See in UCO's Pegasus Theater on November 17, 2004, at 6:00 p.m.  Admission is free.
Photo of John Parris Springer

Fellini’s Mirror

John Parris Springer
English Department, University of Central Oklahoma

In 1962 the Italian director Federico Fellini had made, by his own reckoning, seven and a half films: Variety Lights (1950), The White Sheik (1952), I Vitelloni (1953), La Strada (1954), Il Bidone (1955), The Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1959), and a segment of the omnibus film, Boccaccio ’70 (1961).   His next film project, therefore, would be his eighth and a half film, hence the title, 8½.   Such a nondescript name—simply an ordinal number like an opus in music—was appropriate for what would become one of the greatest films about film ever made.   

Fellini had struggled for several years developing ideas and working on a script for , and he felt tremendous pressure from his producers and the public alike to make a film that would top La Dolce Vita, which had been an international sensation when it was released in 1960.   By all accounts, Fellini was suffering from the filmmaker’s equivalent of writer’s block, uncertain of his purpose and hesitant to commit to a particular narrative or aesthetic plan for the film.   His reputation as a filmmaker of importance was assured by the artistic and commercial successes of his previous films, but now the pressure was on the maestro to produce another masterpiece.   Fellini’s solution was to make a film about a movie director who is riddled with uncertainty and doubt concerning his latest film project; in other words, a character who finds himself in the same dilemma that Fellini was himself facing, wracked with insecurities and creative doubts about his film and his vocation as an artist.    The trick that plays with audiences resides in the fact that the film being made is, as we discover, the very film that we are watching, and thus is rife with doublings and reflections, both visual and thematic.  

shows Fellini’s work becoming increasingly personal and psychological, and such a turn away from the goals of Neo-Realism led him to be considered self-indulgent by critics unsympathetic to his growing preoccupation with the Unconscious mind and the dream-life of his characters.   There is less attention to milieu and social setting in , and what limited segments of society that are depicted—such as the social life at the health spa—are shown in a more stylized, abstract manner than in his previous films.  Indeed, Fellini’s penchant for the grotesque and the bizarre is indulged more fully in than in any film he had made up to this point.

In , Fellini focused on the subjectivity and psychology of his main character, Guido Anselmi, a film director played, once again, by Marcello Mastroianni as a figure representative of Fellini himself.  The production of Guido’s latest film has come to a stop due to his own artistic confusion and because of the turmoil in his personal life where he is juggling, unsuccessfully, a wife and a mistress.   Fellini’s idea was to follow Guido through several chaotic days, interlacing flashbacks from his childhood, nocturnal dreams and daytime fantasies into a fluid narrative style that often blurs the distinction between the objective and subjective, reality and illusion. 

There are numerous devices of self-reference at work in 8½, from it basic narrative premise, to the show business and film industry “types” it satirizes so brilliantly, to its virtuoso cinematography which emphasizes the role of the camera as a tool and extension of the director’s vision.  But one of the most original gestures of self-reference in the film is the character of the critic, Daumier (Jean Rougeul), whom Guido has hired to provide advice on his troubled script.   The critic follows Guido throughout the film, throwing his own brand of intellectual cold water over the project.   At one point, Guido fantasizes Daumier’s execution, only to immediately resurrect him and follow his advice.  Such ambivalence suggests that there is some insight in the critic’s analysis, and in Daumier’s speeches Fellini seems to be anticipating the complaints of his own critics.   In fact, Daumier’s analysis of Guido’s film is entirely germane to Fellini’s :

“…the film lacks a problematic or a philosophical premise, making it a series of gratuitous episodes, perhaps amusing for their ambiguous realism.   One wonders what the authors are trying to say… Are they trying to make us think?   To scare us? …The subject doesn’t even have the merits of an ‘avant garde’ film, but it has all the shortcomings.”
And Daumier’s final pessimistic speech to Guido is a plea to abandon the unfinished project:
“Such a monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalogue of your mistakes.   And how do you benefit from stringing together the tattered pieces of your life?   Your vague memories, the faces of people that you were never able to love…”
These are all legitimate observations and questions that could be asked about the film .  Does Fellini raise them himself in order to beat his critics to the punch?   Or, are they meant to articulate Fellini’s uncertainties and anxieties about the film?   Finally, they are an interpretation of the film built into the text of the film itself, to be weighed and considered along with other possibilities as we ponder the meaning of Fellini’s work.

begins with one of the great scenes from 20th-century cinema: Guido’s dream of a traffic jam.   Traffic jams are certainly familiar enough events in contemporary life to be realistically motivated, but from the beginning of the sequence the absence of synchronized sound (such as engines running or car horns) immediately signals a break from the real world.   Other bizarre elements reaffirm our conviction that this must be a dream: Carla, Guido’s mistress, is seen in a nearby car being caressed by a stranger; a bus load of headless arms suggest the soulless anonymity of the people caught in the traffic jam, each in the private hell of his own front seat.   This is not just an ordinary traffic jam but an image of traffic jam as existential metaphor, a psychological symbol of Guido’s own creative block.  

Guido, whose face we have not yet seen, begins to panic as a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment enfold him and his car begins to fill with smoke.   Struggling desperately to open the door or smash out a window, he finally makes a slow, tortuous escape through the roof of the vehicle and his emergence is intentionally staged by Fellini to create a sense of birth and escape.   With arms outstretched in a manner evocative of the helicopter flight of the statue of Jesus over Rome in La Dolce Vita, Guido soars over the cars and up into the clouds, briefly passing by the scaffolding for the “Space Ship” set he has constructed for his film.   Finally we look down, from Guido’s perspective, and observe that his foot is tethered to a long rope which hangs all the way to the ground where it is being pulled by an individual later identified in the film as the press agent of a French movie star.   Guido’s dream of rebirth and escape from responsibility comes crashing to an end as the apparatus of the film industry literally reels him in, and we see his body plummeting towards the sea.

Gasping for air, he awakes from the dream in his room at the spa where a nurse and doctor are beginning his examination and treatment for exhaustion.   The scene proceeds for several more minutes until Fellini finally lets us see Guido when he walks into the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror—our first clue that this is to be a film about reflection and, especially, self-reflection.   The face we see is haggard and prematurely old, despite Mastroianni’s leading-man good looks.   As Guido pauses before his image in the mirror, he seems to slowly crumple, and we get the strongest sense of the character’s loss of potency and creative energy through Mastroianni’s subtle use of body language throughout the film.

The opening dream sequence in is our first clue to Fellini’s method, his intermingling of fantasy with reality, dreams and experience, as a way of exploring the troubled inner life of his character and the personal and professional crises he has arrived at.   Such an approach led Fellini to some of his most daring and innovative use of the camera, and is without a doubt Fellini’s most visually stylish film.  Particularly noteworthy is his use of mobile camera and long tracking shots, such as the shot that introduces us to the denizens of the health spa.   These long moving shots, which frequently curve around and double back on themselves, create a flowing, vertiginous sense of space that represent Guido’s own feelings of dislocation and imbalance in the film.   One of the ways in which functions as a self-reflexive, metacommentary on the art of cinema is in the way it foregrounds the use of the camera, its ability to create a sense of space and visual perspective that is shot through with all the psychological uncertainty of Guido himself.

At the center of —indeed  at the center of Fellini’s work as an artist—is  Fellini’s/Guido’s ambivalence towards women, his attraction to and fear of the mysterious otherness of the “feminine.”  Guido is repeatedly told throughout the film that as a director he is incapable of making a love story, and the comment seems to recognize in him an underlying fear of commitment that has brought about the emotional chaos in his life.   Early in the film it is revealed (in another dream) that Guido’s father was emotionally reserved and distant, causing the young Guido to bond most strongly to the women in his large, extended family: the grandmothers, aunts and cousins whom we see bathing Guido as a small boy in flashback.   Now, as an adult and a famous movie director, Guido finds himself even more in thrall to his relationships with women, yet he seems pathologically unable to make any of the relationships, personal or professional, work.   He displays an ambivalence towards women which requires a boyish need for feminine nurture and approval, but only on terms which allow him to remain emotionally aloof and uncommitted.

Numerous images of the “feminine” compete for Guido’s attention and affection: several float through unnamed, such as the French movie actress (Madeline Lebeau) Guido has hired but does not know how to use in his film, or the mysterious older woman (Caterina Boratto) he sees in the lobby of the hotel on several occasions, both of whom reappear in his fantasies.   Two of the key representations of the “feminine” are Guido’s mistress, Carla (Sandro Milo) and his wife, Lucia (Anouk Aimee).   It is not uncommon to encounter cultural stereotypes of women in Fellini films and the dichotomy of the virgin or faithful wife/mother versus the whore is especially conspicuous in his work.  For Fellini, such oppositions represent the archetypal dimensions of the feminine anima, provocative of both male dread and desire, and thus women are often creatures of paradox and contradiction for his male protagonists.   In Carla plays the sex kitten and “slut” in her relationship to Guido, while Lucia struggles to be faithful despite Guido’s obvious infidelity.   For Guido, his wife cannot be the object of his sexual attention because he associates her with his own mother and the maternal function generally.   But Guido is also increasingly put off by Carla’s behavior, and her animal-like physicality links her to the film’s most monstrous image of woman-as-other: Saraghina. 

First introduced to the viewer in one of Guido’s childhood flashbacks, Saraghina is a prostitute who provides the young Guido with his first initiation into sexual experience.    After he is caught and punished by the Catholic priests at school, the young Guido risks additional punishment by returning to bid her farewell.   The grotesquely hyperbolic female sexuality of Saraghina haunts Guido throughout his life, lurking behind all of his relationships with women.   But the final, redemptive image of the “feminine” in resides in the character of Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), the innocent virgin in contrast to the monstrous whore, Saraghina.   Claudia is associated with the color white and its connotations of purity and innocence, and she represents for Guido an ideal of fulfillment that could resolve both his personal and his artistic problems.    But when we finally meet the actress who plays Claudia, she is dressed in black and shows little interest in the film or understanding of the character she will play.   For Guido, the encounter is a disillusioning experience that leaves him even more confused and uncertain about his film.

The apotheosis of Fellini’s treatment of women occurs in one of ’s most notorious sequences, the fantasy in which Guido as an adult returns to the farm house of his childhood where he cohabits with all of the women in his life (referred to as the “Farm of Women” in the screenplay).    Here all of 8½’s female characters are present at the same time, lavishing attention on Guido, bathing him as if he were a baby.   Clearly a fantasy of male sexual regression, Guido relishes his power over the women and their slavish devotion to his pleasure and happiness.   On one level, the harem of women that surrounds Guido represents his inability to choose, to commit himself to a single heterosexual relationship, but it also mirrors his artistic indecision, the creative paralysis that has halted the production of his film.  

According to the rules of Guido’s fantasy, one by one the women are forced “upstairs” after they turn thirty.   For the adult Guido, women’s value is linked to their youth and sexual appeal, and he exercises a stern paternal discipline over them in this regard.   But when one of the women, Jacqueline BonBon (Yvonne Catalano), a showgirl and presumably one of Guido’s youthful conquests, refuses to submissively retreat to the “upstairs” she is joined by Saraghina and all the other women in a general insurrection against Guido’s patriarchal order.   He responds by cracking a bull whip, forcing the women back into submission like a circus lion-tamer.   The image of Mastroianni as Guido, wrapped toga-like in a sheet, his director’s hat pushed down and brandishing a whip, is one of the most iconic images  in all of 20th-century film.   But what is the meaning of this scene?   How are we to understand what it is saying about the sexual stereotypes being performed so broadly?   I believe one important key lies in Fellini’s consistent (self?) deprecation of Guido, the relish with which he reveals Guido’s weaknesses and flaws throughout the film.   In The “Farm of Women” sequence, Guido is the character who sustains the most comic ridicule and debunking, not the women, who, in any case, are wholly products of Guido’s fantasy.   may be constructed upon a fantasy of male sexual power and dominance, but events in the film clearly work to undermine that dominance and repeatedly call it into question.

Numerous critics have observed about that it poses many more questions than it answers.   Part of the beauty of this film is precisely the way it evokes ideas and chains of thought that are left ambiguous and unresolved for the viewer, and nothing is more puzzling about than its conclusion.   The film climaxes in a chaotic press conference called by Guido’s producer in which he will be forced to answer questions about the unfinished production.   Unable to face the hostile press, who take great delight in assessing the train wreck that Guido’s film has become, Guido crawls under the table and blows his brains out.   Again, the question of interpretation: what do we make of Guido’s suicide? Is this another fantasy; the familiar one we’ve all had when problems seem insurmountable?   Such seems the case when Fellini immediately cuts to Guido and the producer ordering the huge “Space Ship” set to be struck.   The production, it seems, has been called off, and Daumier the critic delivers his final eulogistic analysis:

This life is so full of confusion already that there’s no need to add chaos to chaos.   Losing money is part of the producer’s job.   You had no choice, and he got what he deserved for having joined such a frivolous venture so lightheartedly.   Believe me, no need for remorse.   Destroying is better than creating when we’re not creating those few truly necessary things.   But then, is there anything so clear and right that it deserves to live in this world?

The existential doubts that the critic articulates in this scene are certainly expressions of Fellini’s own uncertainties as a human being and artist, but they are not his last word on the subject of life and art.   True to its comic inspiration,  ends on an uplifting, redemptive note that, once again, is not clearly motivated or explained.   While sitting in his car listening to the critic, Guido experiences a sudden epiphany that permits him to achieve a renewed sense of artistic purpose and personal commitment to his wife and friends.   Guido’s final declaration, “Life is a celebration!   Let’s live it together!” may be a desperate, futile attempt to declare a victory over the forces of chaos in life, but the warmth and sincerity of Guido’s voice, his humanity fully exposed to us for the first time, make these words ring like a manifesto and a call to arms.   The film ends with the geometric shape of a circle—a psychological symbol of wholeness and integration—as all of the characters in the film sweep down the grand staircase of the set and join hands in a circus parade led by a clown band and the figure of Guido as a young  boy.   Fellini’s familiar “life is a circus” metaphor here gets its fullest treatment, as all of the characters in Guido’s personal and professional life come together around the circus ring in a dance full of affirmation and faith in the idea that, despite life’s imperfections, harmony can be found in the beautiful chaos of existence.   As night falls, the spotlight tightens on Guido as a boy standing at the center of the ring, a reminder that it is in the innocence and terror of childhood experience that we are all called to consciousness and begin the struggle to understand ourselves and each other.   Fade to black.   The end.

answers no questions and leaves us with little understanding beyond its ability to provoke reflection on the meaning of our own existence and how art, despite the limitations and compromises which beset it, may be the best tool we have for understanding ourselves and the world.   The film leaves pointedly unresolved its chief thematic puzzles: What is the connection between our past and present selves, between childhood experience and adult behaviors and values?   What is the relationship between personal life and the creative life of the artist?   How does engagement with the world and others enrich or impede the artist’s work?   What is the mystery of the “other”—particularly the “feminine”—and what anxieties and dreams does it evoke?   How is artistic creativity itself the product of our dreams, fantasies and desires?   The film that Fellini fashioned out of his confusion and uncertainty is a kind of fun-house mirror that reflects upon the Unconscious mind and upon the cinema as a medium uniquely suited to its depiction.   8 ½ is wrought of that special aesthetic alchemy in which the personal demons and unique creative vision of the artist pushed against the possibilities and potentials of the medium, and out of that creative fusion cinematic gold was produced.

Return to the Events Page