Otto e mezzo (8½) achieved its rather distinctive appellation as a result of its location within a Fellini canon which up to that point included seven films and two short pieces that the director had contributed to a pair of Italian anthology films. Given this personal linkage with its director and the film's apparent theme—one not unrelated to a case history of male menopause—as well as its numerous biographical parallels to Fellini's own life, it is tempting to regard 8½ simply as a self-indulgent though highly creative attempt to fill a void in the director's progression of films. Instead this study of a filmmaker's creative and personal crises is now recognized as a masterpiece, and one of a very small number of cinematic efforts to utter a clear statement on the intricate nature of artistic inspiration.
8½ is a film of cycles in which past, present and future are subtly intertwined in an endless continuum of meaning that exists within the mind of the artist as well as in the aesthetic itself. Utilizing a complex structure of multi-tiered symbolism common to works as diverse as Edmund Spenser's Fairie Queene and Herman Melville's Moby Dick but only rarely accomplished on the screen, the film revolves in a seemingly counter-clockwise direction pivoting on the character of Guido. It is he who imbues it with a different meaning on each level of interpretation. The various symbolic planes merge fully in the film's final scenes when all of the characters (and all that each represents) join hands to form a circle that revolves dizzily backwards until all that remains is Guido as a child, ready to begin the cycle again.
8½ is a trip backward in preparation to go forward. The end of the film is also its beginning. On every level, it is a return of the artist and the aesthetic to the formative wellsprings of the art for the inspiration that will take each into the future. On its most accessible level, the biographical one, it is the story of Guido, a motion picture director not unlike Fellini himself (although most critics are too reverential of the similarities between the two) who has lost his source of inspiration both in his art and in his life. He inevitably turns inward to examine the generative events of his development—his boyhood, the Church, his relationship with his parents, and the women in his life—as well as the nightmares accompanying each. It is only when he symbolically returns to the womb at the end of the film, by crawling under the table at the press conference where he squeezes a revolver to his temple, that he can be reborn. Stating "Clean . . . disinfect," he pulls the trigger. Like an artistic phoenix, he is reborn in his own creative ashes and rises to receive the inspiration that will enable him to create an entirely new kind of film from the experiences of the old.
At this point, a second and more abstract level of meaning begins to become apparent. The film that Guido is ultimately inspired to make is, in fact, the film that we have been watching. Thus, at the end of the biographical cycle, the beginnings of the first aesthetic level emerge. The meaning of the film, on this tier, centers on our witnessing of the creative process—the thoughts, the memories, the incidents by which a new kind of film is born. As a number of scholars, most notably Christian Metz, have suggested, "8½ is the film of 8½ being made." This is most obvious in those scenes in which a sound-stage buzzer intrudes on the action, or those in which bright set lights are all too obviously turned on, and in the film's critical final scene where lights, cameras and crews are visible.
The final scene initiates an even more abstract cycle of meaning that becomes a commentary on the aesthetic of Italian film itself. The entire scene unfolds before an enormous monolithic structure of a rocket gantry. In front of this structure, a large crowd mills about and the entire image becomes reflective of similar scenes in the great silent epic Quo Vadis (1912) and Cabiria (1913) which represented Italy's first "golden period" of cinema. During this era, reality manifested itself in the monumental, densely populated and often frenzied forms of the epics, as well as in the grim, suffering people and dirty streets of such forerunners of neorealism as Sperduti nel Buio (1914). This dichotomy is reflected in 8½ in the artistic struggles Guido has with his producer who wants him to make an epic, and with himself in his expressed desire to make a film that tells the truth. Fellini merges and internalizes both concepts in 8½ to create an epic of the psyche which adequately encompasses the gritty realism of the scenes of Guido's childhood.
On this broad aesthetic level 8½ is the journey of Italian film backward to re-establish its roots in the silent period and regain the inspiration to create a new direction for the films to come. What, on the biographical level, had been a re-examination of Guido's childhood, becomes, at this extreme, a history of Italian film returning through neorealism, the white telephone comedies, and even the side show demonstrations to its beginnings. At the end of the film, as workers are dismantling the huge gantry after the press conference, Guido sits in his car with his scriptwriter Carni who discourses on the creative artist. "Any man," says the writer, "who is really worthy to be called an artist should swear to one thing in his creative life— dedication to silence." With the pronunciation of the word "silence," Guido's creative powers surge back and he is ready to begin the film that is 8½.
While this scene is significant on all levels of interpretation, in the broadest sense, it is indicative that Fellini has taken film back to its golden period when experimental approaches to film forms were daring and innovative. He is clearing the stage for a new kind of film represented by 8½, and its successor Juliet of the Spirits, an intertwining of reality and spectacle, but an internal one projecting the mind, imagination and emotions of its director. Although there are various other concerns in 8½ reflected in the musings and dialogues of its protagonist, they are generally supportive of the broader aesthetic levels of the film: the artist, the original work, and the tradition of the art itself. On all of these levels, Fellini has succeeded admirably in the creation of a new aesthetic from the materials of the old.
Release Date: 1963
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Sandro Milo, Claudia Cardinale, Rosella Falk, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Barbara Steele, Mario Pisu, Guido Alberti, Mario Conocchia, Jean Rougeul, Edra Gale, Ian Dallas, Annibale Ninchi, Giuditta Rissone, Tito Masini, Frazier Rippy, Georgia Simmons, Palma Mangini, Roberta Valli, Riccardo Guglielmi, Marco Gemini, Yvonne Casadei, Cesarino Miceli, Picardi, Bruno Agostino, Olimpia Cavalli, Maria Antonietta Beluzzi, Comtesse Elisabetta Cini, Polidor, and Mino Doro
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi
Source Citation: Hanson, Stephen L. "8½." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 907-910.