Fellini’s 8½ – a masterpiece by cinema’s ultimate dreamer
Federico Fellini never stuck to the facts. At his best, his films strike a perfect balance between fantasy and reality – and nowhere is this more evident than in his autobiographical classic, 8½
Friday 15 May 2015
Fellini once laid out the basic requirements for being a film director. They include curiosity, humility before life, the desire to see everything, laziness, ignorance, indiscipline and independence. While probably all these qualities pervade his films, it’s their curiosity and their openness to the world that enchant you, as he once put it, his “immense faith in things photographed”, the sense that film might allow a moment of communion between the viewer and things, between you and a human face.
The White Sheik (1952)
In his black and white movies, that almost unparalleled run of masterpieces from The White Sheik (1952) to 8½ (1963), Fellini stands as the Charles Dickens of cinema. As with Dickens, critics find him sentimental, exaggerated and chaotic. Where some see sentiment, his lovers perceive a capacity to feel, not for some idealised abstraction, but for the specific character. The outsiders, the marginalised, the victims in life attract him, and he looks at them face to face, never from above, and never from a place removed from their troubling difficulty. He is close to Dickens in pursuing a politics based on gentleness, on the thought that a good society will form when this person here acts justly and tenderly to that person there. As for the exaggeration, like Dickens he actually softens and takes the edge off the unexpectedness and weirdness of others, even as he remains alive to it. When it came to people and to places, Fellini said of himself, “My capacity for marvelling is boundless … I am not blase about anything”. The chaos is admittedly there, but it’s a creative one; he possessed the immense gift of never settling for a fixed view about life. He condemns no one. As he suggested, his films are trials, but as seen by an accomplice, rather than by a judge.
Though all art finds its roots in a life, it’s remarkable how very few expressly autobiographical film-makers there are – Woody Allen, Andrei Tarkovsky in Mirror, Bill Douglas and a handful of others, all recasting their lives as a fiction. As a man often identified with his work, Fellini is perhaps the most notable among this select group. An “autobiographical vein” runs through many of his films, each one encapsulating a stage of his life. Yet no one should think when watching his movies that they’re learning the facts about Fellini; like Dickens in David Copperfield, he transfigures the past (or in the case of 8½, the present) into artifice, a puppet theatre. He was never one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story. His films charm us with the invention of a life, the marvellous being made otherwise marvellous; not the small truths of anecdote, but the evocation of how it might have been. They dance around the dividing line between the imagined and the real. In I Vitelloni (1953), Ostia stands in for his home town of Rimini, and in the process turns nostalgia into a stage-set, an improved and refined quintessence of memory.
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
In his early films, the characters have either the strong simplicity of children or the complexity of the devious; they are either kids or conmen. The greatest innocents of all are those played by his wife, Giulietta Masina, in La Strada (1954) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957). Both films are glorious, and Cabiria is certainly in my top five movies of all time. Here Fellini’s comedy – like much great comedy – works by breaking our hearts open and still finding there the muted capacity for hope. The great problem for his characters is that of loneliness. Its solution, where it can be contrived to occur, is the connection between people, including the most unlikely of pairs. Masina is the soul of these stories, an actor gifted with one of the most expressive and vital faces ever witnessed on screen. She is a holy fool in both films, an “Auguste” clown, a happy hooligan. Fellini said of her characters here that they’re not women, they’re asexual, figures beyond or above gender – a remarkable thought given that in Cabiria, Masina plays a Roman prostitute, though admittedlya rather hapless one.
Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (1960)
With La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini’s style shifted, and we move from artful naivety to a bright, louche and fragmented world, one, as Fellini himself put it, marked by “the silence of God”. There is a book of essays on Fellini from the 1970s in which the hero’s angst is taken very seriously indeed, and the movie compared somewhat implausibly with The Waste Land. In fact, rarely has the collapse of western civilisation looked such fun – and “fun” is precisely what that civilisation collapses into. The film’s title, “the sweet life”, isn’t irony, it’s intoxication. More than any other movie, La Dolce Vita preserves the enchantment of parties, even their enchanted weariness; the film bestows on us that sense of the possibilities present in an evening out, as well as the light melancholy that falls as the possibilities dwindle. Fellini liked to drive through Rome, or walk its streets, glancing at the faces, giving himself to the casual encounter; here, too, Rome is a place glimpsed in motion, connections forming and falling apart, as the night sobers up with dawn. As the society journalist, Marcello, Marcello Mastroianni offers us the Italian Cary Grant, a man baffled by his own beauty as well as the essential elusiveness of the women he somewhat fecklessly pursues.
La Dolce Vita (1960)
When I saw La Dolce Vita, my first Fellini film, I thought he was a sophisticate; now, years later, I know he was a dreamer. 8½, his memoir of his illness, is replete with reveries; Fellini much admired Carl Jung, and it shows. One reason why he cast his wife in his films was Masina’s magical “gift of evoking a kind of waking dream quite spontaneously, as if it were taking place quite outside her own consciousness”. As his career went on, his films became increasingly hallucinatory, in a way not always for the best. In his defence, other kinds of coherence are brought in, a moving away from logic and consequence. In 8½, the balance is still perfect, a film that stands in the uneasy but productive space between fantasy and the real.
It’s a fabulously messy film. The eye moves restlessly over things, rarely settling. We’re inside a crisis, with apparently nothing noble about it. The film’s hero, the harried director, Guido Anselmi (played again by Mastroianni, and clearly a stand-in for Fellini), is as silly, mean, self-regarding and empty as the film itself – and yet, for all that, this same fractured movie is utterly superb. It’s in the relation between the sorriness and the wonderful that 8½ casts its spell.
To add to the grubbiness of it all, Milo was not only Guido’s lover in the film, she was also Fellini’s lover in real life. This is only one of the ways in which 8½ draws us into a hall of mirrors, where reality and art prove indistinguishable from each other. We gaze into an endlessly receding abyss, and yet (and this is the miracle of the film) we can perceive how that abyss overbrims with abundance. In the end, the film seeks to imagine a loving settlement that will fulfil the promises Guido has broken: in spite of everything there is a film; his love for his wife, for everyone it seems, all the puppets he controls, is intact. The guilt doesn’t matter: there is in the end reconciliation. Some might see this resolution as venal and self-serving, using a film to get oneself off the moral hook. And yet, as it plays on the screen, it also conjures by sleight of hand a release from shame, from doubt.
It’s not the anguish, the uncertainty, but the laughter in 8½ that matters, the reflective humour of it. The film closes with a death that appears to end the possibility of Guido’s film becoming real. For a moment, things pause, and there is an atmosphere of wistful farewell. And then Fellini pulls off his masterstroke, reclaiming life as a party, and one to be shared. When Guido and his wife Lucia likewise join the dance that Guido directs, not directing it any more but being a part of it, it proves to be, for me at least, one of the most moving moments in cinema. It recalls what Rilke wrote of The Tempest, when he described that moment when the artist-magus pulls a wire through his own head and hangs himself up with the other puppets, and then steps before the audience to take their applause.
8½ continues its run at BFI Southbank, London SE1, until 28 May. bfi.org.uk
A cinematic rerelease of Federico Fellini’s hallucinatory masterpiece offers a chance to be blown away all over again – its opening alone is one of the most incredible things in cinema
Thursday 30 April 2015
Fellini’s 8½ is rereleased in cinemas: it is the director’s compellingly fluent and sustained meditation on films as dreams, memories and fears, and the way they offer a fascinating but illusory way of rewriting and reshaping one’s own life. The opening dream sequence is more sensationally disturbing than ever, still one of the most incredible things in cinema. And then we wake up to a reality that has the weightless quality of a dream. Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a celebrated film-maker, a version of Fellini, who has arrived at a midlife crisis and creative block (watching 8½ on the big screen is a way of seeing just how tired Mastroianni looks).