Thursday, March 31, 2011

Being Federico Fellini: "8 1/2" (1963)

Federico Fellini makes one of the most personal films a director could ever make, giving his audience a look at what made a master tick.

The film is easy to sum up in a few lines, but a plot summary does not do the visuals credit. Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is a film maker relaxing at a spa and trying to find the inspiration to get going on his next picture. He has a giant spaceship set built, has been filming screen tests, but his heart is not in it.

People from his life, especially the women, begin pressuring him to begin the film. His married mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) arrives to see him, but this does not trigger anything. He invites his bitter wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) down, and she brings her mystical friend Rossella (Rossella Falk). Rossella senses things may not be going well for Guido, who slips in and out of dreams and fantasies about the people in his life. Eventually, the actress Claudia (the most beautiful woman at this time- Claudia Cardinale) arrives and for a second Guido perks up before committing his final directorial flourish.

This is not a perfect film. There are scenes here that move at a snail's pace and may have you checking your watch. The film is done in Italian, so subtitles are in order. However, everyone should watch this film just to see Fellini at work.

Different characters in the film comment on Guido's script as if they were commenting on the very film you are watching as well. It is full of imagery, but not about anything. Fellini goes into Guido's head and gives us some breath taking fantasy and dream sequences. One childhood memory has the local village character Saraghina (Eddra Gale) dancing a rhumba on a beach. The most famous fantasy sequence has all of Guido's women gathered into a harem and catering to his every need before they decide to revolt and he must quell the riot with a bullwhip.

There are some laugh out loud scenes, but Guido's melancholia is so real you may feel guilty for smiling. Fellini addresses Catholic guilt, as well. This is not a purely Italian issue, in this day and age of 9/11 memorial services and "Girls Gone Wild."

The stark black and white totally works, as Fellini comes up with lovely shadowed shots and interesting camera placement. The film's music is made up mostly of standards, interesting when you remember that not many of us have an original motion picture soundtrack playing in our head when something notable happens in our lives (unless you are a musician). The acting is above par, the performers are never pushed away by the camerawork. Mastroianni is just perfect as Guido. Anouk Aimee is more than a typical wronged wife. Sandra Milo is a very busty, and very sexy, mistress who wants Guido to see her as more than a mistress but not too much more. And of course, the glorious Claudia Cardinale, who has so few scenes but is impossible not to watch. When she fails to enliven Guido, you know things may not end well. There is a hilarious conclusion at a press conferences (Guido is literally dragged to it) that is so real, it could have been shot yesterday. The reporters question Guido about everything from the film to nuclear weapons, I half expected to see an "Access Hollywood" mic or Byron Allen in the background.

"8 1/2" is a buffet for the eyes, you can see where Kubrick gathered much of his inspiration. Sometimes slow, the film is infinitely rewarding, a product of great acting, genius directing, and good timing. (* * * * *) out of five stars.