How does one write a review about what may very well be one of the greatest films ever made, and easily the greatest film about film ever crafted? That film is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and while some critiques panned it as self indulgent and neurotically pretentious, it has for decades been considered the cream of the crop cinematically of its generation. So again, how does one write a review now 50 years after its release?
Thankfully, one could write a novel about how brilliant this film is, no matter how old it gets.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi, the film tells the story of an enigmatic filmmaker who is suffering from a heavy and hurtful case of director’s block. Working on a spiritually inclined sci-fi epic (where all we really know is that the end will feature men of the cloth leading a procession of people onto a UFO), we are, almost from frame one, introduced to a world that is teetering on the brink of reality and fiction. With a blend of flashbacks, dreams, nightmares and fantasies, the viewer is never quite sure what they are watching or if Guido himself is all that sure where the hell he is and what the hell he is looking at. And never has a film’s narrative confusion been as visceral, inventive and purely exciting.
Before getting into the discussion of the film cinematically, one must delve into the performances. Mastroianni is career defining here, playing Guido, the troubled director. He’s charming, machismo-fueled and a pitch perfect counterpart to just about every other character on screen. His mannerisms fit the character so well, be it a dance he does down a hallway, or the way he pulls down his sunglasses as he is being accosted by his wife, played brilliantly by Anouk Aimee. She’s all the things that he’s not, assured, confident, and yet this is exactly why it is so believable that Guido would have a harem of mistresses on the side. She is stunningly gorgeous, yet in an unconventional way, far from the dream women that we see Guido flock towards throughout the film, particularly Claudia Cardinale. The actress plays Claudia, an actress who meets Guido and is also the man’s dream woman. Achingly beautiful, there is an air to her that is absolutely palpable, and she is just one side of the coin to someone like Sandra Milo, or Carla in the film, another mistress. Air headed and fur-coat adorned, the actress is really fun to watch here, and she thrives in Fellini’s surreal universe.
Surreal is easily the best way to put this film. Visually, the film is pure art. The black and white photography is lively, and Fellini’s camera is at an all-time frenetic. The film can go from a meditative, slightly frightening nightmarish opening, and then conclude in one of the most epic and virtuosic ensemble shot in cinema history, reaching every peak and valley in between. A Master’s class in lighting, shadow, visual tone and overall mood, 8 ½ may very well be the most beautiful and well crafted feature film in the history of cinema.
Thematically, the film touches upon just about every topic one could ever imagine. Primarily a film about the creative process, and all the trappings that come with it, the film meditates upon art, art’s relationship to man, man’s relationship to others, alienation, and even unanswered questions, in one of the most intriguing narratives ever made. Even in the title, one can tell what kind of film one is getting into. Truly Fellini’s eight-and-a-half film (following seven features, including on co-director credit, and a few shorts), the film is entirely a look into Fellini’s own troubles trying to make a new film, playing as a film, within a film, that in and of itself is a film about the making of the film that is being made within the film. Confused yet? That’s half the fun.
However, none of this should be all that shocking. Throughout Fellini’s work, the director was the champion of surreal filmmaking, even finding its surreal roots within Fellini’s outside work. As chronicled in the upcoming Dark Horse Comics third volume of their series of trade paperbacks looking at the artist Milo Manara, the two had a long term relationship, often collaborating on promotional material (Manara had released handfuls of prints for Fellini’s films), and even in comic book form, with two stories featured in this single comic volume. It’s a stunningly beautiful book, and for fans of this film, there is a cavalcade of meditative touches that one would be hard pressed not to find within his art work.
It also may be the greatest single film Criterion release ever released. The Blu-ray transfer is definitive. Visually arresting, the sound is absolutely killer, and the supplements are top notch. Terry Gilliam has an introduction on the film, and it is easily the weakest aspect of this disc. Far from engaging or intellectually stimulating, one will be flocking to the film’s commentary, which is all of those things and then some. The Blu-ray also features a gorgeous transfer of Fellini: A Director’s Notebook, a short film by Fellini, that is an absolute must-watch for those enthralled by the film. Only on the Blu-ray, one will find a documentary on the lost alternate ending for the film, with both releases featuring a documentary on the film’s composer Nino Rota. Rounded out by interviews, photographs and a trailer, this is easily one of the most must-own Criterion Collection releases ever put into stores. While things like Breathless and particularly this writer’s all-time favorite Criterion release, their Jean Painleve set, may be a bit more lively and eye-opening, this is simply one of the greatest home releases ever, for one of the greatest films ever.