8 ½


“I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I have always had a great fear of Federico Fellini. Despite my love of classic cinema and strong desire to visit the films of the great directors, I have resisted Fellini more than any other. I’ve heard all the criticisms: he’s self-indulgent, frustrating, overly personal, and long-winded. Even critics who have embraced his work have expressed their confusion, baffled as they are by the most bizarre mix of fantasy and reality ever put on film. Still, Fellini remains one of the world’s most admired filmmakers, primarily because his style is truly like no other. While most films appear to have no distinct mark (and could have been directed by anyone), Fellini never lets you forget that he is confidently at the helm. Yet, despite that, I must remain a lone voice in the wilderness. I must, it seems, come clean. I hate Fellini. What’s more, I have nothing but the utmost contempt for his masterwork, the unwatchable and turgid 8 1/2.

The story, such as it is, involves the troubled director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) and his quest to finish his latest project which, to the best that I can decipher, is a science fiction film involving rockets, the Catholic Church, and an assortment of peculiar women. Guido is at a creative impasse (like Fellini himself) and spends the entire film fighting off producers, screenwriters, groupies, and dozens of women who seek parts in his unfinished movie. He is harassed, driven to distraction, and forced to examine his possible creative bankruptcy. As a means of demonstrating Guido’s descent into despair, Fellini presents the usual assortment of Freudian imagery, confusing (and utterly esoteric) dream sequences, and passages whereby reality itself is merely an illusion (or is it?) All of this might sound profound and intriguing from an outsider’s point of view, but it isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. In fact, I can’t remember experiencing fewer moments of joy during a film in years. Mainstream garbage is predictably mind-numbing, but this is Fellini, and I thought I was supposed to be impressed.

The DVD informed me that the working title of this film was The Beautiful Confusion, which has never been more apt for a motion picture. Again, I am always up for a challenge and prefer not to have meaning literally spelled out for me, but I am as vehement in my opposition to films that are made for the director’s pleasure and understanding alone. Filmmaking will always remain a personal medium to a certain extent, but it is the height of self-absorption to convert the private fantasies and experiences of an individual (and a demented one at that) and expect anyone else to derive entertainment from the images. Again, this is no mere autobiography, this is hallucinatory madness, filtered through years of Catholic guilt, womanizing, and obvious drug use, all spewed forth in an incoherent, impenetrable style. Even worse, this is not an attempt to make grand philosophical statements or challenge humanity to consider itself (like the equally personal, yet accessible 2001: A Space Odyssey), it is one man working out his issues on the screen, and any answers or ideas derived from the film will only have relevance to Fellini. It’s not only self-indulgence, it is unparalleled arrogance.

Take the quote at the beginning of this review. In the midst of a dream (or is it reality.who cares), Guido the character utters these words, but they obviously belong to the director as well, justifying his film to what he predicts will be a hostile audience. Fellini knows that he is a womanizing lout; a boorish man with a healthy appetite for excess (in life and in art), and he wants to explain himself in advance of the criticism. Remarkably enough, however, 8 1/2 was a smash hit, garnering many top awards and solidifying Fellini’s reputation as a master craftsman. Still, with all of the reviews I have read, I have yet to encounter a coherent analysis, which, I suppose, must follow if the film itself is a twisted mess. The best I can gather is that Fellini, fumbling for new ideas in his own life, decided to film an alter-ego with exactly the same dilemma. If the film meanders, causes head-slapping frustration, and charges of narcissism, Fellini has a convenient out, one that is used by lazy filmmakers around the world – it is all but a dream. Rather than deal with issues of creative bankruptcy and the tortured artist in a frank manner, Fellini has chosen to escape into a world of his own creation; his own to such an extent that criticism becomes, for Fellini, superfluous. It is my world, and only I am to connect to the words and images you see. Think of this! Fellini has made a film that is impossible to grasp, that only he can understand, yet he expects others to both foot the bill and spend 138 long minutes with it in the dark.

From what I could understand, the usual Fellini tricks are present – the lone man surrounded by shrewish, misunderstanding women (his misogyny is as thick as ever), the annoying (yet fitting) musical soundtrack, the disconcerting dubbing (Fellini filmed on “silent” sets and dubbed in the dialogue later), and imagery relating to the Catholicism, the circus, and perverted opulence. Still, I refuse to join the procession. Take away the reputation and sense of film history and what’s left is inescapable bullshit. True, it’s bullshit with a pedigree, but there it is. The film doesn’t mean a goddamn thing and with snippets of dialogue seemingly reinforcing this thesis, it appears that at the very least, Fellini knew it as well.

Ruthless Ratings

  • Overall: 2
  • Acting: 5
  • Directing: 4
  • DVD Extras: commentary, documentaries, interviews
  • Re-watchability: 1
About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52