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1963. Directed by Federico Fellini. With Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale

This monumental autobiographical movie about movie making turns out to be only moderately intriguing from this List's point-of-view. It's an effective portrait of an artist in personal and professional crisis and all that, but it doesn't have much of that tricky movie-within-a movie that sometimes happens when form and subject start tumbling over one another.

Would 8-1/2 be any different if the protagonist were a novelist or painter? Do we get any reverberations from the fact that it's a movie about a moviemaker? I have the impression that Guido is a movie director for pragmatic reasons: because film directors, unlike more solitary artists, are besieged by philistines--producers, critics, screenwriters, aspiring actors, and other pests jabbering at them relentlessly--giving Guido the opportunity to be put-upon from without as well as from within.

Now, it's true—and this may have been more striking 25 years ago that it seems today—that Guido's memories and fantasies come to us "filmed," often seamlessly combined with present-time scenes from his rest cure at an Italian spa. It's sometimes hard to tell if what we're seeing is memory or a possible scene from the movie he's planning. The work-in-progress that Guido is trying to straighten out in his mind will apparently be autobiographical and include many elements from his childhood, his marriage, his obsessions with women (though it also seems to have a strong outer space element; hasn't that big rocket ship set been built for the movie, or did I miss something here?). Is the movie that Guido is planning the movie that eventually becomes 8-1/2? I like movies that turn out to be about their own gestation, but I'm not sure this is one.

One neat scene shows Guido and his cronies watching some screen tests. We see various actresses auditioning for the role of The Mistress. The first actress shown is Sandra Milo, the actress who actually does play Guido's mistress, (or perhaps it's the character—The Mistress—auditioning to play herself?); then we see other women dressed like her and saying things we've already heard The Mistress say in real life. We're struck by how different that particular relationship would be for Guido if it involved a different sort of woman (or how different 8-1/2, or any other movie, would be if were cast differently).

There's a lot of ambuguous dialogue—does it refer to Guido's movie or Fellini's? "How can the story of your life interest the public?" people ask Guido/Fellini. A critic complains about "the capricious appearances of the girl in white—what do they mean?" He seems to be talking about Guido's script, but he could also be talking about 8-1/2, which is indeed full of capricious appearances of a girl in white. I wonder why I'm not more enthusiastic about a work that is obvious grappling with the very issues we celebrate here. Maybe because it's so famous, maybe because it's so dated, maybe because I spent so many years pretending I loved it when in fact every time I saw it I was bored.

Actually, one of the most striking things to me is one I'm sure Fellini didn't intend--that crazy Italian dubbing. Talk about alienation effects! You never get used to the strange disembodied sound, the indifferent lip-synching, and the changes in volume and tone from character to character. An American viewer immediately concludes that action and sound are taking place separately, like those records you'd play while you looked at a picture book. Federico Fellini, of all people, must have had the financial resources to use conventional sound-recording for his films if he'd wanted to, but correcting what seems to us a real clumsiness didn't seem important to him. Perhaps Italian audiences are less concerned with the illusion of life than Americans. They accept the sound/image mismatch the same way we accept black & white, two-dimensionality, jump-cuts, etc. But there it is--every time someone opens his mouth, you get a subliminal flash of the dubbing studio, and a reminder that you're watching something that has been crafted, not something that has really happened.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein