“Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.” – Federico Fellini
In his retrospective essay on Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece, Roger Ebert made the bold claim that “8½ is the best film ever made about filmmaking.” Almost 60 years later, 8½ still maintains its incomparable hold over metafictional investigations that have succeeded it. While other directors like Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen have tried to emulate Fellini’s vision in their own works (notably in Synecdoche, New York and Stardust Memories), Fellini’s seminal effort is the definitive film of the genre and has influenced countless artists as well as scholars. Is 8½ a tiring manifestation of Fellini’s penchant for self-indulgence or does the dreamy collection of ideas and images deserve its rightful place among the all-time greats?
Although La Dolce Vita is his most well-known film, 8½ is undoubtedly Fellini’s coveted magnum opus. It is a dizzying experiment with the atoms of cinema; images. Images that threaten to annihilate all logic and reason, consuming the viewer within the totality of their astonishing beauty. Fellini does not waste time in getting to his grand thesis and begins bombarding the audience with these images from the opening sequence itself, which is arguably the most memorable opening scene of all time. He masterfully sums up the anxieties of modernity and masculinity within seconds, depicting a dystopian world where traffic does not move, and people hang their unmoving hands out of buses in which they are packed like sardines.
What most filmmakers spend hours perfecting, Fellini achieves instantly, raising important questions about individual liberty, artistic control and spirituality through the tyranny of gravity. We feel like we have entered Fellini’s dreams and we fail to shake off this feeling over the course of the film, unable to distinguish between the realism of the narrative and the surrealism of the subtext. 8½ is probably one of the greatest examples which supports oneiric film theory, a school of thought that compares the act of viewing a film to dreaming. Fellini manages to effortlessly translate the absurdity of dreams to the cinematic medium: curating a unique experience which transcends the limitations of the screen and the banality of life.
The infinitely charismatic Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido, a confused filmmaker who does not know how to proceed with the production of his epic science-fiction film. He is not a sympathetic character, almost a semi-autobiographical vehicle for Fellini’s self-loathing, and frustrates the audience as well as his team members with his constant indecision. Guido is trapped in a failing marriage, a loveless affair, a stalled project and recurring dreams of erotic desires. Memories of an idyllic childhood turn into Oedipal nightmares involving problematic notions of women and fear of patriarchal and institutional authority.
As if participating in a rebellion against the conservative regulation of his libido as a young man, Guido does not know how to connect with women anymore without reducing them to sexual objects that adorn his perverse harem. While Francis Ford Coppola chose to present the Vietnam War to the rousing sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Fellini incorporates it in the soundtrack when Guido drinks mineral water and dreams of whipping women who do not submit to him. In doing so, he paints the portrait of an artist who cannot escape his own head. As the days progress, Guido’s sci-fi project becomes increasingly personal, and he somehow manages to make it about his marital conflicts rather than the philosophically ambitious themes of religion, outer space and technology. Unimpressed by his efforts, his writer tells him:
“We’re smothered by words, images and sounds that have no right to exist, that come from the void and return to the void. Of any artist truly deserving of the name, we should ask nothing but this act of faith: to learn silence.“
Many have criticised Fellini for his self-indulgent dream sequence and his endless meta-commentary about how he has nothing to say. He would have us believe that there is no film, whatever we have witnessed so far is nothing but a ruptured string of constructed images that have the sole purpose of lying to us. However, Fellini’s genius is that he turns his silence into art. The constant indecision and procrastination of Guido become the site of the primary artistic conflict that was lacking in Guido’s film. Even though they tear apart the enormous set they were building for the spaceship that he was going to use, it is irrelevant. That was just a skeleton of a dream, the production sit being the graveyard of artistic endeavours. At a hectic press conference where pesky journalists keep aiming questions ranging from celebrity gossip to political baits at Guido, he hides under the table and shoots himself in the head. Was this a part of Guido’s fantasy as well, or was it the suicide of the artist who could not live with himself anymore? Fellini refuses to give us any clear answers. Instead, he follows it up with what has become one of the most iconic ending sequences in film history due to its enigmatic symbolism and elusiveness.
On the fresh grave of his potential masterpiece, he orchestrates his own carnivalesque funeral. Maybe it is the concoction of Guido’s overactive synapses that are protesting against the bullet he just shot into his skull. He imagines a moment suspended in space-time where he is forgiven for his trespasses, acknowledged for his talents and loved for who he is. Crowning himself with the metaphorical director’s hat, he choreographs the rituals of his own death and makes everyone dance on the extension of his own corpse. The fleeting images and bittersweet music slip back into the void, paving the way for an eternal silence.