8½ (1963)

Directed by Frederico Fellini

For anyone use to today’s movies (meaning, pretty much all of us), it’s difficult to understand how one of the greatest films ever made is one of the greatest films ever made.

It’s chaotic. It’s often unreal. seems to be about a guy who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing or even what the hell is going on.

This is exactly what the Frederico Fellini film is about: chaos, how memory and dream affect our everyday life, and about not knowing what do to next. Although it focuses on an artist’s creative impasse (specifically, a movie director’s), it’s about a creative drought, something that affects everyone, not just artists. It’s about dealing with this problem, about where creativity comes from, and how our creative muscles are regenerated.

The brilliance of the movie is in reflecting its subject beautifully. It doesn’t simply tell us the story of a creative block, it shows us the block. We experience it even as we learn about it. It literally takes us from the moment where there is no idea of what to create through to the moment where the idea is formed and the work is begun.

We go through the internal, largely unconscious process of creation.

Scene from the opening of 8 1/2.

Along the way, we experience everything the main character, the artist (Marcello Mastroianni) experiences – fear, anger, confusion, the complete gamut.

Cinematically, the images reflect the three sources that inform the process – memory, current reality, and fantasy. Where a scene belongs to memory, we are presented with shadows. In the current, real moment, we see naturalistic images, often stark, lit and framed to reflect a sense of disorder.

With fantasy, we’re in a world of white – scenes are almost bleached. This style gives us clues as to where we are so the seeming chaos of the film is not nearly the chaos we first image it to be. There is an order; there is a progression.

Sound is also a key element to all of this, and uses it brilliantly. In fantasy sequences, it all but drops out entirely. We hear only a word or two whispered by Mastroianni. As we move into reality, the sound returns, often cacophonous to reflect his sense of disorder and oppression.

Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2.

Because the film’s progression is not a literal, real world one but rather one of the mind and made up of such elements as dream and memory, the order and presentation of scenes is not what we are normally use to and, as a result, we’re always a bit off kilter, just as the main character is off kilter.

The end result is a film that is more experiential than most, and the experience is a rare insight into how we create.

The movie also has one of the best, and eeriest openings ever. It is not to be missed, nor are many of the other wonderful sequences that make up the film. Few directors are so clearly directors of film, of images, than Fellini.

Claudia Cardinale as Claudia in 8 1/2 (1963).

Oddly, while his images are often so fantastical, they resonate with a sense of reality, or rather truth, more so than most.

8 ½ is a visual and narrative feast.

And the DVD of is a gem.

A two disc set, it features a beautiful transfer of the film, wonderful both visually and in terms of sound.

As for features, it is full of treasures, especially the lengthy, somewhat sad and strange, interview with Sandra Milo, an insightful interview with Lina Wertmuller, and a wonderful historical education on cinematography from Vittorio Storaro.

There is also much, much more to the additional material. This two disc DVD set is one of the best presentations of a great film you’ll find.

Originally published 2003.

Scene from 1963’s 8 1/2, directed by Fredrico Fellini.

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