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Surrealist Film Review: Fellini’s 8½

Sophie Magalhães reviews the 1963 surrealist film 8½ by Federico Fellini.

To describe Fellini’s as a confusing piece of surrealism would perhaps undermine its reputation as a masterpiece of Italian cinema. However, the array of violently incohesive images in the opening sequence of the film had me puzzled as to what the plot would entail. The premise of is not inherently strange, yet there is something to be said of how Fellini reflects the psyche of a stagnant, middle aged film director through an obscure and multi-faceted plot.

The film opens without sound. The protagonist, Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), is stuck in a claustrophobic traffic jam. The black and white cinematography seems to heighten the sensory appeal of the scene, and yet it appears as if nothing moves and nothing will happen. As the camera pans across rows and rows of identical cars, it pauses on individual faces. A man sits grumpily in the backseat of his car, a woman in the front. A row of hands dangle absently from the windows of a bus. Guido bangs hysterically on the windows of his car, desperately trying to escape. The car fills with smoke. Blank faces stare at him helplessly. Guido clambers out of the car roof; white light overwhelms the screen. Guido hovers and flies into the distance, drifting through the clouds before being, quite literally, tethered back to earth. Fellini was forty-three when he made , and intended for it to be an honest reflection on his stagnated creativity as an ageing film director. His baroque, earthy style is confusing for the unknowing audience. Yet this is the sensation Fellini sought to project, one of uncertainty and inaction. The mind of an aimless film director experiencing a creative hiatus is portrayed through Guido as well as the muted cinematography and surrealism of the story. An air of foggy perplexity prevails, extending Guido’s own psychological condition to the mind of the viewer themselves. 

Fellini’s writing exudes a sense of Freudian psyche, filling with an unrestrained subconscious which leaves the audience to piece together the significance of the dream-like images themselves. Played with a deep sensitivity by Mastroianni, Guido’s recurring vision of his ideal woman causes him to spiral into a series of bad relationships. He is estranged from his wife, he is distant from his mistress, and he fools himself into thinking that he has found salvation in an actress, Claudia. All these women seem to fall under the shadow of a potent yet somewhat displaced figure, Saraghina. In flashbacks to his youth, Guido remembers a group of children running to the beach to visit Saraghina. Uncertain as to who exactly Saraghina is, I watched as a large buxom woman with wild black hair and a tight black dress emerged out of a hut. The children all chant in unison “Saraghina! Saraghina! La rumba!” as Saraghina prowls towards them, bares her shoulders, and begins to prance across the sand. An unsettling unfamiliarity comes over both the audience and perhaps the character of young Guido himself, as if this strange figure skews the narrative off its predicted trajectory. Saraghina is a fabrication of Guido’s sexuality and imagination, as her dwelling place is on the cusp between fluid imagination and concrete reality. 

Guido’s flashbacks to childhood provide moments of clarity; they are digressions which help to elucidate the central plot. When magicians read Guido’s mind and reveal the words “asa nisi masa”, this nonsensical phrase is explained by the shadowy, baroque image of Guido as a child, being put to bed by a crowd of women. The scene grows dark, and another child repeats “asa nisi masa” to make the eyes of a portrait move. This memory, which connects Guido’s past and present, demonstrates his profound desire to be cared for by a woman. Later in the film, when Guido envisions himself surrounded by women in a harem, he again regresses to a child-like state, doted on and cared for by women. Yet it is his wife, Luisa, who is the only constant, realistic female figure in Guido’s life. Despite being cold and distant, she is the figure of reality that grounds Guido as he deceives himself with idealisations. 

It is the aesthetic appeal of the shadowy, muted cinematography that best portrays the dulled creativity of Guido’s mind, and scenes such as the rows of empty, square cinema chairs when Guido’s film is previewed that evoke the loneliness and lack of support he feels as an artist. Add to this the concrete brutalist set, revealing the unforgiving and unglamourous side of filmmaking. The ending, in which all the characters of the film dance around in a circle to the tune of Nino Rota’s carnival-like La Passarella di Otto e Mezzo, plays on the farcical element of Guido’s artistic choice; to write an honest film about his experience as a troubled director. While 8½ might at first appear irregular, imperfect, and slightly exaggerated, it is where Fellini blurs the lines between fantasy and reality that he has produced an authentic filter of a man’s consciousness. 

Image: Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi in 8½ by Federico Fellini. This image is in the public domain.

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