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“A film director escapes into the world of dreams, memory, and fantasy to cope with his own artistic and personal struggles.” Image:

Essentials #8: 8 ½ (1963)

Fellini. Dreams. The Meta-Film. The birth of “personal” filmmaking and stream-of-conscious narrative all began here.

It’s my 8th essay, so how fitting than to write about Fellini’s groundbreaking film?

8 ½ is the “Ulysses” of cinema. Before hipsters hijacked the personal, “quirky” (I hate that word) art film, there was a time when making a meta-film was actually original.


A meta-film basically a film about “the making of a film.” An art professor might call it: “Self-Reflexivity.” The urban dictionary term would probably be to add a “ception” to the word — i.e. Office-ception; an office within an office (a pop culture nod to Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION). The concept of dreams and memories has become a sort of cliché among the indie/art film crowd today.

However, stands the test of time not only because it’s the original version of this idea, but because it doesn’t rely on gimmick or cliches to sell it’s narrative.

is about the personal and artistic struggle and how both of these lives often influence and undermine one another.

Whether or not you engage in art, you are probably going to be working in a field that you are [hopefully] good at. As a result, your work and your personal life will often intertwine and there will be times in boredom or frustration where your mind will drift between both lives…even if it’s for a split second. is what that crossroad would look like. Now imagine if you’re a major director (facetiously played by Marcello Mastroianni), working on the biggest film of your career while going through hell in your personal life.

Anyone who’s ever directed a film must sympathize with this movie because it captures the chaos that is filmmaking. Yes, I am bias. But I think filmmaking is the hardest form of art because it involves so many different [and sometimes difficult] artists coming together to fit one large canvas. Furthermore, much of the filmmaking process is influenced by things that have absolutely nothing to do with the craft (bureaucracy, money, marketing, ego, etc.) so there are very few movies I would consider art but that’s a different conversation. Fellini wanted to demonstrate this but in the playful way that only he can. Even the title is a metajoke. At the time, Fellini was suffering from writer’s block and decided to make a film about it; therefore, this film is Fellini’s 8 ½ film (½ coming from a short film he made).

In , Fellini utilizes cinema’s tools — editing, sound, cinematography — to create a new language that reflects that search. This is why there is such a raw energy to this film. I didn’t realize it until I started understanding more the technical aspects of film but I think the key factor is that Fellini choreographs his movies like broadway musicals.

For example, pay attention to his blocking in the infamous harem scene. The timing here is so perfect. All the actresses are making their marks (even the background action). The camera is restless and purposeful, the editing is relentless, and overall, the scenes in this movie feel like they are building toward something, even though we don’t explicitly know what. Notice the way his pans start wide and end with an actor’s closeup. Bellissima.

It’s absolutely beautiful to watch the technical craft here and see how it all comes together to support the narrative. Lastly, we must give credit to Nino Rota’s music as the driving force of it all.

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It’s hard to feel bad for Guido, chillin’ in his harem of beautiful mistresses Image:

Before being immortalized for scoring THE GODFATHER I & II, Nino Rota was a nationally renowned composer in Italy. I cannot stress how important Rota’s music was to Fellini’s movies. They offered an atmosphere to the images and evoked a mood to his scenes, while sometimes being the heart and soul of the film. It would be a disservice to describe his work through words but Rota’s score is playful, charming, and nostalgic all at once. For example, take note of music cues for the Saraghina sequence or the brilliant “ASA NISI MASA” sequence. They are distinct and evoke a sense of place and time in a film that is about memories. I cannot fathom any of Fellini’s work without Rota’s music or vice-versa because it’s the ultimate marriage of picture and sound.

The structure of this film can give Christopher Nolan a run for his money, which is not an easy feat. I’m a big believer that you are probably most creative as a child because you have no rational understanding of the outside world and your imagination is free to roam. Anywhere. I’d describe Fellini is like that creative child who ended up making movies because he has such a magical, almost naive view of the world where the illogical is logical and the nostalgia is surreal. And through his work, I always feel like a Fellini film is like watching a magic show.

8 ½ is a landmark film not only because of its mark in world cinema but because of its sheer audacity and the metaphysical probing of what film narrative means.

Federico Fellini was probably the most personal filmmaker in the history of film. Yes, there are many personal filmmakers out there but looking through Fellini’s entire filmography, I cannot think of another filmmaker who has literally poured his entire life on-screen in each movie. I’m quite familiar with his work — I can recommend all of movies I’ve seen — but I cannot help but feel like someone is sitting next to me and telling me a story whenever I watch a Fellini film because they are made with such intimacy.

Fellini will forever be known as a definitive mover and shaker of cinema who pushed the boundaries of the medium and elevated it to the level of art. There are only a handful of filmmakers who can make that claim.

For a good sampler platter, check out LA STRADA, LA DOLCE VITA, AMARCORD, I VITELLONI, and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (a neorealist film about a prostitute with an ending only Fellini turn into magic; his “puberty stage” movie).

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Marcello Mastraonni is Fellini’s on-screen alter ego. He is the definition of cool. Image:

Other Highlights:

  • I love the Italian suits, cars, and the general sense of class from this period. I hate to sound like one of those people but…they just don’t make them like they used to
  • As I mentioned, I love the blocking in this film. No one blocks in movies nowadays. They’d rather cut to a close-up. Fellini was a master at this and executed his scenes like Meisner-trained elephants because to Fellini, “Life is a circus.” The focus-puller deserves an award on his work
  • I read Fellini would often play music on the sets of his movies since the dialogue was dubbed over which explains why a lot of the characters move in rhythm to one another other and the camera and also why it never seems like the correct words are coming out of their mouths
  • There’s a wonderful sequence, “ASA NISI MASA” that triggers Guido’s personal childhood memory. It’s one of the most beautiful sequences ever filmed and Gianni Di Venanzo’s use of light and shadow in this film is exemplary for black and white cinematography
  • Wind. This sound must be a nostalgic trigger for Fellini because he uses this sound for all his films
  • The opening scene is innovative, daring, and fantastical. The more I dig deeper into the art of film, I cannot help but be in awe of how brilliantly original Fellini was. I mean that opening scene and how he single-handedly changed narrative in a period where 99% of movies were as linear, straightforward as can be is utterly mind-blowing
  • The more I work in film, the more I cannot help but empathize with Guido. Movies are, from a meat-and-potatoes standpoint, really just getting a bunch of people together for the camera so you can press record. It is kind of ridiculous the problems and situations filmmakers have to face each day (though privileged).

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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