A traffic jam, initially filmed in complete silence. The drivers and passengers stare nervously at the people in the neighbouring cars. One of the drivers is having problems. As his car fills up with smoke, he bangs and then kicks on the window. Eventually he finds a way out through the sunroof. From the roof of the car, he ascends slowly into the skies.
Cut to: a beach. Two ageing men are holding onto the rope of something like a kite. At the top of the rope, we see a foot, presumably attached to the man from the traffic jam. They start to gently haul him down.
How you react to the first couple of minutes of 8½ will probably set you up for how you treat the film as a whole. It lends itself very readily both to a reading that it embodies deep metaphorical meaning, and to one which sees it as self-evident pretentiousness which tells us nothing new and is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. My reading is somewhere in between these, but we’ll come to that in due time.
Guido (Marcelo Mastroianni) is a film maker who is having an existential crisis. He is 43, which, coincidentally, was the age of Federico Fellini when he made 8½ (clue: it’s not a coincidence). His next film is ready to start, the sets have been built, but he doesn’t think that he has anything to say. So, he hops off to a health spa to try and find himself.
Instead of following the creation of his new work, the film drifts back, stream of conscioussy, into Guido’s past. As this is a 1960s Italian film, this means an undue amount of sex and religion. But he is drawn back into the present as he is pursued to the spa first by his voluptuous mistress and then his intellectual wife (pop quiz: how do you make an actress look clever and therefore clearly undesirable. Simple, you give Anouk Aimée short hair and a pair of glasses)
Many of Guido’s existential problems are very much men’s problems. He is dissatisfied both by his wife and his mistress, but never seems to be able to view them beyond very tight stereotypes. And in one of his fever dreams, he is living in a house full of all the women he’s ever loved, who all tend to him until he gets bored and starts cracking a whip at them.
Er, wait a minute. What? Just out of interest, I went to imdb.com to see how this scene was treated by female reviewers. And guess what? More than any other film I know, 8½ has been reviewed almost exclusively by men. And I don’t care for any argument about things being different in the 1960s. I was watching the film in 2020, and really wasn’t expecting women to be portrayed like that.
While we’re moaning a little, I’d also say that I don’t think that 8½ fully works as a whole. Because it is describing the meandering mind of a film maker who doesn’t quite know where he’s going, it does tend to meander. And I don’t really care how tightly structured this meandering has been integrated into the script, at two and a half hours, it all goes on for too long.
Yet for all that I’m not convinced by the whole, many of the individual parts are inspired. When Guido is bombarded by questions from journalists asking for his opinion on everything except his film, Mastroianni looks suitably desperate to be anywhere else than there. And the final scene where he is led out by a 5 piece band of clowns is the maybe best musical scene on film this side of Emir Kustirica (which is high praise round here).
8½ is celebrated for being a film that transcends its era, but to be honest I don’t quite buy that. There is much admirable – even brilliant – to be seen here, but a lot of what is remarkable here comes from the society which produced the film. And yes, it deserves repeated viewing, if only because it piles on so much detail that it’s impossible to take it all in first time round.
Worth seeing, but I think it’s time to remove it from some of those “Best Films Ever” lists.