Like most autobiographical works Federico Fellini's scintillating new film 8 1/2 reveals something more than its author intended. Begin with the title. It derives from the fact that, up to now, Fellini has made six full-length films and has contributed three "half" segments to anthology films. Before we step into the theater, the title tells us that he is clever, and that he sees the film as part of his personal history. It also tells us that he found himself stuck for a title.
The story is about a director stuck for a story, an artist in a creative slump, in the familiar nel mezzo del cammin crisis. The director is at a luxurious spa hotel trying to straighten out the script for his next job. With him is his writer, a fair sample of the intellectual manque who clings to much European film-making as both a suppliant and a hair-shirt. The director is joined by his married mistress who stays at a neighboring hotel. His producer arrives with entourage. His wife arrives and is not deceived about the mistress. One of the best moments is his lying about the mistress to his wife with the face of truth and the wife's knowledge of this and her disgust--principally that he can sound so truthful when he lies; and--one step beyond this--his knowledge of her knowledge. His mind accommodates this with a perception of the gulf between moral myth and moral fact, then it flies off into a harem-scene fantasy. The film is thickly laced with fantasy--with recollection, projection, wish fulfillment, and a dream girl who reappears throughout. The director, harassed by his producer to come to a decision after months of vacillation about script and casting, is paralyzed by apathy and ennui. At last he decides to abandon the film. Then, in further fantasy, he faces all the facts of his past and present, accepts them, and decides to make a film out of the very elements we have been witnessing.
In terms of execution I cannot remember a more brilliant film. In image, visual ingenuity, subtlety of pace, sardonic humor, it is stunning. We see a wizard at the height of his wizardry, and it has something of the effect, given in contemporary reports, of Liszt playing Liszt. The film opens in a silent dream as the director suffocates in a traffic-jammed car while impassive faces in other cars watch or don't watch. He floats up through the sun roof into the sky, and in a perspective like that of Dali's Crucifixion, we look down past his leg along a kite-rope attached to it, held by a man on a beach. He crashes--and wakes in his hotel bed.
The telling imaginative touches keep tumbling out one after another. In a dream his dead mother suddenly kisses him passionately on the mouth; when she pulls her head away, it is his wife. When his writer quotes one too many pearls of wisdom, the director wearily lifts a finger in command, two bravoes suddenly appear, slip a black hood over the writer's head and hang him on the spot. When certain nonsense syllables remind him of his childhood, we go back to his family's house--as spacious and safe as it seemed to him then--when he and his cousins were treading grapes in a tun, then were washed and carried off to bed in clean sheets in their nurses' arms. There is no point in a catalogue; the effects are many and marvelous. The dreams do not fade out and in, they are part of the fabric. If it takes a moment to decide whether what is happening is dream or not, the confusion is probably part of the design.
But when we ask what the theme of the film really is, what the director learns from his crisis about his crisis, what the resolution really means, the answers are less satisfactory. He says at the end, as he watches the dramatis personae of his life dancing around a circus ring, that he has learned to live with his past. There is little indication up to now that he was not living with it; the resolution seems a somewhat hollow convenience to end the film pleasantly. (It could easily be argued that his fantasy suicide near the end ought to be the true end and is the logical conclusion: that the resolved, happy ending in reality is itself a fantasy.) The genuine raison d'etre of the picture is in the opportunities it provides for Fellini. The reason that certain operas exist is that certain singers existed who could sing them. The prime reason for this film is that Fellini is a prodigious film virtuoso.
What 8 1/2 reveals that is perhaps more than Fellini intended is this: it is not about a creative crisis, encountered and survived; it reveals a continuing movement in his work that was first clear in La Dolce Vita. Up to then, there had been a generally consistent welding of method and meaning, as in I Vitelloni (which I still like best). In Dolce Vita there is a strong sense of theme used as opportunity rather than as concern. This sense was strengthened in his section of Boccaccio 70. It flowers in 8 1/2. I offer this observation in appraisal, not derogation. Virtuosity has an esthetic and value of its own, whether it is coloratura singing or fantastic pirouettes or trompe-l'oeil painting, and when it is as overwhelming as Fellini's virtuosity, one can be moved by it very nearly as much as by art that "says" something. In fact I don't think that 8 1/2 "says" very much, but it is breathtaking to watch. One doesn't come away from it as from, say, the best Bergman or Renoir-with a continuing, immanent experience; one has to think back to it and remember the effect. But that is easy, for the experience is unforgettable.
Star billing ought to go to the director of photography, Gianni de Venanzo, and the editor, Leo Catozzo, who have Wrought assorted miracles. Playing the director, Marcello Mastroianni invests the role with presence and portent. Divorce--Italian Style clarified to many what was apparent years ago to some: that he is a skillful comedian. Here he interweaves that skill with his ability to touch the commonplaces of life with grave poetry. Sandra Milo makes a serious-silly pneumatic mistress, Anouk Aimee convinces as the wife, and the rest of the large company confirm another of Fellini's gifts: his ability to cast even the smallest parts perfectly.
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.