BFI Film Classics: 8 1/2

Author: D.A. Miller


The film chosen by BFI Publishing to represent Federico Fellini as a masterpiece of classic cinema is 8½. For many it could either be this or a previous film, La Dolce Vita (1959) to be considered as the film to represent the director. This film came about at a high time for art cinema and was made with flair and a great visual style and made with a mainstream budget for an arthouse audience. Fellini’s European contemporaries of similar caliber include Godard, Visconti, Bergman, Truffaut and Luis Bunuel. What they brought with them was a style of filmmaking that became known in intellectual circles as auteur theory – that is the director became the recognizable author of his films. Miller sets out the context of Fellini’s film released as it was in 1963, the same year as another of these auteur director’s films, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris about the psychological profile of a director making a film his struggles and his quest for the muse (in this case Brigitte Bardot). The author does not spend too long dwelling on this recognizing that Fellini’s film is the more accomplished of the two. However, in Godard’s film there is also a cameo by Fritz Lang playing a director. Nowhere is auterism truer than with Fellini’s 8½. And for this reason the film is included in the BFI Classics film study series of books. This is a personal film from the director that best reflects Fellini’s inner workings. The story opens at a spa where a successful director (played by Marcello Mastroianni, an actor Fellini clearly feels he would like representing himself in a wish fulfillment) who has difficulties with his wife and mistress. At the spa he is struggling mentally with where his film is going. He has had a large rigging structure built nearby as a launch pad for a space rocket made for his film, a proposed science-fiction film. In the meantime he is having flashbacks and sexual awakenings about his own past and his life in which the blurring between imagination and reality becomes further blurred. He is also hoping to sign-up a big starlet for his film (Claudia Cardinale) who represents another element to the protagonist’s fantasies.


At one point the protagonist of 8½ says “I have nothing to say, but I want to say it anyway” and this is the key to understanding the film (and Fellini) and Miller repeats this line from the film several times in the book. This was a mirror (mirrors are also appropriately and symbolically used in the film and on the cover of the book there is Mastroianni’s character looking into a mirror with Fellini’s face being reflected back) to Fellini’s own manner of how he would avoid saying anything to critics and would remain aloof from his films about any questions concerning his artistic integrity. Even the title of the film seems vague, but actually comes from the number of films that Fellini had made to date, including a segment to Bocaccio ’70 (1962), the ½ making the grand total of films to 8½.


In places Miller’s book, like Fellini’s film can be opaque and overly intellectual to be a stimulating read. The book itself does not read as easily as many of the books in the series, but never the less like Fellini’s film it is worth reading again. So entangled with the hero is Fellini that the author of this book has chosen to use acronyms of both directors names, so Mastroianni’s character’s name, Guido Anselmi is shortened to GA and Fellini’s name is known as FF in order that there is no confusion as to which ‘director’ Miller is referring. As already mentioned the opacity and intellectual tone made by Miller put off some readers, but then again one would only expect a student or lover of arthouse cinema to be bothered to read it anyway. There is more text here than in other books in the series, but Miller breaks these down into convenient sub-chapter headings making for a more interesting and legible read.


Despite its opacity in places this book does become more interesting as it develops and even accompanies the film very well in that it taps into the messages and goals of the director in a clear way. Where it could have gone further perhaps is delving a little further into the director’s own autobiography than it does as there are clearly many connections to the director’s (Fellini that is) own life included that are not translated in the film which would make the whole project even more elucidating. For me it was also the visual artistry of the film and the subtle goals achieved that make for the most interesting read in the film and how those interpretations were reached.


Chris Hick

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