In 2013, the question for Italian director Federico Fellini’s seminal work 8 1/2 is does it stand up to it’s reputation as an iconic masterpiece? The answer is a hearty yes, if your cinematic vocabulary hasn’t solely been taught by hobbits and terminators. Though coolly influential and often breathtaking, 8 1/2 belongs to a bygone era and culture of filmmaking.
The fantastical episodes that make up this celluloid tapestry follow film director Guido Anselmi, a cypher for Fellini himself, struggling to find the reason behind his next film, which is already underway. He thought he had something important to say but now that he’s started saying it he’s not so sure. Harried by colourful characters including a producer who doesn’t care what decisions Guido makes as long as he makes them, a mistress plagued by sudden fevers and a wife with the questionable gift of always seeing through her husbands lies, Guido retreats ever further from reality and hides in a fantasy world made of memories and wishes.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido, a handsome and elusive dreamer, mysteriously quiet on the outside, a swirling pool of confused ideas inside – the personification of still waters running deep. Anouk Aimée is disarming as Guido’s troubled wife Luisa, Sandra Milo fantastically portrays the director’s forbidden lover as a hilarious caricature of a rich married woman capitalising on her voluptuousness, and Claudia Cardinale ignites the screen as a movie star who Guido casts as his dream woman, called Claudia.
Gianni Di Venanzo’s black and white cinematography certainly stands the test of time, dazzling with inventive and adventurous camerawork right from frame one. Likely alienating to present day audiences however are techniques such as the use of an old Italian tradition of dubbing all the dialogue in post production, whereby the actors are filmed mouthing nonsensical lines, leaving no hope for lip-synced dialogue.
Fellini’s use of cinematic language, grammar and technique to wrestle with his own demons, and his use of craft to rediscover his muse, are mightily personified by Guido, an artist who feels an alien in an industry populated by shallow money-makers and divas, an industry he depends on for his art as much as he tries to escape from it. Fellini’s brazen honesty in committing these internal and private thoughts into a very public piece of art still makes for a potent sucker punch of entertainment.
Fifty years on, much of the homage critics lay at Fellini’s feet when 8 1/2 first hit a silver screen in the glorious gloom of a Cannes cinema, is undoubtedly still deserved. Technical mastery, daring honesty and dispassionate liberality are intrinsic to the identity of 8 1/2, one of the few films still snapping at Citizen Kane’s heels as one of the greatest works of art created by a filmmaker.