Once firmly established in the pantheon of the greatest directors, Federico Fellini has fallen somewhat out of fashion, though not necessarily for the right reasons.
Though more of a Fellini skeptic than not myself, I can’t go along with the common opinion that Fellini’s early neorealist-inflected works, culminating in La Strada, are his best, and that the later, increasingly surreal cinema of the gaudy and fantastical represented by 8½ is self-indulgently trivial by comparison.
Self-indulgent, 8½ may be, and brimming with narcissistic self-loathing and cinematic sleight-of-hand, with its semi-autobiographical, self-referential tale of a dissolute, creatively blocked director named Guido (Marcello Mastroiani), unable to achieve authenticity either in his personal or professional life, lost in a world of fantasy, memory, and self-delusion. Yet if Fellini has any greatness or interest as a director, it is for all that is Felliniesque about films like 8½. If Fellini ever directed a masterpiece, it is 8½.
That’s not to say the naysayers don’t have a point — or even that Fellini does have one. Style and flair he has, in abundance. Yet when Guido announces, "I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it anyway," it’s impossible not to hear Fellini’s own voice.
What makes 8½ effective in a way that similar exercises such as Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories or Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation arguably are not is Fellini’s imaginative virtuosity, his ability to projects his conscious and subconscious anxieties and obsessions onto the screen in imagery of dreamlike power. The film’s opening sequence — a claustrophobic scene of a man suffocating in a car in a traffic jam in a tunnel; a bird’s-eye view of the same man now free, soaring high in the air like a kite, a rope around his leg held by a man far below on the ground — reach past the defenses of the rational mind with the haunting power of a dream from which one has only just awakened.
Fellini’s flights into the surreal are his self-examination and confession. Alas, unlike Bergman, who made similarly self-disclosive use of dream sequences in Wild Strawberries, Fellini’s confession is without moral rigor; he wants to be indulged rather than absolved. Bergman’s self-exploration was a pitiless examination of conscience; Fellini is merely putting on a show. But he is a consummate showman, and it’s quite a show.
Roger Ebert argues that 8½ "is not a film about a director out of ideas — it is a film filled to bursting with inspiration." Yet Guido is a director out of ideas, and the film, however inspired it may be, is about him. If there was ever a case to be made that a director could be at once out of ideas and also bursting with inspiration, 8½ is that case.
As yet, I have found no illumination in critical accolades and explanations. No critical account of La Strada I have read has struck me as compelling or illuminating. Pauline Kael famously wrote that the three main characters represent the flesh, the spirit, and the mind. But the same could be said for virtually any trinity of characters, from Lancelot, Arthur, and Guinevere to Kirk, Spock and McCoy to Mr. Toad, Mole, and Rat, and what light this paradigm sheds on this particular story is unclear to me. Alan Stone calls it "a parable about Italy under fascism and the possibility of Christian Salvation," but I can’t see that it has anything interesting to say about this either, or that it says it in an interesting way.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.