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Film Studies Essays – Fellini Film Narrative

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Fellini Film Narrative

8 1/2

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 is one of the early landmarks of postmodernism. (Bondanella, 93-116) If the myth is to be believed, Fellini had signed with producer Angelo Rizzoli to direct something like a sequel to his enormously successful La Dolce Vita. Actors were hired. The crew was ready. And a large set had been built: a rocket launching pad. But where was the story? In early drafts of the scenario, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) had been a writer.

Only when Fellini turned the character into a film director did the elements fall into place. This would be a film about director’s block: about not being able to make a film. About what the scholars call ‘the creative process.’ Weaving together fantasy, flashback, fear, and celebration all orchestrated, as usual, by Nino Rota he achieved an overwhelming international success. (Bondanella, 93-116)

8 1/2 remains the key Fellini movie because it is freer from the tyranny of narrative than anything that came before or since. In the Fifties Fellini had been a storyteller in the neorealist tradition. But that wasn’t his real calling. The meandering plot of La Dolce Vita had given him a more accommodating framework for his collection of gorgeous images, extreme characters, and musical set pieces. In 8 1/2 he is free entirely to organize these quintessentially cinematic tropes in a way that fits the curious logic of cinema (not the demands of narrative.) The film is more like a night at the opera than an afternoon at the movies. (Bondanella, 93-116)

Today, national cinema is on the top. It is producing more and more films based on socio-political circumstances. It’s not the quotes from Rossini and Wagner; its Nino Rota and Fellini. To me, Rota has always been Fellini’s co-auteur. There’s a powerful interplay between Rota’s evocative music and Fellini’s musical images. Both of them use their images and themes over and over, reworking variations in interesting ways. 8 1/2 gives Rota more room to elaborate on Fellini’s visuals than he had had in earlier films. Industrial and economic factors are highlighting major issues in modern films like 8 1/2.

Apart from other international standards, the musical nature of 8 1/2 makes it a perfect candidate for DVD. This is one film, like music, that you want to play again and again. About the only feature missing from this Criterion edition is a random player that would allow you to run through the twenty-six chapters in arbitrary order! I’m not joking: restructuring 8 1/2 would reveal a lot about Fellini’s art. You can see from the DVD’s chapters that the maestro’s unit of thought was the sequence, not the narrative. You could make four smaller films from the material the women, the dreams, the production, the spa. You could reverse the first and last sequences (Guido trapped in the traffic jam, the circus at the spaceship) and it would work, but as a much darker film.

Aside from that random player, not much else is missing from this typically rich and careful Criterion production. It’s a minicourse in Fellini that should keep your evenings occupied for most of the week (even if you watch the film only once).

The commentary track skillfully interweaves three different tracks. There’s no indication who wrote the competent essay read by actress Tanya Zaicon, but Antonio Monda teaches film at NYU and Gideon Bachmann was a longtime friend and colleague of Fellini. A telling line from Gideon Bachmann: Everyone loved being used by Federico. Including myself. Their additions make the commentary track less of a lecture, more a discussion. (The Terry Gilliam introduction is just decoration: the premise was that both he and Fellini started as cartoonists.)

The transfer is up to Criterion’s usual high standard, made from “a 35mm fine-grain master made from the original negative.” (Although I still prefer Criterion’s laserdisc edition but that’s another story.)

The ‘extras’ on disc two are remarkable. Fellini A Director’s Notebook is the documentary he made for television in 1969 dealing mainly with his inability to make The Voyage of G. Mastorna several years earlier: a case of life imitating art (except that producer Dino Di Laurentiis sued Fellini for the expense of the sets that had been built). It is cloying and silly but his only chance to amortize the cost of the Mastorna sets.

The documentary on Nino Rota is essential viewing if you believe, as I do, that Fellini would not have been possible without Rota. (This is a film from German television made by Vassili Silovíc.) The interviews with Lina Wertmüller (an uncredited Assistant Director on 8 1/2) and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who never worked with Fellini) are both worthwhile.

But the real jewel of the extras is a twenty-six-minute monologue by Sandra Milo. (This is one of the interviews apparently shot especially for the DVD.) Milo played Carla, Guido’s mistress, in 8 1/2, and then had a seventeen-year affair with Guido’s alter ego, Fellini. The interview is an eerie mirror of the forty-year-old movie. Milo paints breathless word pictures of life with Fellini. She didn’t want to make the film, at first. One day Fellini arrived at her apartment with cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo, designer Piero Gherardi, camera, and costumes. We’re here to make your screen test, he announced. Her housekeeper dragged her out of bed to meet him.

A few years later he offered her the role of Gradisca in Amarcord. She describes how the two of them worked out the character on a cold, dark soundstage at Cinecittà in the dead of winter. But her husband wouldn’t let her make the film. The role was eventually played by Magali Noël, imitating Milo (imitating Carla). At the end of these stories she puts a period: This is my story with Federico Fellini. But the camera rolls on. After a few seconds she adds: When I go to Fregene I think I see him among the trees. (Fellini died in 1993.)

A few beats. Her smile crumbles; a tear forms; she sways. Sometimes he calls me, and laughing, he asks me to chirp. (She laughs.) As if I were a bird, and could go on the trees, too! Another long pause. Another false ending. But I cannot tell you more. There is a part, a little secret and mysterious, I believe is for me alone.

She blows us a kiss goodbye. It is a strangely moving moment. ‘Felliniesque.’ I’d like to have seen Sandra Milo play Tosca. You can almost hear her singing the great aria Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore. (I lived for art, I lived for love.)

With its self-referential quantum psychology, 8 1/2 remains a key postmodern work. But it’s more. With hindsight it also shows us the way beyond postmodernism to a time when sentiment such anathema to modernists and postmodernists alike for a hundred years will return. Like his nineteenth-century paisani Verdi, Puccini, and the other maestri, Fellini/Rota understood the transcendence of celebration: feeling together.

In the last scene of 8 1/2 all the characters in Guido’s life descend from the rocket gantry to the circus ring as he orchestrates them. The last words of the film: “Tutti insieme!” “All together!”

If we look into the roots of national cinema then we may find different cultural traditions on its way. Numerous links between locations in films and their condition today are made. Thus, we see the spot where Zampanò abandoned Gelsomina in La Strada (near Ovindoli, a small town eighty kilometers from Rome); the courtyard of the Palazzo del Drago in Filicciano (seventy kilometers from Rome) where Guido and Claudia meet in 8 1/2 Cecchignola Military Reserve (some twenty minutes from Cinecittà outside of Rome), where Fellini shot the scene in which Guido imagines his father’s tomb in 8 1/2 and so forth.

(Bondanella, 93-116) These shots, so precious to the specialist, are unfortunately wasted on the neophyte, since they are never clearly identified in the documentary. Indeed, the individuals interviewed by Pettigrew are not identified for the audience until the end of the film, an unfortunate arrangement of his material that presupposes a great deal of knowledge about Fellini that few of Pettigrew’s spectators will possess.

Nevertheless, the numerous clips of Fellini discussing his work and his esthetics (thankfully uninterrupted by endless journalistic questions and accompanied only by pertinent clips from his works or other comments by his collaborators) provide what one reviewer rightly calls a master class on filmmaking, Fellini style.

Among the topics Fellini addresses are the relationship of reality to fiction (the former is mistrusted, the latter is praised); the question of improvisation (Fellini rejects it, declaring that making a film is similar in its attention to detail to the launching of a rocket ship into space; Fellini does believe in what he calls disponibilità or openness to possibilities on the set that have not been envisioned prior to shooting); inspiration (Fellini has no use for waiting for inspiration, believing that creative artists who do so merely waste precious time in relying upon such a Romantic concept); alienation (Fellini asks how a man can be a film director, a vocation that is akin to being a magician, if he or she lacks faith in the future); imagination (for Fellini, film directing involves a combination of the qualities of a simple artisan and that of a medium); imagery (for Fellini, cinema is first and foremost painterly, relying upon light more than dialog); and esthetics (regardless of whether something is beautiful or ugly, culturally sophisticated or simple, Fellini’s only criterion of value is whether a work of art is “vitale” or alive).

I can think of no better examples than Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). Fellini is known even in amateur circles as a filmmaker with a distinctly dark and depressive vision. His work is deeply troubled, preternaturally focused on himself and morbidly preoccupied with death.

This film that I have in mind as a definitive representation of how explicitly existentialist ideas can be expressed in film is Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, which has been analyzed by Jerry Solomon. Given the capable analysis he supplies in his own study, I will only say a few words here about the character of Fellini’s efforts in film and will direct our attention to Bondanella book for the bulk of what needs to be said about 8 1/2 in particular. Fellini’s Italy is a vibrant and rich artificial landscape, in contrast to the natural picturesque and spare visions of Bergman’s Sweden.

Despite the flurry of activity that is always going on in Fellini’s work, there is no activity, even including, as Bondanella (1992) points out, the activity of directing film, that is intrinsically worthy of pursuit. Instead, Fellini’s characters are busily distracting themselves with useless vanities. Again, as Mr. Solomon has noted, there is in Fellini’s work a fixation on the acute need for choice, for some kind of act, without any solid guidelines for choice. Besides 8 1/2, I would personally recommend La Dolce Vita (1961) as one of Fellini’s films that best represents his concern with the futile and arbitrary choices of man.

His films are gloriously photographed, filled with vibrant images of glamorous and exciting people, whose external beauty and grace conceal their internal emptiness and frustration. (Bondanella, 68-149) He is a master of imagery. La Dolce Vita alone is a lush but pruned arrangement of strikingly vivid visual compositions, from the opening shot of a helicopter airlifting a massive statue of Jesus over Saint Peter’s Cathedral to the closing scene in which an abnormally large fish is dragged onto a beach as some kind of eerie signal of the main character’s final confinement in his own despair.

The world of 1960’s Italy, as Fellini depicts it, is hopelessly superficial, exhausting itself in a frenzied hurricane of champagne bubbles, costume parties, gossip and paparazzi’s flash bulbs. Fellini’s mood is bizarre and frantically upbeat where Bergman is obsessive and morbid. Fellini’s experimentation with the extremely surreal will surpass that of Bergman. Yet, these two, despite their divergent styles, stand together as the greats who understood perhaps more fully than any other film makers the implications of existentialist philosophy for their medium.

Their films are “existentialist” not necessarily because they treat existential themes, but because they benefit from the impact of existentialism on popular culture. As has been indicated many times, existentialism, more than any other philosophical movement, would come to pass out of the hands of the privileged elite and would be claimed by the common man. In so far as this movement took place, film benefits, in that as a medium open to the common man, it is able to continue to bear highly conceptual subject matter to a wider thinking community.

Thus while film in the wake of existentialism may not be existentialist, it is often at the least deeply philosophical in a medium accessible to thinking individuals who may not be formal students of philosophy. Whereas the “existential” films prior to Bergman and were inspired not so much by existentialist thought but by post-war shifts in culture, the “existential” films that follow Bergman and Fellini are not necessarily inspired directly by existentialist thought, but are certainly inspired by Bergman and Fellini and by what existentialism in part stands for, namely, the communication of philosophical ideas to all men.

For many audiences, critics, and film historians, 8 1/2 remains the benchmark film by Fellini, the work that justifies his status as a master and continues to reward the spectator after numerous screenings. Besides a host of awards (including an Oscar for Best Foreign Film) received when it first appeared in 1963, a group of thirty European intellectuals and filmmakers in 1987 voted 8 1/2 the most important European film ever made and, on the basis of this work, also named Fellini as the European cinema’s most important director.

The film occupies an important role in the director’s complete works, not only because of its obvious autobiographical links to Fellini’s life but also because it focuses upon the very nature of artistic creation in the cinema. La dolce vita is the last film Fellini made with obvious mimetic intention: It provides a panoramic view of a society gone wild with press conferences, image makers, paparazzi, and celebrities, and in spite of its ability to create stirring images of an unforgettable character (such as the Trevi Fountain scene, which was indelibly etched into the imagination of an entire generation of moviegoers), its subject matter remains steadfastly connected to the society within which Fellini lived. After La dolce vita, however, Fellini turns toward the expression of a personal fantasy world that often, as in the case of 8 1/2, also deals with the representation of cinema itself in a self-reflexive fashion.


Bondanella, Peter. (1992). The Cinema of Federico Fellini (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp.68-149.

Bondanella, Peter. (2002). The Films of Federico Fellini (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp.93-116.

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