Although 8½ (1963) is director Federico Fellini’s most widely recognized achievement, he was already internationally renowned when he began working on it in late 1960. He had directed La Strada (1954), which won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar when it was released in the United States three years later, and La Dolce Vita (1960), which had just been released, had won the Palme d’Or (“the Golden Palm,” the award for best film) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, and would go on to earn four Oscar nominations. Not surprisingly, as soon as Fellini began jotting his first notes for his “eighth-and-a-half” film (8½ follows six feature-length films and three short films and collaborations), production companies, costume designers, photography directors, and flocks of actresses were hanging around him, eager to stake a claim in the next hit. Cineriz, the production company that had worked with Fellini twice before, expected him to create another cinematic masterpiece. Before Fellini had even outlined the plot of the film, the machinery of its production was already in motion.
Fellini was in his early forties, already anxious about typical midlife concerns regarding family, aging, and professional virility, and he felt enormous pressure. This stress was so pervasive that the making of the film became its own principal influence. Fellini had intended the film to describe the crisis of an artist, a journalist, or even a lawyer who is tormented by matrimonial, spiritual, and creative challenges, but he didn’t know how to design the story. La Strada and La Dolce Vita had given Fellini a reputation for ingenuity, and he once again wanted to create something wholly new, as if to prove that he was still in his prime. But as he witnessed the steady physical construction of the film—the sets, the cast, the lighting—he felt increasingly unsure about how he would tell its story. At one point, Fellini decided to quit. When he was in the middle of writing a letter of resignation, however, members of the crew happened to congratulate him on his imminent accomplishment, and the gesture convinced him that he could not abandon the project. Instead, he was inspired by the drama of the moment and decided that the film would be about a director who wants to escape the making of his own movie.
Although 8½ draws on Fellini’s directorial experience, it is also clear that Fellini modeled the personal life of the film’s protagonist, Guido Anselmi, on his own. Guido’s experience in the film is accented with memories of his childhood, and these sequences are consistent with Fellini’s biography. Fellini was born on January 20, 1920, and grew up in Rimini, a city in northern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. His parents, his father a traveling salesman and his mother a housewife, sent him to parochial school, whose influence appears in two of 8½’s memory sequences. When Fellini was twelve, a circus visited Rimini, and when it left, Fellini went with it. He found work performing as a clown but soon returned to his parents, only to suffer a restless adolescence in the quiet city and leave home again when he was seventeen. This second time, Fellini followed a vaudeville troupe and earned his keep by writing comedy sketches for it. After the troupe performed in Florence, he stayed to write for humor magazines, then went to Milan, where he worked as a cartoonist. The dictator Benito Mussolini had banned American cartoons, so Fellini drew bootleg versions of them.
Fellini spent the years of World War II in Rome, where he avoided the military draft and continued to write pieces for humor magazines, as well as for Cico and Pallina, a radio drama. The woman who played Pallina was Giulietta Masina, a fledgling screen actress who would become Fellini’s wife and the star of many of his films, including La Strada and Nights of Cabiria (1956). They married in October 1943 and settled in Rome. Masina continued to look for small movie roles, while Fellini spent his days on the Via Veneto, a luxurious and lively Roman street, peddling caricatures to passersby. Through Vittorio Mussolini, son of the dictator and a close friend of Fellini’s, Fellini met director Roberto Rossellini. Fellini agreed to help Rossellini write his film Open City, which Rossellini completed in 1945.
Open City is a major film of the so-called neorealist era, which capped a celebrated tradition of Italian filmmaking that had developed since the turn of the twentieth century. The history of Italian film begins with the Kinetografo Alberini, a motion-picture camera patented by Filoteo Alberini in 1895—an invention overshadowed by that of the Lumière Brothers’ revolutionary Cinématographe (the first widely used camera, printer, and projector) around the same time. Alberini contributed to the Italian trend toward melodramatic costume films, which soon gave way to commedia brillante—light comedy that drew from Italy’s lavish opera tradition. Italian realism followed, inspired by the stories and plays of Giovanni Verga, who wrote pastoral stories about common folk such as hunters and fishermen. As World War II began, the Italian market was inundated with Fascist-sponsored propaganda films. These were accompanied by “white telephone” films, whose superficial plots, mostly confined to glamorous apartment interiors, ignored the disastrous political climate. These films were the impetus to Italian neorealism, which was as much of a sociopolitical movement as a film genre.
Neorealist directors like Luchino Visconti (whose 1943 Ossessione inspired the “neorealist” label), Roberto Rossellini, and Vittorio De Sica, disgusted by the irresponsibility of making lighthearted films during the humanitarian crises of Mussolini’s reign and the Holocaust, began to make films with socially relevant messages. In addition to having a moral philosophy, the neorealist films often used ordinary-looking or amateur actors, were shot on location with natural light, and underwent constant revisions during production that reflected the director’s experience as he worked with the film. These qualities were directly opposed to the reigning philosophy of Hollywood at the time, which bubbled with superstars like Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant and was still carefully timing the dramatic moments of its artificial (but often thrilling) plots.
After Open City, Rossellini asked Fellini to collaborate with him on his 1946 film Paisan,, the weighty theme of which—the social plight of Italy—strayed even further from Hollywood drama and secured Fellini’s reputation as an excellent screenwriter and director. During the 1950s, however, Fellini strayed from Rossellini’s neorealism, trading sociopolitical virtue for artistic exploration. He did, however, continue to include ordinary actors and situations in his films and kept his scripts dynamic throughout production (which was certainly the case for 8½).
Before 8½, Fellini’s most critically appreciated achievements were La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and La Dolce Vita. What critics applauded in these films, as well as in 8½, was Fellini’s talent for ironic social commentary, the elegance with which he merged fantasy and reality, and his sense of humor, evoked most memorably by his exaggerated characters. As in Fellini’s previous films, titillating comedy pervades 8½, though its prevailing themes involve crisis and frustration. These themes, which include marital and spiritual infidelity, aging, and creative stagnancy, mirrored Fellini’s own life at the time. Fellini’s special intimacy with the protagonist and the plot contributes to 8½’s organically subjective style of filming, which is perhaps what critics appreciated most. Just as three major novels—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—transformed the novel by focusing on the psychology of the individual, so was 8 ½ revolutionary in the film world for its unwavering preoccupation with Guido’s thoughts. 8 ½’s influence has been seen in countless European and American films directed from a subjective viewpoint, such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). In 8½, the hero Guido’s consciousness is remarkably present in every passage, not only in the fantasy or dream sequences. All sounds, sights, and actions are immediately subject to Guido’s interpretation, as if his reactions are a filter between his world and Fellini’s lens. No one had filmed in such a way before. For that reason, perhaps above all others, 8½ became a favorite of film critics, winning the 1964 Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the first prize in the 1963 Moscow Film Festival.