Judge Clark Douglas assumed this was a prequel to 9 1/2 Weeks. He was so very, very wrong.
Our review of 8 1/2: Criterion Collection, published July 26th, 2004, is also available.
A picture that goes beyond what men think about—because no man has ever thought about it in quite this way!
"All the confusion of my life…has been a reflection of myself! Myself as I am, not as I'd like to be."
Facts of the Case
Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita) is a famous Italian director working on a science fiction film. Unfortunately, he has no idea of what exactly he wants his film to be about. As the cast and crew press him for answers, Guido attempts to sort out his seemingly endless array of personal and professional difficulties. As he mind wanders from memories to dreams to fantasies to reality, Guido attempts to figure out just what it is he's supposed to be doing.
When famed Italian director Federico Fellini was working on 8 ½, he initially didn't know what it was he was working on. Aside from the fact that he was working on his next film, he didn't know much of anything about his latest production. He found himself in a particularly problematic state, at a loss for ideas and fearful that his creative juices had finally abandoned him. After a good deal of inner torment, Fellini had a stroke of genius: he would make a film about the challenges he was facing trying to make a film. Granted, such an idea could have lent itself as easily to a self-indulgent mess as to a self-reflexive masterpiece, but Fellini's impassioned direction transformed 8 ½ (which was initially going to be titled The Beautiful Confusion) not only into a good film but into one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Though there are other worthy candidates, I would contend that there has never been a greater movie about the filmmaking process.
In the years preceding the release of 8 ½, Fellini's career had more or less been comprised of a series of masterful outings. He had made such gems as I Vitelloni, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and La Dolce Vita, and he was feeling the pressure to make a film worthy of his reputation. To a certain extent, 8 ½ is an act of desperation, a brilliant director's mad attempt to find beauty in the chaos of his life. The resulting film is arguably the director's most personal effort, incorporating not only his current struggles but also elements of his past and some of his most intensely personal fantasies. Fellini sacrificed his privacy and ego on the alter of cinema, and was rewarded with a truly great film. You might suggest that a director making a film about himself starring Marcello Mastroianni is an inherently egotistical act, but I don't think that's the case when it's made with such revealing honesty as this one.
The film has aged tremendously well, as the ideas it plays with are timeless despite their personal attachment to Fellini himself. To see the film today makes me ache for the state of modern cinema; this film seems to take place in a world that barely exists anymore. The director's concerns are those of a filmmaker who clearly cares about making a good film. Is he educating or corrupting? Are his symbolic images revealing or lacking in purpose? Are his characters rooted in truth? There's nary a word about test screenings or appealing to specific demographics; artistic success is the only success that matters. Many of today's most financially successful filmmakers could not suffer the kind of inner torments Guido (and Fellini) suffered because there was never any genuine inspiration in their films to begin with.
However, I suspect that many directors have identified and will continue to identify with much of the movie, particularly that marvelous sequence in which Guido waltzes through a room full of people with questions. Watch Mastroianni as he finds a way to speak constantly without ever actually saying anything. He provides irrelevant answers to relevant questions, defuses concerns with flattery, and offers generic assurances that never actually assure anyone of anything. He must convince everyone around him that the boat is floating until he actually manages to secure a boat. In his introduction, Terry Gilliam (a director who has faced more than his share of challenges in getting films made) informs us that 8 ½ is astonishingly accurate in its depiction of what it takes to direct a film.
The performances are strong throughout, though Mastroianni's is the only one that gets consistent screen time throughout. It's all about him; anyone else who is in the film is only there because of their relationship to Guido. Mastroianni is magnificent in the part, superbly masking his inner weariness and desperation with a sense of sexy cool. He's actually one of the quieter characters in the film, constantly reacting to people who desperately attempt to tell him as much as they possibly can when they get a precious few minutes in his presence. The director is simultaneously the man that people on the set trust the most and worry about the most. He is a god, he is a pimp, he is a slave and he is a tyrant. He is all things to all people; the center of a little universe. Fellini reflects this with fantasy sequences that defy convention but work beautifully: the opening scene in which Guido escapes from a traffic jam and soars above the clouds, only to be pulled down by forces from below is a cinematic and symbolic masterpiece.
Criterion's DVD release provided an impressive transfer, which has been slightly improved upon in this hi-def release. Though it isn't the best-looking classic film Criterion has released on Blu-ray to date (I found the transfer for The Seventh Seal slightly more impressive), it sure does look solid. Detail is magnificent throughout, blacks are deep and rich, and contrast is superb. There's surprisingly little grain present, though I can't find any evidence of significant DNR. A handful of scratches and flecks can be found, but there are very infrequent. Overall, it's a solid transfer. The audio is less tremendous, a simple 1.0 track that is clean and clear but not particularly noteworthy otherwise. I do wish the Nino Rota score were just a tad bit sharper, as it suffers from very mild distortion at times.
The vast majority of the supplements are ported over from the DVD release: an introduction by Terry Gilliam (7 minutes), an audio commentary featuring Tanya Zaicon, Gideon Bachmann, and Antonio Monda, the documentary "Fellini: A Director's Notebook" (52 minutes), the documentary "Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert" (48 minutes), video interviews with Sandra Milo, Lina Wertmuller, and Vittorio Storato, a trailer, a stills gallery, and a 30-page booklet. The only new item is a meaty 51-minute documentary entitled "The Last Sequence," which tells the story of the elaborate conclusion that Fellini had initially planned for the film but which was eventually replaced. It's impressive that such detail is paid to a story that might have been a mere footnote in a documentary about the making of the film.
If you're a lover of cinema, of Fellini, or just curious about the film that inspired the wretched Rob Marshall musical Nine, you must see 8 ½. The Blu-ray release looks quite good and even throws in a substantial new supplement, so I'd say it's worth an upgrade. One way or another, I strongly urge you to add this masterful film to your collection.
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