Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Toward the beginning of the mind-reading magicians scene, right after Gloria and Mezzabotta dance together, Guido wears a funny-looking false nose, fondling and tapping it. Guido, bored with the entertainment and his company, has apparently shaped the false nose from a dinner roll. More than a mere idle gesture, making the false nose contributes to the film’s extended Pinocchio metaphor. In the well-known story, when the puppet Pinocchio tells a lie, his nose grows. Guido, thinking of himself as Pinocchio, relates his dishonesty to his nose and taps it with his finger at significant moments. Right before Guido’s first daydream of Claudia serving him spring water, for example, Guido taps his nose. He repeats the gesture at the café right before the harem fantasy. In both instances, Guido is uncomfortable before he plunges into his fantasy, and the fabrication seems to be a sort of defense mechanism for him. Guido’s glasses, which he touches or pulls away from his eyes before moments of fantasy or dishonesty, have a similar symbolic significance.
Since the producers are eager to start shooting Guido’s film, they begin construction of a rocket launch pad that Guido designed even before he had completed a screenplay to accommodate it. As it turns out, Guido realizes that science fiction is the wrong artistic direction for him and gives the orders to tear it down before construction is even complete. The launch pad, which consumed two hundred tons of concrete alone, is a prodigious mistake with important symbolic significance. Like the fabled Tower of Babel, the shuttle is a symbol of arrogance, but rather than signifying Guido’s attempt to be closer to the gods, the shuttle alludes to his creative pretension. Guido spends much of his professional life among doting admirers, and without proper criticism to temper their praise, he feels an excess of artistic license that allows him to “lie,” as he puts it, or to be artistically insincere. The potentially phallic nature of the launch pad apparatus also suggests a reminder of Guido’s sexual arrogance and infidelity.
The traffic jam of the opening sequence represents the suffocating presence of the film industry in Guido’s life, which he escapes miraculously by floating into the sky. He is free for only a few moments before two businessmen, the manager and the publicist for actress Claudia Cardinale, yank him back down to Earth with a rope. Guido struggles briefly with the rope before he descends. The rope serves as a symbol of the film industry’s control and near ownership of Guido’s life. The producers who fund Guido’s creative projects nag him, the press never leaves him alone, and Guido himself is tied to his movies by his own concerns about artistic integrity. Toward the end of the film, during the screen tests, Guido takes advantage of a delicious opportunity to reverse the rope’s symbolic function when he imagines his producers using it to hang the irritating Daumier.
Fellini was interested in the work of Carl Jung, the psychologist who wrote that the anima (the repressed feminine component of the male unconscious mind) is responsible for the connection to the spring, or source of life, in the unconscious mind. Likewise, the supposedly curative spring in 8½ has symbolic meaning that is at once related to female psychology and youth. The spring, then, is a perfectly appropriate “cure” for Guido’s major challenges, which include confusion with women and fear of aging. Claudia Cardinale, whom Guido plans to cast as his lead actress, is a personification of these qualities of the spring. This link between Claudia and the spring is especially clear in Guido’s fantasy of her in his bedroom, during which she repeats, “I want to create order, I want to cleanse.” The moment when Guido decides not to include Claudia in his film is thus doubly meaningful because while it marks his creative revelation, it also signifies his realization that there is no simple “cure” to his challenges.