Wednesday, 6 June 2012

8 1/2


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1963 - France/Italy (Cineriz, Francinex)

DIRECTOR: Federico Fellini
PHOTOGRAPHY: Gianni Di Venanzo
MUSIC: Nino Rota

     Ah, Maestro! It's been a long time! A very long time, in fact. It's been so long, Maestro, that I fear I just grew accustomed to the fact that we love you, signore Fellini, without remembering why we love you and what for. I was scared that over the years I have taken you for granted myself, that getting to know you as a child I have never tried to confirm the foundations of my devotion to your talent. I have done, what I criticise in others - I was so sure of your greatness I didn't try to question it, to verify it. So now we meet again. Me, more than twenty years older, grown up, far more saturated with life, than when we first met. And you, still dead, I'm afraid. But that should not be a problem, I'll just do all the talking.

I could not underestimate the impact Fellini had on me. Whether his films fitted my natural predisposition or actually had a part in shaping my artistic sensitivity, it's impossible to tell now. I must have been younger than twelve, when I saw LA STRADA. I can't say I fell in love with the story, I was never much of a fan of that kind of forced tragedy, emotional arm twisting, but the weirdness, the bizarre world of the freak show, that was something new, something I was not prepared for, being fed on hyper-realistic Soviet war epics. It might have been the first time in my life when I realised consciously that the cinema can be more artistic than shooting down Messerschmitts on the Eastern Front. I'm not trying to say here that watching one film (I didn't even like THAT much) completely changed my life, but the name of the director did stick to my mind and when the national TV decided to show a whole series of Fellini's works I came back for more. They were truly magical moments.

Tuesday evenings, if I remember well. Eight o'clock, Channel 2. My parents did not object despite the late hour for such a juvenile stripling.

Now, mind you, it was a looooong time ago and many things have fallen victim to my senile, ageing brain, so I can't recall which films exactly I have managed to see then. Not all of them anyway. The two I can be sure of were LA STRADA and ROMA. 8 1/2 I don't remember watching, but then again, the final scene of the film I found vaguely familiar, so who knows, maybe I have seen it before after all. Whichever films they were, even if they blurred out and dissolved in my memory, they have still managed to leave me with that particular long-lasting impression. I have been Fellini-marked. Now, all those years later, after watching 8 1/2 I can confirm, I have been Fellini-marked for life. There's no denying that. Which you would already have guessed after seeing the star score at the top of the page.

The first thing that's interesting and worth pointing out is how much confusion there seems to be about choosing a suitable genre for 8 1/2. You'll find that some sources call it a drama, some a comedy-drama, an avant-garde, and in the IMDB's entry you can also see it being described as fantasy. Personally, I have no issues with calling a work of art 'avant-garde' or 'experimental', because (in most cases) that's what they really are. They are often abused, that's true, but they still can be appropriate sometimes. Unless you see them mingled with 'drama' and 'comedy', which can mean two things: either none of them really apply or... they all actually do, which is confusing. In case of 8 1/2 it's definitely the latter and in any other case that should make the alarm bells go off like an Italian domestic in a kitchen full of unsecured plates. But it's Fellini we're talking here, and boy, does the Maestro pull it off... You know the rule, if something does everything, then it means it doesn't do anything well. Unless you're that kind of artist who really is capable of making the art his or her own, instead of pacing up and down the confined cell delineated by the generations of the predecessors. As a result, 8 1/2 can be a drama, a comedy and a fantasy at the same time, and also be served in a delicious avant-garde sauce. Combining all those together, it becomes a masterpiece which gives the viewers an opportunity tu pursue many different interpretations and still remain confined within the director's intentions without going completely astray. It all works, without descending into some illegible drivel, thanks to Fellini's subtlety, thanks to his talent to catch the perfect balance between oneirism and surrealism on one hand and storytelling on the other. Fellini throws at us just enough confusion to open the door of interpretation, but at the same time, never kicks us out of that door and completely into the unspecified open. The viewer gets disorientated but never completely lost. It is a skill which distinguishes Fellini even today, it has became one of his trademarks and ensured him not only the love and respect of his fans but also a strong following among other artists.

What really amazes me about this film is just how full of symbols, tropes and reading between the lines it is. No camera shot, no line of dialogue, no extra are superfluous or accidental here. Every tiniest detail has its meaning and place, although it's those details that do often escape a clear definition forcing the viewer to make an effort of trying to decode their right place as a piece of a puzzle. Putting those pieces together gives us not only the full image of the film, but also an image of the artist himself. Despite Fellini's own statement that he was not using autobiographical elements while writing 8 1/2, we should rather accept the fact that being an artist, he probably had his own, slightly unorthodox definition of what an autobiographical element is. Even the idea for the plot revolving around Guido's creative block went hand in hand with Fellini's own problems with the film. At some point he was travelling across Italy in search of some clear ideas while still struggling with the script. Even though the production started Fellini still couldn't decide about such a fundamental thing as the protagonist's profession. It was only when he was ready to throw in the towel that suddenly it occurred  to him that the story should mirror his own struggle, to tell the story of a film director "who wanted to make a film he no longer remembers". But the personal touch does not end there, it is also present in the more symbolic layer of the film. Fellini's attitude towards religion and its frequent representation in his films can be analysed in two ways. On one hand there is his provocative prodding of the very institution of the Italian Catholicism and commenting on the role of the Catholic church in Italian mentality and society. On the other hand though we have the more personal approach, which results from the fact that young Federico has spent his early years educated by nuns. In the film though, those two aspects seem to be completely intertwined and inseparable. When we see hundreds of nuns throughout the film or a memory of young Guido confessing sins and being punished for his shenanigans, those scenes are just as valid as a reflection of Fellini's own experiences as well as an artist's commentary on the ubiquitous presence of the church in the very fabric of Italian way of life. It is also one of the main themes in the film. Even the adult Guido-filmmaker, an accomplished you would have thought artist, is still seeking an audience with the cardinal even though there seems to be no apparent reason why the church would have anything to do with his film. Of course, Fellini himself was seen as scandalist and provocateur and for that reason we can rather assume that he's referring here more to the nation's conscience,  than his own. The church also seems to be the main factor evoking shame and guilt. It's the meeting with the cardinal that yields Guido's need for repentance, while the fact, that his wife becomes aware of his affairs leaves him completely unperturbed. Similarly, in the memory of his youthful antics, it's the priests who punish him for seeing a dancing prostitute Saraghina, while nobody gives him any trouble at all for the same reason at home.
And speaking of affairs and prostitutes, the wealth of sexual symbolism is nothing short of a goldmine. I am pretty sure, that if Freud could watch this film, he'd get a stroke. A word of warning though, to all those, whose eyes just glazed over and gone all misty. I clearly said SYMBOLISM, so if you suddenly lost all interest, you will have to look elsewere. Fellini is as subtle, as artist should be. For example, at the beginning of the film we meet Guido in a sanatorium recuperating from an unnamed condition (served Holy Water by nuns as a part of his treatment!). We see him walking around, meeting people, talking to the members of his film crew. In the background though (so to speak - there are plenty of portrait shots actually) we see only old people. But then suddenly a group of young women appears - they serve the healing waters to the queueing elderly. They are not only young but also beautiful and attractive, which makes immediately the allegory of aqua vitae not only very clear but also loaded with sensuality. Some other times Fellini allows himself to be a little bit more crude. In a scene, in which young Guido is approaching the confessional, the curtains behind which the priest is awaiting, are shaped in a suggestively vaginal lines. For me though, the crème de la crème of Freudian symbolism, is Guido's struggle with his creative impotence. Being mercilessly tossed between never ending questions from his crew, demands from the producers and his own inability to produce anything, his only achievement during the production, his only escape from that inability is to erect a massive scaffolding and build a model of a space rocket for his film. Oh, how bold, Maestro!

And I'm not even starting on the Oedipus complex, otherwise I'd have to write a book, not a blog note.

And there's still more. Where Freud is dealing with the sexuality, Jung is looking after the dreams. This is another element, which has always played a very important role in his work in general, not just films. It came actually from Fellini's own fascination with Jung and dream analysis, which he also extended beyond European philosophy by consulting I Ching. This way we have Fellini placing dreams in 8 1/2 after reading Jung, for us to analyse using Jung's method. What a lovely circle!

By now you may be asking yourself though: but is it any good for those, who don't really care about all that symbolism and hidden meanings? Is it all psychoanalysis and no substance? Well, of course, no. The story itself is quite light despite its contextual density. Apparently, before filming begun, Fellini wrote on a little sticker "Remember you're making a comedy" and placed it next to the viewfinder of his camera. A 'comedy' might be a little bit of an overstatement here, but make no mistake, there are many scenes in 8 1/2 that will put a smile on your face. As for the story-telling, even though there is a certain new wave-like chaos to the composition, the initial confusion doesn't last too long. The acting is probably one thing that has aged not-so-gracefully. Many characters do feel somewhat unintentional, accidental, the performances seem stiff and unnatural. But then again, they often just flash in front of the camera, delivering their lines to disappear almost immediately. This is not accidental by the way, it simply follows Guido's own inability to focus, his constantly distracted attention. And we do follow him very closely. In fact, there are whole sequences shot as if in first person, which on one hand helps the viewer identify with the protagonist more easily but on the other might as well have been Fellini's way of saying 'this is me, here-now'.

All that comes together in a picture that is truly magical. The story is beautifully composed and told, the cinematography is sublime, the sets lavish, the light (especially in some of Guido's memories scenes) absolutely masterful. It would really be difficult not to appreciate this film unless by someone who is completely not interested in cinema. The only reason I knocked one star off the total score is that awkwardness of acting that sometimes cannot be ignored. Otherwise, I find it difficult to fault. This, at last, is a choice made by the authors of 1001 FILMS... I can only agree with and be really happy for, which is a fantastic news after the previous film and a few more so far. It is also a brilliant introduction to the whimsical world of Federico Fellini for those who haven't tried yet, the world of all his favourite motifs, images and symbols (clowns and circus, cabaret, old people, nuns, dreams, trains, portly women and many more) but it also can become an unexpected journey through the history of cinema. It's a bizarre journey because, at least for me, it brought a discovery of how much of Fellini's legacy is still present in the work of today's greatest. I, for one, from this day henceforth will say 'Lynch' but think 'Fellini'.

And lastly, it is a brilliant title, to finish the numbered titles. There might have been some stumbles in-between, but hey, will you just look at how grand the finale is! Fingers crossed, the 'A' films will follow shortly.

The 8 1/2 on IMDB
The 8 1/2 on WIKIPEDIA
Rent it from LoveFilm
Get it on AMAZON

Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SE AND NOT DIE: The 42nd Street - Lloyd Bacon, 1933

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