Wednesday, 26 August 2015

FF + MM = 8½ (1963)

Of all the accolades for this film – and it’s on pretty much every “best of” list – perhaps the Vatican’s ranking it among the best films made in the first century of cinema is the one Federico Fellini would have been most amused by. Who knows? But the answer might well be in itself, a film that is entirely about the question: “why make a film?” and about which it is probably impossible to say anything new.

So, why bother trying? There are choices to be made and this is one you can just watch, enjoy and leave alone, you’re not going to add anything to a pile of opinion 52 years deep and yet, why say anything about any film unless you feel you’re either a valuable show off of you just have to make a note of your personal response.

On the way to work
I’m sat on a train, heading down to work, it’s a sunny morning after the rain before and it’s either this or a spread sheet… Having sat in the same room as Federico and Marcello for over two hours, it would be rude not to acknowledge their presence.

Hang on… isn’t that Claudia Cardinale smiling at me over the ranks of Italian tourists packed onto the Gatwick Express? She’s leading me on.

is the most numerically-accurate film in history: the precise number of films it’s director had made up to that point with one co-direction preventing its being rounded up to an even 9.

It is ostensibly a film about a director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) trying to overcome his doubts about his own credibility in order to make another movie. Throughout he’s pestered by producers and performers all anxious to work as well as an intellectual film critic Carini Daumier (Jean Rougeul) whom at one point he imagines being silenced by "hanging" (don’t worry he returns).

Rossella Falk and Anouk Aimée - funny and serious
It takes a lot to take the mickey and yet still produce such a powerfully-immersive film as 8½ but Federico also manages funny and serious, imagined and real and counter-balances everything impossibly well all through the intense focus of his remarkable star.

Mastroianni is a wonder throughout and has qualities akin to Gish and Huppert – he can show interior worlds and hold Fellini’s contradictions within his character with a stillness that belies the conflict and moving with graceful transitions between the states of confusion, hope, desperation, pity and love. What can appear as a cool demeanor very soon dissolves into apathy and inertia.

Marcello not in neutral...
Very few men can act this way and carry it off – Mastroianni’s “neutral” is so poised that he is able to flex his mood far easier than other more overtly demonstrable actors.

Here he takes even the most unforgiving statements form his inner critic on his chin … He is apparently making a film full of “gratuitous episodes, perhaps even amusing due to their ambiguous realism. One wonders what the author’s point is… The subject matter doesn’t even have the merits of an avant-garde film…” No wonder he “hangs” him!

Lengthy queues for holy water
Guido is in a sanitarium in an attempt to recover his strength and find his movie-making mojo… his self-doubt (The Critic) is soon joined by his over-bearing mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo) who arrives by train to collect her man and her part… It’s hard to see what Guido sees in the obvious charms of Carla and it’s only when we encounter his wife that all makes sense.

Carla is straightforward, if demanding, and doesn’t pull Guido into the deeper waters of his marriage where Luisa Anselmi (Anouk Aimée) is every inch his match. But Carla is also crowd-pleasing cinema and that’s a place the director likes to visit even though he hates himself for staying there.

Carla being straightforward, not demanding...
He calls Luisa and asks her to come and join him – we know and he knows that it will make his life more difficult and that’s the challenge he’s seeking.

Before all this, Guido wanders through the the sanitorium-cum-holiday camp accompanied by his nagging arty conscience. He finds his friend Mario Mezzabotta (Mario Pisu) who is a similar age but has left his wife to be with a younger woman, Gloria Morin (splendidly played by Barbara Steele). Gloria is highly intelligent and an art-house dream of hipster fringe, darting glance and angular black fashion: the cutting edge Guido feels he may lack.

Gloria makes Mario move
Guido seems to relate to the world through the women in his life and imagination – he catches sight of a beautiful young woman (Claudia Cardinale) a vision in white who dazzles as she hands him a glass: the perfect woman for the film and for life?

Claudia (again)
Dreams lead the narrative; Guido ascends from a murderous traffic jam at the start and is pulled to earth by a rope attached to his ankle and then he dreams of his dead parents, visiting them in their graveyard where his mother turns into his wife as she kisses him: one for the Freudians no doubt. But, as one of his father’s minders says, don’t let him play with your emotions.

Guido bows in mock worship when his producer Bruno (Bruno Agostini!) arrives with his entourage but he pays homage only to buy time. As the film progresses though the money wants solid return and Guido is increasingly backed into a corner.

He can’t decide on his cast and has only an outline for his story; something to do with man’s escape from the dying Earth in a massive rocket. We see the erection of the launch tower which will have the ship superimposed… it’s another chance to imagine a metaphor not just the hollow film inside the hollow tower but an escape from reality all round.

Luisa arrives with her best friend (Guido’s sister) Rossella (Rossella Falk) and the intimacy both bring make us focus on Guido’s weaknesses: he can kid us with his friends but not with his family.

Imagine space ship right here...
Then Guido has a spectacular dream with all the women in his life slaving over him until they become too old and are sent “upstairs” to retirement with the rest of the middle aged and faded… doesn’t happen in films much does it?

Time is running out but at the screening Beauty returns as Claudia arrives to discuss her part. Guido has pinned everything on her youth re-invigorating his project but, just as he realises that he cannot use her as a substitute for his own integrity, the producers arrive. There is no escape he must face the film crew on set – film or die.

The initial rushes don't look encouraging
works on so many levels and despite what may appear a meandering narrative, always engages with its intelligence and observation. The music of Nino Rota is rightly lauded, matching Fellini note for note whilst Gianni Di Venanzo’s cinematography makes this one of the best looking films of the era: so much light!

But it’s the playing that holds the attention most of all – in particular Anouk Aimée is the perfect foil for Mastroianni and does much to reveal his character’s weakness and way forward.

Here's hoping
It is an incredibly honest film and a brave one too: imagine if your film about writer’s block turned out to be the clunker that confirmed that, yes, you have actually lost it!? But no, Fellini always had it and he proved it again and again – I especially like Toby Dammit his quite stunning short film as part of Histoires extraordinaires (1968) but you know the rest.

There are many ways to consume - probably the best is from Criterion which is available direct or via Amazon. There’s also a British Blu-ray from Argent Films available here.

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