Daniel’s review published on Letterboxd:
Writing about an all-time favourite, desert island film is like giving a speech at a best friend's wedding; how to say something poignant and not fall into clichés? A herculean task. Silly, really. I have put it off for far too long, but since I'm dedicating April and May to revisiting my cinematic "best friends" I might as well start now.
In my late teens, I was hanging out a lot at the Rotten Tomatoes forum and it was here my love of cinema flourished. Instead of working my way down the IMDb top 250 list, I challenged myself with ever more complex and opaque works by the great directors of the 20th century. Persona, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, The 400 Blows, Andrei Rublev, Stalker, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Last Year at Marienbad, Vertigo, Le Samourai, L'Avventura, Werckmeister Harmonies - these were some of the films that were tearing my ideas about cinema apart and building them back up again. I hated some for it, but others have stuck with me ever since - none more so than Fellini's 8½, which, together with Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes, cemented my love for movies and have remained my personal favourites ever since.
But why? Now that my cinematic landscape has widened, I can see that 8½ is not a great place to start delving into Fellini's oeuvre. In fact, I've screened it to five or six friends during a weekend retreat and all but one of them started looking at their phones or fell asleep. Not only did they question my taste in movies after that, they questioned my sanity. I learnt my lesson and today I cautiously steer newcomers away from it when they pick 8½ off my shelf. Maybe ease into it with La Dolce Vita, Amarcord or even La Strada, I say to them, at which point they pick up Casablanca and say "you know, I've never seen this, can you believe it?".
Carla, the mistress that Guido invites to be near him at the spa, but quickly tires of, is one of my all-time favourite characters. She's the perfect combination of tragedy and comedy, so outrageously animated and neglected and dying inside a bit and shouting for attention. Fellini infuses some of his comic writing background into her character; the sound effects she makes, the fake punches she throws at Guido.
Several years ago, I was assisting Dutch author Rosita Steenbeek during one of her readings as part of my job for our local bookshop - setting up her mic and selling her books and such. I'd never heard of her before, but she quickly impressed me; a magnetic woman, extremely erudite, talking about her life with great candor. And then she dropped a bombshell: she had been Federico Fellini's mistress, she said, and had written her first novel inspired by her time with him. Wow, I had to talk to her, so I stepped up afterwards and kind of blurted out "Fellini is like one of my all-time favourite directors!", and she said "mine too" with a wicked smile. She had been his last mistress before he died and he was still the love of her life, she told me resolutely, even though that time in her life, as a young girl in Rome hopelessly in love with this great director, was also very painful. "I would sit in my little room, next to my telephone, day after day, hoping he would call."
I see her in Carla and in many other women in Fellini's films. Definitely not as simple, or cartoonish, but just as vivacious, passionate. The moment Rosita Steenbeek said she had been Fellini's lover, I could see it.
Fellini is, of course, infamous for his philandering, and some even call him a misogynist. I would say, based solely on what I've seen him put of himself into his films, that his problem was that he loved women too much. In 8½, for example, there are many women that Guido loves for very different reasons. He loves Carla for her playfulness, he loves the nameless lady in his hotel for her dignity, he loves Claudia Cardinale as a perfect ideal of a woman, and he loves his wife Luisa for her steadfast loyalty, even though she doesn't seem to know what to do with her life at the moment either.
Fellini places two critics in this film whose lines transcend the film itself and strike at its creator. The first is the writer Carini, who is one of the first characters we meet and makes appearances throughout the film. He ruthlessly tears into the story of the film Guido is making, calling it a shallow vanity project of little worth with nothing much to say. Here Fellini is preempting the critics of 8½ by doing their work for them, inside the movie itself!. It is a stroke of genius. Carini makes his final appearance at the end of the movie and gives Guido the advice he needs to decide what to do with his life and his current project. More on this later.
The second critic offers thoughts of a more personal nature. It is Luisa, Guido's wife, but in a sense, also Fellini's wife. The scenes between Luisa and Guido, when they are lying in bed arguing about his unfaithfulness, are the furthest the movie gets from its playful dreamy nature. It gets real. Yes, many of Fellini's critics - including Carini - like to discard him as an exhibitionist, as if that were a bad thing. I've seen very few directors be so brutally honest towards themselves as Fellini in 8½ and most of that honesty gets channeled through Luisa.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
There's a paralysing thought akin to existential angst that comes from "living in the moment". I think everyone can relate to it, especially today in a world that feels unforgiving for those who want to take their time. The thought is that once you make a choice, go down one path, your life is set in stone; there's no going back, no do-overs, you're left pining over all the choices you could have made, the chances you missed out on.
"Could you walk out on everything and start all over again?" Guido asks Claudia, "Could you choose one single thing, and be faithful to it?". "Could you?" she asks. "No, the character I'm thinking of couldn't. He wants to possess and devour everything. He can't pass anything up. He's afraid he'll miss something."
By now we know the character in his movie and he are the same, but is he talking about his movie or is he talking about something more personal? Perhaps both. Guido loves his wife, but the thought of staying true to just one woman for the rest of his life frightens him, I think. "Do you want to start over?" Luisa asks him in bed. He replies no, but is he lying to himself? His inability to come to terms with the path in life he has chosen has bled over into the production of his latest project. The movie is paralysed. He doesn't know what to do with it.
The solution is one I've given many times over the years to students wrestling with academic papers: if you find yourself lost in the hallways of a house you've built, sometimes it's best to just burn the place down and start from scratch rather than wander around endlessly. Carini the critic congratulates Guido on the courage it took to walk away from his film, a project that had so much time and money invested in it. If this represents an "end" for Guido, giving himself a "new start", what does this say as a metaphor for his relationship with Luisa?
That's what I love about 8½. After so many viewings, I still feel like I've only scratched the surface.