian neo-realist movement, which started at the end of World War II. He collaborated with Roberto Rossellini on the screenplays for the classic neo-realistic films “Open City” (1946) and “Paisan” (1946). Eventually, Fellini was to become the best-known Italian filmmaker outside of the country.
Though nominated multiple times for the Best Director Oscar, Fellini had never won a legit, competitive award. He was finally given an Honorary Oscar in 1993, just a few months before he died.
Running Time: 135 minutes
Oscar Nominations: 5

Oscar Awards: 2

Best Foreign Language Film
Costume design
Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi
Anouk Aimée as Luisa Anselmi, Guido’s wife

Rossella Falk as Rossella, Luisa’s best friend and Guido’s confidante
Sandra Milo as Carla, Guido’s mistress
Claudia Cardinale as Claudia, a movie star Guido casts as his Ideal Woman
Simonetta Simeoni as young girl
Guido Alberti as Pace, a film producer
Mario Conocchia as Mario Conocchia, Guido’s production assistant
Bruno Agostini as Bruno Agostini, the production director
Cesarino Miceli Picardi as Cesarino, the production supervisor
Jean Rougeul as Carini Daumier, a film critic
Mario Pisu as Mario Mezzabotta, Guido’s friend
Barbara Steele as Gloria Morin, Mezzabotta’s new young girlfriend
Madeleine Lebeau as Madeleine, a French actress
Caterina Boratto as a mysterious lady in the hotel
Eddra Gale as La Saraghina, a prostitute
Eugene Walter as an American journalist
Mary Indovino as Maya, the clairvoyant
Ian Dallas as Maurice, Maya’s assistant
Giuditta Rissone as Guido’s mother

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