8 1/2 (1963)

8 1/2
Dir. Federico Fellini

Should you see the film?

This is a must see if you’re a film lover, particularly of art films. (If that’s you, stop reading and go see this film.) If you’re not into films–particularly art films)–you won’t enjoy this.

OK, here are more details about the film (and if you’ve made up your mind to see the film, you should stop reading.) The plot is simple: a film director in the process of making a movie has “director’s block.” But Fellini decides to take the audience on an inward–stream of consciousness–journey of the director, Guido. (Actually, knowing this beforehand, may really help you understand the film.)

I think you should see 8 1/2 if you really liked the film Adaptation, not necessarily because if you like the latter, you’ll like the former. It’s a film that looks at itself while it’s being made and looks at the director at the same time. The film also reminded me a bit of Citizen Kane in terms of inventive sequences in both films. If you like CK for that reason, then I would recommend 8 1/2. It’s not a film with a very strong narrative.

Personal Comments

Do I think the film is all that it’s ed up to be? The simple and honest answer is I don’t know. But if my second viewing is any indication (which gave me a better grasp of the film) I would say yes. What makes the film special is also what makes it difficult to understand and evaluate.

This is a stream of consciousness film, and that explains the trouble I had absorbing and understanding the film. The film moves seamlessly from the past, present, and dream/fantasy states. If you’re not paying attention, one can easily get confused. Determining reality from fantasy–particularly fantasy sequences that represented something psychological–proved difficult as well. For example, there is a character, Claudia, that appears to be a muse, but the Guido the main character speaks to her as if she’s an actress. These things make thinking about the film difficult; it’s something I feel I have to untangle and sort through.

I have a problem with the self-indulgence in the film. The film really seems self-absorbed the scenes of childhood are very involved, for example. Yet, Fellini seems aware of the criticism, and acknowledges the validity to this criticism. There are two examples of this: Louisa criticizes Guido for making a film about his life to be loved; and a group of woman/journalists(?) challenge the idea of making Guido’s life the basis of the film. At one point, a close-up of a woman shouting, “He has nothing to say!” appears in that scene.

At times he seems to be working on his own relational conflicts in his life. For example, the scenes with Guido and his wife arguing. The feeling I get is this is autobiographical, although one could make a case that represents a common conflict between men and woman. But I don’t get the sense that the characters shed light on universal tensions between gender, in the same way I do in Antonioni’s L’Avventura for example. 8 1/2 seems more personal.

On one hand these scenes annoyed me for their narcissism. On the other hand, the scenes that caught my interest were the ones between Guido and his wife, particularly the insights and comments she had about him and their relationship. These scenes seemed the most genuine and real. Yet, Fellini seems to want to avoid sentimentalism. He says to the Claudia/muse that he can’t make the original story “about a woman saving a man” because it’s not true.

There are many well-constructed dream or fantasy sequences in the film (the opening sequence; the magic show-childhood; Saraghina’s dance; I liked the opening dream sequence). The commentator on the criterion collection spoke about the sequences as a birth-resurrection scene. Guido dies in the car, comes out of it, as if coming out of womb, and then floats off with his arms outstretched in a cross-position. The commentator also mentioned the similarity to the opening sequence in La Dolce Vita, with the statue of an outstretched Christ carried by a helicopter. Any decent review would analyze these scenes and interpret their meanings, but I’m afraid I would have to watch the film again to do that.

I’ll leave you with some last thoughts about the film. I don’t think there has been another film that has made me think of so many other films and filmmakers, Here are some of the associations I made, some trivial and, perhaps, others that are more substantial:

  • Truffault’s Day for Night. While Day for Night is more straight-forward, and more concrete and accessible, 8 1/2 is more imaginative, daring and playful and therefore a more poetic film. If the idea of a “movie about movie-making” appeals to you, both films are highly recommended.
  • Godard’s Contempt come to mind. More contemporary films like Altman’s The Player, Jonze’s/Kaufmann’s Adaptation, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive also come to mind. 8 1/2 may be the best film on filmmaking in terms of inventiveness and coherence.
  • The bigger woman, Saraghina, reminded me of Divine. I could see this film having an influence on John Waters because the characters seem so grotesque and garish.
  • Watching the film also made me think of Pedro Almodovar, especially a film like All About My Mother. Terry Gilliam, in the director’s introduction, spoke about Fellini’s strong interest in woman, and I think the same can be said about Almodovar. I feel like Almodovar is the heir to Fellini.
  • Gilliam talked about the way Fellini made the film partly out of uncertainty of the final product, so he made a film about a film, and started including his personal life. This sounded almost exactly like the plot in Adaptation. And here I thought the idea of Adaptation was completely original.
  • . If I recall correctly, when the character of Charlie Kaufmann attends the screenwriting course, the speaker talks about 8 1/2 being the last genre created, or something to that effect, so this seems to be an acknowledgement that Adaptation is within that genre and not entirely orginal. A part of me feels like Kaufman should have explicitly acknowledged that he was adopting the same approach as Fellini’s in 8 1/2–“I don’t know how do make this adaptation;Oh, I’ll use the same approach Fellini used in 8 1/2.” Like Adaptation, 8 1/2 refers to itself quite often. For example, Daumier is a character that critiques the screenplay that Guido is working on. But Fellini puts in the very things that Daumier critiques, so Fellini seems to be critiquing his own film while its being made.

  • The corridor scene, combined with Guido’s block, in 8 1/2 made me think of Barton Fink immediately.
  • The dream sequences were quite good, and they made me think of David Lynch, particularly Mulholland Drive, which is also a film partly about movie-making. Lynch may be more nightmarish, and he sort of takes the use of dreamlike sensibility in films to a whole another level. (Edit: Lynch also uses stream of consciousness, too)

The imagination and playful quality of the fantasy sequences–the women and the hanging of the screenwriter–are a precursor to the fantasy sequences we see in many TV programs like Six Feet Under or Alley McBeal, where the characters can break out in song as if it were a musical. There’s that element of fantasy here in the film.

  • The shot of the rope tied to Guido’s foot while he is in the air reminded me of the shot of the man holding onto the hot air ballon in Enduring Love.
  • The last scene of the different characters holding hands and walking in a circle reminded me of the ending in The Seventh Seal.

By the way, I’ve read that the critic Pauline Kael would write her reviews based on only one viewing of her film. If she got most of this film on first viewing, I’d be really impressed. As you can tell by my review above, my understanding of this film is less than adequate.

6 Responses to “8 1/2 (1963)”

  1. ZenCow

    But did you really enjoy the movie? Or do you simply appreciate it for its philosophical intricacies? This movie is a darling of critics and directors, yet somehow it managed to be voted by the public in the IMDB’s top 250 best movies ever. It seems to me that the voters were more motivated by the common perception of how good the movie is, rather than their own preference.

    Personally, I didn’t like it all that much. Perhaps the biggest drawback was only technical. The actors seem to deliver their dialogue with a rapidity of a machine gun. I had to speed-read the subtitles, while simultaneously trying to understand the subtleties of what they were saying. After two hours I felt completely exhausted and not really that enlightened.

    Having said that, I did enjoy some of dream sequences and scenes which didn’t overload us with endless chattering, but they compromise a small portion of the movie. The rest seems like an incessant mental masturbation (which in the movie is referred to as ‘stroking one’s ego’) which must be hellova fun for the person doing it and somewhat amusing for the people around him, but rather uncomfortable for everyone else.

    Comparing this movie to Kaufman’s “Adaptation” is fair, but I feel that even though the latter is less ambitious than 8 1/2, it’s also more successful. The subtleties in Adaptation can be completely ignored and viewers may still enjoy the movie, while in 8 1/2 they are absolutely critical. Maybe on 2nd and 3rd viewings these intracies become clearer, but I’m not sure if I want to subject myself again to watching Fellini stroking himself. 🙂

  2. Reid


    I can honestly say that I was too confused to enjoy the film the first time I saw it. But remember that the nature of the film and Fellini’s ambition almost guarentee this. I went back to scenes in the film and thought about it as I prepared the review above, and I began to appreciate and enjoy the film a lot more. When a director succeeds at realizing a huge ambition, I get an excitement that becomes a kind of enjoyment for me. Along with L’Avventura and 2001: A Space Odyssey add 8 1/2 to that list.

    I didn’t just like it for its “philosophical intricacies” but for the successful way that Fellini realized his ambition of capturing on film the stream of consciousness of an artist. In addition, I believe this was NOT Fellini’s only objective. Unlike Adaptation, which seemed to primarily be a clever display of the filmmaker, 8 1/2 does have a story and a satisfying resolution. Guido is conflicted about his art, and Fellini shows us this conflict in a stream of consciousness, showing us the way Guido’s life, relationships, experiences tie into his art. But I also believe Guido comes to a resolution of this conflict at the end of the film. (I only have a vague notion of the nature of the conflict and resolution, and figuring this out will determine how much I like this film.) The stream of consciousness approach is not just an end in and of itself. It serves the character and the story.

    It’s because of these qualities that make this film more than “mental masterbation” to me, and I would recommend re-watching the film. Before giving up on the film, spend the time and energy to figure out the meaning of the film as a whole as well as the meaning of the various characters, symbols and actions in the film and figure out the way all of these things relate to the whole. There is certainly a lot of these, and I haven’t worked them all out myself.

    As for a comparison for Adaptation and 8 1/2, saying that you can ignore subtleties in the former but not the latter is hardly a compliment or makes it more successful (unless by “more successful” you mean more palatable to audiences). I recommended 8 1/2 for fans of Adaptation because 8 1/2 employed the self-referencing (snake biting its tail) approach, and I tend to feel that Fellini did a better job of using that approach.

  3. kevin

    I posted why I sincerely enjoyed this movie in the “Top 5 Films” thread; you’re right, it is a more personal story, and maybe it has varying appeal relative to how much one can relate to Fellini’s narrative put on film; I imagine women, in particular, may not find this movie particularly appealing. There’s a fine line between self-reflection and self-absorbtion, but perhaps the former is what makes the film engage the tone of “searching”, which is what I enjoyed about it. I didn’t think it was so inaccessible that only critic-types can say they enjoy it for its cult status.

    I also think it needs to be contextualized with Fellini’s previous work, & as a terminus to a string of less self-referential work (albeit decadent) that it seems to make a little more sense, like Kurosawa’s Madadayo or Kieslowski’s Decalogue, when older directors start reflecting back on their lives & work.

  4. Reid


    What other Fellini films are crucial for this context?

  5. kevin

    La Strada and Nights of Cabiria both have a little bit of that meandering, listless post-war Italy backdrop that reappears in certain places in 8 1/2. You can also really see the continuity all the way back through The Bicycle Thief, which makes me feel like there’s some relationship Fellini’s exploring between a spiritual awakening and post-Fascism social realism. I also think the Claudia Cardinale figure in 8 1/2 has some significance in reference to the characters & story in La Dolce Vita. I’ve not watched Satyricon, but also hear there’s some implicit reference there w/i 8 1/2.

    I also think that one of the reasons 8 1/2 resonates for me personally is that it’s a film about the creative struggle, & anyone in the creative arts who’s not a “easy flow” creative genius (98% of all art fields) I think could relate in some way to the agony of creating that Guido feels. It’s also explains why, as Zencow observes, it’s kind of a narcissistic movie (artists often being self-absorbed.)

  6. Reid

    I have Nights of Cabiria, and, hopefully, I’ll get to watch it before I have to return it. I’ve seen La Strada. Fellini seems to be into carnivals, clowns and Ancient Rome.

    I never thought of connection between La Strada and Bicyle Thief, but I saw the latter a long time ago.

    I can totally understand why creative people like yourself would like this film. I’m not a creative person, and I can’t imagine too many other films depicting the struggle with the creative process any better than 8 1/2. I definitely want to see it again some day.

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