I recently watched I vitelloni for the first time, and it’s quite the jump from that film’s neo-realism to 8 ½’s full-bodied Fellini fever dream. I don’t necessarily favor one version of the director over the other— in fact, these two films are in a dead heat for my favorite of his— though this still isn’t as fancifully indulgent as later films like Amarcord or Satyricon. 8 ½ more methodically bounces between past and present, reality and fantasy, reflecting Guido’s continuous state of nostalgia and self-pity. My favorite parts are the most surreal: the disorienting nightmare tableaux of the opening, the eerie mind-reading trick, and the frenzied, hilarious harem sequence. Even in the real world, the steam bath meeting with a Cardinal recalls La Dolce Vita’s dreamily absurd image of the Virgin Mary statue being flown off via helicopter.

Reality, however, is largely given over to Guido’s rather repetitive pre-production headaches and relationship strife. These parts are often funny, but I was less engaged by their comparatively simplistic vision of vapid sycophants, babbling lovers, and what seems like Fellini engaging with his own (also vapid, of course) critics. That’s partly just personal taste, since I usually have minimal interest in stories of besieged artists. The art-imitating-life angle just isn’t as pointed as Guido’s imaginary house full of the women from his life, revolting as they’re banished to “upstairs” for reaching a certain age.

Luckily, the writer’s block angle is more of a jumping-off point for the whimsical flashbacks and fantasy sequences, even if it does take a while to fully jump off. Fellini’s roving camera moves and eye for unusual settings (that unfinished rocket ship) are consistently engaging, as is the pristine black and white cinematography. And the more critical the film gets of Guido, the more sympathetic I am to its portrait of the creative process. These kinds of stories usually have to go full Barton Fink to really resonate with me, but 8 ½ is just rough enough around the edges to make the naval-gazing go down.

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