8 ½ (film)

8 ½ (Directed by Federico Fellini)/1963

Only one character really matters in this film: Guido. Guido is a famous director and the film opens with him at a health retreat somewhere in Italy. He has dark rings under his eyes and everyone wants something from him. People want to know about or be in his next movie, his opinions on abstruse topics, his money, his love.....

The first scene sees Guido in a dream sequence: trapped within a car and then at the mercy of people who control him. However, this movie is not solely about a man who is pushed around by the world. It displays how we all want people to be a certain way due to a range of unconscious desires and fears drilled into us through our unique upbringings and the experiences that follow, but how the world will not let us live out the fantasies we secretly desire.

The film presents the role of film director as a metaphor for each of us. We are the central organising point of our subjectivity. We want people to play the role we assign to them and the world to be a certain way. However, like life, the actors want to be something different, and both the intersubjective life of human beings and the physical environment impose a restricted framework in which we can create our “film”.

Throughout the movie Fellini blurs reality, dream, fantasy and nightmare into a whole. Each moves into and informs the other. Guido sees his fantasies in reality and tries to create films based on those fantasies. People then interject their thoughts and feelings into the proposed film which pulls the fantasy back in. We see Guido acting in the world, then Fellini will move into a fantasy sequence where people play the role Guido wants, only for his dream to be shattered by his fears and the demands of others.

8 ½ reminded me greatly of Synecdoche New York (2008), which clearly modelled itself on it. The fears and fantasies on display are a fascinating presentation of two different times. Guido is a person working through Catholicism and its associated guilt and promise of salvation. In Synecdoche New York the main character Caden deals with his fears of sickness and loneliness and relies on a psychologist and a doctor for the salvation that the priest formally granted.

Both Guido and Caden are thwarted in their attempts to direct reality to suit their desires. Both seem somewhat cut down and weakened by a world that continuously wants something from them and stands in the way of their fantasies. Synecdoche New York is a darker film though. It lacks the joy that flows through many parts of Fellini’s film. 8 ½ is shot in black and white, but it is one of the most lush and colourful films I have seen. Even when Fellini’s fears direct reality, it is within the framework of a tender dreamlike river of colour and sound. In contrast Synecdoche New York presents individuals just holding on in the midst of existential despair until eventually finding solace in their coming exit from reality.

To watch Fellini is to see how confrontation with reality need not turn into darkness and despair. Our lives are dreamlike and much of the time beyond our control. This can lead to fear and despair, but can also lead us to loosen our grip and enter the flow of the river. Never being able to separate reality from fantasy could lead us to throw our quest for truth away on angst, or can lead us to see the game of it all, and relax into it with acknowledgement of its absurdity. Fellini is fundamentally an optimist: maybe not consciously, but his optimism pours out of his unconsciousness into the film and provides an extremely tender experience for the viewer.

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