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8 1/2

Posted by admin | Posted in Movies | Posted on 05-09-2010


Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a director whose new project is collapsing around him, along with his life. One of the greatest films about film ever made, Federico Fellini’s 8½ (Otto e mezzo) turns one man’s artistic crisis into a grand epic of the cinema. An early working title for 8½ was The Beautiful Confusion, and Fellini’s masterpiece is exactly that: a shimmering dream, a circus, and a magic act.

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8 1/2

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Frederico Fellini’s masterwork 8 ½ is difficult to approach largely because of its reputation. Many critics also state that the film is so complex that it requires multiple viewings to understand, and this is likely to intimidate many viewers. But the truth is that, in spite of its surrealistic flourishes, 8 ½ is more straight-forward than its reputation might lead you to believe.

The storyline itself is very simple. A famous director is preparing a new film, but finds himself suffering from creative block: he is obsessed by, loves, and feels unending frustration with both art and women, and his attention and ambition flies in so many different directions that he is suddenly incapable of focusing on one possibility lest he negate all others. With deadlines approaching the cast and crew descend upon him demanding information about the film-information that the director does not have because he finds himself incapable of making an artistic choice.

What makes the film interesting is the way in which Fellini ultimately transforms the film as a whole into a commentary on the nature of creativity, art, mid-life crisis, and the battle of the sexes. Throughout the film, the director dreams dreams, has fantasies, and recalls his childhood-and this internal life is presented on the screen with the same sense of reality as reality itself. The staging of the various shots is unique; one is seldom aware that the characters have slipped into a dream, fantasy, or memory until one is well into the scene, and as the film progresses the lines between external life and internal thought become increasingly blurred, with Fellini giving as much (if not more) importance to fantasy as to fact.

The performances and the cinematography are key to the film’s success. Even when the film becomes surrealistic, fantastic, the actors perform very realistically and the cinematography presents the scene in keeping with what we understand to be the reality of the characters lives and relationships. At the same time, however, the film has a remarkably poetic quality, a visual fluidity and beauty that transforms even the most ordinary events into something slightly tinged by a dream-like quality. Marcello Mastroianni offers a his greatest performance here, a delicate mixture of desperation and ennui, and he is exceptionally well supported by a cast that includes Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee, and a host of other notables.

I would encourage people not to be intimidated by the film’s reputation, for its content can be quickly grasped, and when critics state the film requires repeated viewing what they actually seem to mean is that the film holds up extremely well to repeated viewing; each time it is seen, one finds more and more to enjoy and to contemplate. Even so, I would be amiss if I did not point out that people who prefer a cinema of tidy plot lines and who dislike ambiguity or the necessity of interpreting content will probably dislike 8 ½ a great deal; if you are uncertain in your taste on these points you would do well to rent or borrow the film before making a purchase. For all others: strongly, strongly recommended.
Rating: 5 / 5

The most obvious achievement in 8 1/2, Fellini’s mind-boggling piece of self-examination, is its audacious mixture of dreams and reality in order to show the protagonist Guido’s whimsical mind state. Dream sequences come and go without warning, depicting Guido’s pain, yearning, frustration, guilt that can pop up at any instant. The first time we see Guido’s face, it is his mirror image, hinting to us the unreality we are about to face. Some of the dream sequences have a Bunuel-like surrealism. Some of them, however, blend almost seamlessly into scenes of reality, intentionally confounding us. Some are nightmarish, yet some are warm and hopeful. Some are brief flights of fancy, and some are lengthy, elaborate, wild visions that reflect Guido’s heightened sense of confusion and anxiety. Although the film is often called the best film ever made about a filmmaker, its theme is universal in that it is a vivid picturization of a person’s (and by extension, any person’s) mind, which is often haunted by the past, tormented by the present, and apprehensive about the future and the unknown…

The new Criterion DVD of 8 1/2 has a sparkling video transfer. A frame-by-frame cleanup of the picture has been done, so this DVD is significantly better-looking than Criterion’s laserdisc version in 1989. There are momentary freeze frames during the opening scene, but since they also appeared on the LD, I assume they are normal. The 1.0 mono audio track is indistinguishable in quality from that on the LD — it is mostly clean and sharp, although loud sound shows some distortion. The image is anamorphic. The disc is region-free. The audio is supported by newly-translated optional English subtitles.

There is one slight discrepancy between the LD and the DVD. The LD contained the American release version of the film in which some scenes, such as the one in which Guido first meets his wife, had altered music cues. The DVD, however, is the original Italian version, retaining all of its original music.

The DVD’s audio commentary comprises of scene-specific comments (whose authorship is unclear), and additional comments from critic Gideon Bachmann and NYU professor Antonio Monda. The result is a pretty well-rounded audio essay covering the film’s conception, production details, themes, and artistic significance, as well as personal recollections, anecdotes, and abandoned concepts and scenes. Other extras include two 1-hour films on the filmmakers. The first is “Fellini: A Director’s Notebook”, directed by and starring Fellini himself. It is a sort of Fellini-style DAY FOR NIGHT, a fictional, somewhat humorous account of how the director goes about making a film. The video/audio quality of this piece is poor, and there are no subtitles or closed captioning. The second film is a documentary made by German filmmakers in 1993 titled “Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert”. It offers an intimate yet enigmatic portrayal of Nino Rota through his personal recordings, film footage of him working with Fellini, clips of some early films scored by Rota, and interviews of his associates and students. One segment is about how Rota recycled his score from the 1957 film FORTUNELLA to create the theme for THE GODFATHER, an act that would cost him the Oscar nomination. The DVD extras also include 3 new interviews. Sandra Milo speaks candidly about her experiences, both personal and professional, with Fellini. Linda Wertmuller lavishes praises on Fellini’s genius while offering a fascinating appraisal of Fellini’s psychology that figures prominently in 8 1/2. And Vittorio Storaro pays tributes to the achievements of 8 1/2’s cinematographer, Gianni di Venanzo. Rounding out the extras are 100 or so still photos from the set of the film, some of which were taken from deleted scenes.
Rating: 5 / 5

First off, its one of the 10 greatest movies. If you have any interest in the history of cinema, its a must-view. However, the Image Entertainment single disc edition suffers from a decent transfer of a mediocre print, with much distracting dust and emulsion chipping present. The Criterion 2 disc version, while weighed down by a second disc of less interesting documentaries issue appears to have far fewer print defects. IMHO the commentaries and better transfer make the Criterion disc a better purchase.
Rating: 3 / 5

Federico Fellini masterpiece hasn’t faded a bit but is as sweeping and lush as it was in the early 60s. Commonly seen as an autobiographical effort, it is more a self-commentary on his own style of filmmaking. Fellini loves caricatures and he clearly paints his women Anouk Aimee as the plain unhappy wife, Sandra Milo as the voluptuous shallow girlfriend, Edra Gale as the monstrous Saraghina, and Claudia Cardinale as the ideal dream girl — not unlike Dante Aligheri’s Beatrice. As a finale, he gathers all he knows into one big circus ring, another caricature on life’s meaning. Or take the childhood phrase “asa nisi masa” which refers to the feminine soul (anima). Many of his characters appear almost as clowns/caricatures. Guido, like Fellini, does not work from a script, but looks to the changing relationship between his characters as his inspiration for the development of the script and plot. Hence, Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) receives constant criticism and pressure from past figures (priests and his father) and his film colleagues and producers. Only when he actually meets his star (Claudia Cardinale) does idealism turn to realism as the dream girl becomes a material person who tell Guido that he is a “cheat” since he has no script and part for her. Fellini is such a master of the the dream sequences from which he moves so smoothly and effortlessly to reality. Only after being told there is no role (for Claudia) does Guido begin to face reality. This last scene actually approaches the Fellini-Cardinale relationship during shooting. When one realizes this parallel between filmmaking and personal life, it is not surprising that Fellini chooses his wife, Guilietta Masini, (although not in this film) to often be his leading lady. With this film, Fellini moved from neorealism to introspective fantasy which becomes highly apparent in his later films “City of Women,” “Satyricon,” etc. Finally, I feel that his earlier films up to and including “8 1/2” are much better than his later self-indulgent fantasy films.
Rating: 5 / 5

As I write this, a new film called “Nine,” starring Daniel Day Lewis, who indeed has the charm of Marcello Mastroianni, is hitting theaters. I haven’t seen it, and so far it’s garnered mixed reviews, but I am amused that here is yet another attempt to pay homage/copy/try to surpass 8 1/2 and Fellini.

Woody Allen couldn’t leave the Italian filmmaker alone. His Stardust Memories, with echoes of both this picture *and* (to a lesser extent) La Dolce Vita, got all the superficialities right, but as usual whenever Allen tries leaves his New York/New Yorker Jewish roots, he turns in a hallow imitation. Stardust Memories captured Fellini about as much as Interiors captured Bergman. Mazursky faired better with Alex in Wonderland, but even this fell apart and is largely forgotten today. (It’s long out of print on VHS and never made it to DVD–Criterion, anyone?) Then there are the perfume commercials. Could Calvin Klein, Chanel and all the others imagine how to market their wares without the inspiration of the surreal grandness and craziness of Fellini? If the Italian maestro could sue for intellectual property infringement, he’d have died a billionaire.

So how does the film hold up nearly *half a century* (!!) after it was made? It still astonishes, it’s still relevant, it’s still very funny and very sad and, ultimately, sweet and endearing in a way that’s surprising for a film that seems to be headed to a bleak ending. And if some of it looks dated…well, I repeat, it’s nearly *half a century old!*

This is one of those films that is hard to describe, and any description doesn’t do it justice, because its appeal is more to the right than left brain. That is, it tells a story that at its core is simple–and yet is endlessly complicated. It is the story of self-doubt, of the grand façade, of gestures large and small. While American cinema was patting itself on the back almost five years later for telling an epic, almost non-narrative story (2001 A Space Odyssey), one that was “pure film,” Fellini was already there in 1963. The fantasy sequences drift in and out effortlessly, as well as the surrealism, without, really, a lot of complicated camera tricks and “special effects.” Fellini is a master of composition and movement.

Our hero is set up in ways that remind me of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz: harangued and harassed, pursued and pursuing. But there’s something that bothered me about All That Jazz when I watched it again recently which I hadn’t caught so much on first viewing: great pains are taken to set up the main character (brilliantly played by Roy Scheider, who was robbed of an Oscar in my opinion) as sympathetic… *too* great, in my opinion. The film really seems to be saying Yeah, he’s a jerk, but it’s really not his fault. While 8 1/2 has some of that in common, Fellini treads lighter here. Scheider’s character achieves the perfection he sets out for, and to me it’s as though that qualifies the more unsavory qualities he also brings to the table. Fellini’s auteur is empty, and he knows it and admits it (ultimately), and that makes him more sympathetic and less tragic, more human and less idealized. Fellini’s character doesn’t die for his art. I won’t tell you what he does do, how he does resolve his crisis, but it’s not the most obvious solution, and not one I’m sure Hollywood would have embraced.

The ensemble performances are wonderful, and I particularly like Barbara Steele and Claudia Cardinale as two of the many actresses the director seems to attract like flypaper, and Anouk Aimée as the filmmaker’s wife, who oddly, in her short, chic haircut and tight black glasses, is one of sexiest women in the cast. The film is fascinatingly Freudian in the way childhood is grafted onto his fantasies about the women around them and how he would like them to regard him and take care of him, vs. the life he is stuck with. A lengthy set-piece, dubbed “Guido’s Harem,” reveals this aspect of his life in an amazing sequence that encapsulates his childhood, fantasy life and reality he’s living now. (See it here on YouTube: […]. If this doesn’t convince you to see this movie, nothing will.)

As usual, Criterion steps up to the plate, swings, and knocks it out of the park. This is a beautiful release, with a crisp transfer, intelligent packaging, valuable extras, an interesting forward from Fellini admirer Terry Gilliam (who I’d say has taken more away from the director than either Allen or Mazursky, even if he’s never directly ripped the film). The interviews with actress Sandra Milo (“Carla”), director Lina Wertmuller, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who talks about the unforgettable, now iconic cinematography of Gianni di Venanzo, is also great. I realize I may not wince as much as some actual Italian viewers, who are *not* reading subtitles and therefore see the horrible sound-synching (since most of the dialogue was overdubbed, as was common in Italian films at the time), and I feel sorry for those who wince at some truly awful synchronization. (Oddly, for all his meticulous care with cinematography and lighting, Fellini didn’t seem to be much of a perfectionist when it came to dubbing.) Perhaps this is one time where I’m grateful to be reading subtitles.

8 1/2 just may well be Italy’s Citizen Kane. It’s a film that has so many characters, and so many subtle characterizations, that it must be viewed several times to be sorted out and appreciated. I used to always say I liked La Dolce Vita more than this film, but now that I’ve seen 8 1/2 several more times, I realize it is even richer and deeper than it’s predecessor. It’s simply one of the greatest films ever made. Despite the length of this review, ultimately words fail, so just see it.
Rating: 5 / 5

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