Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Guido’s first words in the film are “forty-three,” his age. The placement of this detail so early in the film indicates Guido’s preoccupation with it. A recent onset of health problems (he is ostensibly visiting the spa for a mild liver ailment) causes Guido to worry, like any middle-aged man, that his most productive years are coming to a close. The idea of aging is especially terrifying for a man like Guido, because two of the qualities that he values most—his creative ability and his virility—often rely heavily on youth. Fellini makes some direct references to the physical characteristics of Guido’s aging, as when Guido gazes at his wrinkles in his bathroom mirror, when Mezzabotta comments on his gray hair, and when Claudia teases him that he dresses like an old man. Fellini makes a stronger statement, however, with Guido’s response to the sickly guests at the spa and to his aging companions, Mezzabotta and Conocchia. Mezzabotta’s age is emphasized by his much younger American fiancée Gloria, in whose presence he often comes across as ridiculous or pathetic. When Mezzabotta follows Gloria’s lead on the dance floor and performs some vigorous steps, for example, Fellini frames his sweaty efforts from an unbecoming head-on angle to indicate that Guido thinks Mezzabotta is making a spectacle of himself and aging disgracefully. Guido expresses a similar feeling toward Conocchia, his senior collaborator, who embodies Guido’s fear that getting old will diminish his professional relevance.
Fellini’s subjective technique of documenting Guido’s train of thought from reality to daydream and back again, unburdened from traditional perspective shifts and dramatic convention, seems liberating when we view 8½. This placement of daydream and reality side by side comes across as a very convincing depiction of the way in which we actually experience life, reminding us of the mind’s power to transcend everyday reality. But at the same time, the film makes this process, in which observation alternates with imagination, seem somewhat frightening, as it is something over which we have little control. For example, Guido would never choose to have the nightmare of the opening sequence or to imagine his colleagues in the steam baths as hell-bound invalids. His thoughts and daydreams are involuntary. Though this aspect of the mind cannot be consciously controlled, it is interesting to observe the manner in which the subconscious directs it. In the Saraghina sequence, for example, Guido’s subconscious alters the memory to make himself seem more innocent. In Guido’s fantasies about Claudia, excess sound is silenced so that Guido can focus more closely on her. Guido’s dreams seem designed in order to call his attention to his problems. In this way the control of the mind seems constructive, yet the idea of having no free will is frightening.
Critics applauded Fellini’s adept and witty social commentary in La Dolce Vita, and the same element exists in 8½ to emphasize the frivolity of bourgeois society. While guests of a ritzy health spa and people in the film industry may seem like easy targets, the elements that Fellini satirizes are relevant to middle- and upper-class society in general. Fellini embeds his satirical references in dialogue that is sometimes off-screen, making it easy to miss. For example, while Guido eyes Carla at the first grand evening at the hotel, we hear the voices of the American reporter and his wife, an American society woman who writes for women’s magazines. The American reporter is speaking to the French actress and her manager in French, expressing the simple opinion that a film should have a hero. His wife interrupts him twice with her nasal cawing, first with “What the hell are you talking about” then with “I don’t understand a damn bit of that French.” After the second interjection, her husband responds in English with “Oh dear, honey, don’t drink any more.” Fellini’s portrayal of the women’s magazine writer—the standard-setter for millions of women—as a crass drunk points to the foolish herd mentality of contemporary culture. The American reporter’s idle chatting with the French actress in her native tongue makes a subtler point: that reporters will do anything to get their story but really have nothing to say. The couple’s American nationality does not indicate Fellini’s antagonism to America but rather the quick spread of American pop culture worship into Europe.