Ricordati che è un film comico: ‘remember, this is a comedy film’. So, legend has it, Federico Fellini reminded himself with a note positioned near the camera’s viewfinder during the shooting of 8½, his now legendary ‘film about filmmaking’. It is more than just this, though; it is an examination of the challenge every artist faces in the act of creation, the struggle to articulate a representation of one’s own experiences into a work which communicates to somthing to others.
The film is representative of the situation Fellini himself faced in 1963; he had had the thing that all artists both strive for and dread simultaneously: a hit. Despite his earlier critical acclaim for films such as La Strada and Le Notti Di Cabiria, it was La Dolce Vita, released in 1960, that catapulted the director into the worldwide limelight. In 8½, the main character Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is similarly faced with the task of producing a follow up to a succesful film. The trouble is, he doesn’t know what film to make, and is constantly hampered by the demands of critics, mistresses, actors, producers, fans and hangers on. Of course in the plane of reality, the film Fellini was making was 8½.
The film naturally contains many autobiographical elements, in particular childhood recollections; in one particularly memorable scene, the young Guido experiences his sexual awakening with Saraghina, a rather buxom prostitute, who performs a raunghy rhumba for him and his friends. 8½ marks the point in Fellini’s career where autobiography began to become more and more an inspiration for his films: whilst the earlier film I Vitelloni touched on his past in the seaside town of Rimini, it was in later films such as Roma and Amarcord where he would most explicitly deal with his past.
This use of autobiography was not without controversy; Fellini came under domestic critcism for having been seen to have broken with his background with the Neorealist movement of post-war Italy. This accusation was also levelled at a similar time at his filmmaking peers Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. Of this triumvirate, it is perhaps Fellini against whom the charge seems weakest; even his earlier films, particularly his ‘trilogy of loneliness’ (La Strada, Il Bidone, Le Notti Di Cabiria) never formally adhered to the neorealist structure. Perhaps this was merely jealousy on the part of his critics.
There are so many things to say about how wonderful the film is, and so many scenes that stick vividly in the memory, but one thing i will flag up is the simply wonderful soundtrack. Nino Rota, who would work on all of Fellini’s films until the composer’s death, outdid even his supremely high standards with the score for 8½, the signature passarella wonderfully encapsulating the ‘beautiful confusion’ of the film, and indeed filmmaking. It has been said that the music is the one thing which really binds the film together; certainly the repeating motifs and melodies help to add more of a sense of coherence to what is at times a rather scattergun narrative. In the film’s closing scenes, a small boy with a flute plays the film’s title theme, leading a procession of the film’s characters, characters taken from Fellini’s life, in a large circular dance. The great director is showing us how he sees himself: as that young boy, leading the dance.