Forty-three-year-old Guido Anselmi is a famous film director under an enormous amount of pressure. His producer, having invested heavily in Guido’s next film despite the fact that its script is still incomplete, is counting on Guido to make another success. The producer is ready and eager to begin filming. Guido, however, who was recently diagnosed with a mild liver ailment, is feeling old, and it is important to him that this film is different from the others—something new. At the same time, Guido knows that his wife, Luisa, is becoming more and more frustrated with his neglect of her, and he is afraid of losing her for good. In this way, Guido is simultaneously challenged to define the trajectory of his own life and that of the protagonist in his film.
As Guido wrestles with the questions of whether he can manage to be a true husband to Luisa and whether he can make his film really work, his associates, who have joined him at the health spa where he is staying, exacerbate the pressure he feels. The directorial suggestions of Conocchia, Guido’s longtime collaborator, seem outdated and make Guido worry that his own creative virility is also becoming limited as he ages. Similarly, Mezzabotta, who looks ridiculous with his significantly younger fiancée, makes Guido anxious about aging. Although Carla, Guido’s mistress, is a comfort to him, Guido is afraid that her tacky conspicuousness makes him look as foolish as Mezzabotta. Carla is the polar opposite of Guido’s wife, Luisa, whom Guido truly loves. His insatiable temperament, however, prevents him from committing to one woman.
Extramarital lust and fear of aging are common midlife challenges, so even the frequent daydreaming that seems so unique under Fellini’s direction is not too far out of the ordinary. Still, Guido’s acute sensitivity and vivacious creativity make him an exceptional character. Whereas it is natural for one’s environment to inspire associations and recall memories, mild visual stimuli as innocuous as spa-goers in a steam bath inspire Guido to create entirely new worlds that correspond with his attitude. When Guido realizes that he can use this special interpretative talent to synthesize the conflicts of his protagonist with his own challenges, his creative crisis is resolved. The ultimate success of Guido’s marriage, however, remains uncertain.