Lyrical, flickering frames of passion weave the past, present and fear of a withering future into Fellini’s opus 8 1/2. The film is the ultimate introspection of an artist standing between the collisions of reality, his heart’s longings powered by innocent primal memories and the shattering conclusion of a director’s compulsion to fuse them all into an idealized life. His vitality doomed by uncooperative relationships, like bad actors that can’t emote lines from his script of love and life.
Marcello Mastroianni ( Guido ) is asked several times during 8 1/2, “How old are you?”
“42”. Guido hangs his head in quiet admission. It’s a weight to no longer feel the future ahead of you, longer, greater, than the past, to have your vigor and creativity slip from tween your fingers. Your mind weighted, anchored by restraints and the ministrations of others clinging and judging your actions, thoughts and desires.
More than age is the weary mind, saddled by constant references of society’s conditions and responsibilities, which the Church plays a large role. Guido’s heart stretches into his past for connection, images and feelings of fresh innocence and the lustful joy of exploration in discovering sex, love and the freedom of expression.
It’s a humble search and he ravages his soul while dodging the needs of others in his life.
Even against the ever tightening fingers of the church and the aged priests who have long forgotten the vitality of youth, and how to surge with desire, Guido stands in reluctant compliance. For the Bishop, who has long fallen into ancient rules, creating within his mind a world of majesty and exciting surprise, to advise Guido would be suicidal. Outside the church there can be nothing, no love, no hope , no salvation. His advice to Guido is the hangman’s noose and the trap door, about to be pulled.
A lavish production for Guido’s new movie is about to begin, the circus is about to begin again. Yet Guido, sapped of all creativity calls for doctor’s help, who prescribes the CURE for him, which consists of milling about drinking mineral water, soaking steam rooms and mudpacks. The open theatrical spa for the cure invites all friends and foe to descend upon him. Guido quietly lingers, wandering from over zealous, clueless producers to over analytical critiques of writers, listless and exhausted.
Guido’s eyes still always seeking what he has been yearning for his whole life and the parade of beggars is breached by a beautiful woman Guido idealizes. He sees her walk through the dream of the theatrical but the clouds part and reveal its illusions and a haggard, angry women hands him the so called curative water in a glass and claws his faith apart.
This water is no cure for what has eaten Guido’s heart and love of life. The steam baths cover aged monsters hiding from themselves behind mists of confusion and desperation is no cure.
Guido has lost his inspiration, all are misguided and frightened by the loss of their Maestro’s strength and vision. He makes it clear to the crew and actors his cynical and dwindling faith. This only pushes the selfish actors and reliant crew into more of a melancholy. They leap at any possible solution to follow and work towards.
A giant spaceship, impossibly huge and irrelevant to the fading hope of a script is erected and Guido concedes with an apathetic nod of his head. Work starts, scaffolds rise, money is spent. Guido’s life of mistresses, wives and his search for inspiration in an actress’ beauty which once would have fueled his drive to work is now useless and too easily revealed as shallow and redundantly manipulative.
There is no spark to his engine and as Guido’s wives and mistresses careen, he sits in majestic squalor of the mundane, imagining them all in love. His wife and mistress are together, happy, comforting and supportive in his idyllic direction.
Guido masterfully yields a newspaper as a shield to hide his swollen eyes and fold his arms around, like a wretched script of lines, read too many times. He opens it, like a weathered brace to bounce weather and emotion from him.
In his loves and imagined episodes of childhood, Guido reveals all his hopes and all he has lost in his futile dance to renovate his revolving world of women, responsibilities and waning desire to create.
A behemoth, homeless she devil, beckoned out onto the beach by taunting children dances for pennies. Her leering smile, blouse stretched across her swollen chest, and pushing hips tantalize the small children with their first sexual provocation. Guido longs for the innocence of it, before even beauty could be evaluated and the wanton, lost woman could still urge a smile and make young boys fascinate.
Imagine a woman living on the beach now dancing for preteen boys? It would be a fiasco of Police, internet and child endangerment. Even then the Church Priests eventually appear to coach the boys away.
Looking at this film from this era’s perspective of constant camera security and sexual fears, I can only imagine what the discovery of life that hasn’t been already dealt out to you by a computer and millions of judgements and mistakes waiting to be hurdled at you.
The Guido’s film within the film itself is disintegrating, and Guido fails to assign even an actress to a lead role. Screen tests are a parade of mistresses or failed actresses. The producers and crew are lost and turning to Guido for decisions is futile, he sees only the overbearing mundane.
Still the space ship continues to swell to the sky, earnest workers hope and sailors dance at Guido’s command. Guido is so weary of his own role, he can only ridicule it now and seek solace in the truth of his own empty powers. It’s not just the sailor dancing, it’s Guido running a fool’s errand. It’s his attempt to save himself by living the truth of what a fool he has become, to inspire mutiny, abandon ship and let it fly through the stars far from its insane commander.
Still Mastroianni’s performance is masterful and instills the failing Guido with a powerful dignity. His faults are his strengths. Guido is no fool. He sees his faults, reveals them to all and his human frailty is his only hope for salvation. Only through the agony of his own loss will Guido find the insight to realign his faltering soul from languishing limbo.
His wife threatens to divorce, his mistress is swollen with mysterious fevers and his producer and crew are wandering about in motel hallways begging to be told what to do.
Of course, Guido seeks solace and solutions in what he remembers as truth but has since become comically futile. He corrals all his women into one dream house and uses a whip to punish stray emotions and demands. Suddenly it all works and he revels in his ability to command them. It’s the return of his creative power Guido searches for, but the dream fails once again to project into the real world.
8 1/2 is a master piece, coupling a man’s inner world and outer failings into a synchronous orbit around society’s demands and bizarre restrictions of church, relationships and propriety.
Guido’s on the edge of complete dissatisfaction and the disolvement of his film, as the writer and producer prepare themselves for financial ruin and the destruction of the film’s mountainous spaceship, symbolic of power and masculinity. Suddenly Guido once more reaches within himself for a genuine command of power to launch the circus of life into a dance one last time.
I can only hope to one day have that strength to reach inside myself when all doubt me and hold me down, to rise once again. To find a past human truth to power my heart for a final display of pyrotechnics, of masculinity and a creative desire of expression.
There will never be another film with the ability to encompass the scope of humanity, from within and without, ever again. It has been lost to our generation and the beautiful simplicity of Fellini’s statements, both visual and symbolically, will never be repeated.
It is a cinematic treasure meant to inspire and educate, but you must have your humanity intact to understand and relish its maturity and still youthful ability to span time and the human heart.