Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The most memorable collective body of characters in 8½ is unquestionably its women, who range from a collegiate waif to a movie star to a simple-minded hotel owner. The harem sequence that showcases these women also illustrates the way in which Guido, like many men, is in some way attracted to every woman he’s ever known. Guido feels guilty about having extramarital interest and at certain points expresses the wish not to have such temptation. Fellini articulates Guido’s incredible difficulty suppressing his desire by emphasizing the sensuality of all of the female characters in the film. Carla, Guido’s ever-available, sumptuously beautiful mistress, is the best example, for she personifies sexual temptation itself. Other, more unlikely women also attract Guido, such as the monstrous Saraghina (Guido likes her thick legs and quick hips) and Guido’s homely aunts, with whom he associates being nurtured. In any case, every scene in the film includes women with special features— shapely backs, crowns of blond hair, beautiful voices—that taunt Guido’s intent to behave.
Though the presence of religion pervades 8½, the film offers no clear religious message—a setup well matched to Guido’s ambiguous attitude toward religion. In short, Guido isn’t sure how he feels about faith and the church. He began moving away from the church as an adolescent, when he discovered that the rigors of devout Catholicism would not accommodate his emerging libido. Despite this early separation, the middle-aged Guido has a deep respect for Catholicism and yearns to understand it. In his dream involving his parents, he is wearing a clerical robe, and before his appearance at the fountain he is touched by a solemn moment he witnesses between the cardinal and his attendants in the elevator. Guido makes sure to seek the cardinal’s advice and approval for the script in his film, but during the interview the cardinal seems distant, commenting on a birdcall and asking Guido questions about his family life. The wisdom of the cardinal seems equally inaccessible in Guido’s daydream of their meeting in the steam baths, during which the cardinal recites biblical quotations in Latin and barely acknowledges Guido. Preoccupied with aging, which inevitably leads to death, Guido makes an earnest effort to understand the religion of his upbringing. Nonetheless, the spirit of Catholicism evades him.
Guido’s life is fraught with professional concerns. The introductory nightmare sequence during which Guido, blissfully escaping into the clouds, is pulled down by men from the film industry, is a clear symptom of his stress. Although Guido’s occupation involves him perhaps a bit more personally than other jobs would—for his artistic production depends on his professional stability—Fellini’s description of the interminable nagging and never-tied loose ends of Guido’s career is nevertheless universally relevant. For example, during Guido’s physical exam, which takes place directly after the nightmare sequence, Fellini depicts the absurdity of society’s acceptance of jobs that invade the personal sphere. Guido sits, leaning forward with his pajama top pulled over his head so that the doctor can listen to his breathing, and allows his collaborator, Daumier, who is wearing a robe, to come in to talk about the script. The level of intimacy with his coworkers that Guido is accustomed to accept seems almost ridiculous. Fellini completes the statement with a flourish at the end of the scene: Guido escapes his doctor and Daumier by slipping into his bathroom, where he expects to find privacy, but is afforded only a moment to himself before a phone—a phone in the bathroom, no less—begins to ring.