When film-foax use the word "Felliniesque", they're likely alluding to the grotesquerie of Amacord or Satyricon, or the loaded symbolism of La Strada. But ask them to name the first Fellini film to pop into their head and they'll likely say this one or La Dolce Vita. 8½ (1963) may not touch neatly upon all of that great director's pet preoccupations, yet it is somehow the national anthem of Fellini.
Everything about it shouts Fellini. The title refers to the number of films the director had made (by his own count). The film's hero, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), is a famous Italian film director suffering from "director's block". He's working on a film that seems to be, well, 8½, which at least one character dismisses as autobiographical trivia.
In keeping with one of the director’s favourite tropes, the film unfolds like a series of circus acts. The Marxist writer scolds (Guido’s film “doesn’t have the advantage of the avant-garde films, although it has all of the drawbacks”). The muse (Claudia Cardinale) disappoints. The producer begs that the giant set he has paid for be used more. A besieged Guido ends up double- booking time at the spa with both his wife (Anouk Aimée) and mistress (Sandro Milo).
Guido understandably escapes into reverie: there are memories of a farmhouse, of spying on a prostitute with other schoolboys, of corporal punishment at the hands of a priest.
Gianni Di Venanzo’s camera bobs and weaves (watch for the sneaky backtracks) and Nina Rota’s score adds to the sensation that we’re watching an extravagant piece of choreography. The motorway pile-up of images and disparate threads bonds us to Guido, who moves us not by any heroics, but because he is a chancer who feels like a tap on the shoulder is coming. And coming soon.
For a film purporting to be about not being able to make a film, 8½ is teeming with ideas about Catholicism and femininity. How can any woman live up to any billing in a society determined to polarise an entire gender into virgins and whores? Is there any escape from old- fashioned Catholic guilt?
It is a work that never fails to reward and surprise. It makes every muscle in your body contract and pulse with stress before allowing us to float off like Guido’s opening daydream.
As the flop musical Nine illustrates, it's not easy making frazzled look so effortless.