Some passages of 8½, like the opening scene in which Guido flies away from a traffic jam, obviously are not meant to describe reality. To emphasize the point, Guido wakes up in his bed, and we see that he has been dreaming. In this first example, the exact point at which the dream ends and reality begins is very clear, but in later sequences of dream, memory, or fantasy, the transition to reality is not so distinct. Guido’s fantasy often begins by blending itself into his reality, so the shift can be difficult to recognize. These seamless transitions can be confusing, especially upon a first viewing, but their subtlety is essential for what Fellini aimed to achieve: a direct representation of Guido’s experience and his response to it. Guido’s consciousness acts as a filter between the world around him and the camera lens, and we see the events only as Guido reacts to them. We experience Guido’s world from inside his own mind, which explains why reality slips into daydream so smoothly. Guido, like any person, drifts constantly between the world and his thoughts.
Moreover, even the “reality” portions of the film are not quite reality but rather reality as manipulated by Guido’s attitude toward it. Consider, for instance, the outdoor sequence at the spa that takes place directly after the phone rings in Guido’s bathroom. First, we hear a symphony orchestra playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” It would be appropriate for an elegant spa to have an outdoor orchestra, and we do see a conductor, but it is unlikely that the spa would hire a full symphony in the daytime, and still more unlikely that the bombastic “Ride of the Valkyries” would be on the program. (Music that is more appropriate for a vacation spa is heard later that evening and on the night that Luisa arrives.) In fact, the reason we hear “Ride of the Valkyries” is that it expresses Guido’s thoughts, which at this particular moment are ironic and satirical. Guido is surrounded at the spa by wrinkled, bent, slowly-moving men and women whose features are exaggerated by Guido’s focus on them, people so pathetic that Guido mockingly compares them to the heroic warriors of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Guido dramatizes the scene further by imagining the spa guests in fashions from the 1930s rather than contemporary clothing, as if he is blending his boyhood conception of an elegant spa with his current experience. By infusing reality with Guido’s reaction to it, Fellini allows us to understand the basic idea of the scene, Guido’s first visit to the spring of the health spa, and encourages us to use the peculiarities, incompatible music and anachronistic clothing, to analyze Guido’s feelings. This style of filming is consistent throughout 8½, so it is essential to pay attention to all such details that seem out of place.
If the reality sequences accommodate the reactions in Guido’s mind, how can we recognize the shifts from reality to fantasy? In many cases, Fellini nudges us with aural and visual cues. For example, before Guido’s first vision of Claudia, he taps his nose with his finger, which is meant to remind us of Pinocchio, another Italian liar, and indicates the incipient fantasy. After the nose signal, the soundtrack falls silent, marking Guido’s departure from reality. The fantasy is broken when an insistent voice (in this case, a water-server) invades the silence. Guido’s childhood sequences begin more abruptly, as certain elements in his environment yank him into the past with no warning. In retrospect, however, we can recognize why these elements acted as stimuli. The magician reading Asa nisi masa at the hotel recalls a scene in which Guido’s little cousin told him that the phrase had magical powers, and seeing a woman’s stocky legs in the presence of the cardinal reminds Guido of his visit to Saraghina.
The way in which Fellini allows tiny details to orchestrate the trajectory of the plot is, of course, parallel to Guido’s experience. Such an absolutely subjective filmic style was a groundbreaking innovation that earned 8½ its place among the most important films ever made. Its novelty, however, is itself delightfully ironic, for the way in which Guido is jerked to and fro between reality and the caprices of his mind is simply a characteristic of normal human consciousness.