I've never seen ... 8½

I didn’t know whether to expect a dose of medicine or a miracle. What I got was a breathtakingly gorgeous piece of cinema – though Fellini’s questionable fantasy leaves a bad taste

Maybe you’re the kind of person who buys a new outfit on Saturday afternoon and then wears it the very same evening. That’s not me. Dresses hang unworn in my wardrobe for weeks while they go ever so slightly out of fashion, because I am very comfortable with deferred pleasures. It’s worth waiting for the right occasion to debut a new pair of shoes or to see a movie for the first time.

So it’s not that I never wanted to see Federico Fellini’s 8½. I knew I would get around to it one day, preferably on a large cinema screen, but that date never presented itself. Some people have attempted gently to dissuade me from watching it, but I assumed that they overestimated my sensitivity. Although clearly no Felliniphile, I have no aversion to the director, having admired some of the films he made before this: the seven and a half that fed into its title. This viewing is overdue for another reason: it’s probably the only film in the Sight & Sound Top 10 list to feature an actor from my hometown.

Lockdown and a TV screen don’t seem to add up to the right time and platform for any movie lauded as a masterpiece, but what finer hour for a film about inaction and self-absorption? The prospect remains both daunting and a little dutiful, despite all that. A little like Marcello Mastroianni shuffling forward to receive his tumbler of holy water, I wondered whether I was expecting a dose of medicine or a miracle.

Claudia Cardinale in 8½.
Fantasies of a muse ... Claudia Cardinale in 8½. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Embassy

It’s an easy film to admire from the off. The opening sequence scorches my brain, with Mastroianni as the Fellini-esque film director Guido suffocating in a locked car in a traffic jam, then floating above a beach, tethered by a rope that suddenly yanks him down to earth. These are hefty metaphors for a lack of control and direction, because this a story of creative block – Guido is struggling to make his latest movie, a science-fiction epic, and so he retreats into his memories of childhood and fantasies of a muse, played by Claudia Cardinale. It’s the most attractive nervous breakdown I have ever seen.

Apparently, Fellini was having the same creative trouble himself, though it’s hard to believe. Rather a sly trick on his part to make a film about the difficulties of film-making that’s so breathtakingly gorgeous, that dances so nimbly between timelines, between fantasy and reality, that reflects on and even chastises itself for its own confused ambition. Guido’s world is seductively glamorous, relentlessly so, from the marble halls where he talks shop to his dreamy reminiscences of childhood and the Freudian floor-shows in his psyche. The black-and-white cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is stunning, and, of course, there’s the added pleasure of recognising already-familiar images in their proper place in the film. The circus parade finale, for one, or the compellingly cool Mastroianni either peering over his sunglasses or leaning back in a cafe chair, heels on the table, clapping. Each one prompts a little tingle. The sight of the giant scaffolding for the set of Guido’s as-yet-unrealised movie, the skeleton of a spaceship, knocks me out: a reminder of pre-digital processes, but with an extra poignancy as film production is halted across the world.

It’s not just the film that worries Guido, though. He is beset by a plague of women, mostly buxom and/or bothersome: his mistress, his wife, his star, etc. When Birkenhead’s own Barbara Steele appears as his friend’s bewitching trophy girlfriend, I cheered. Eventually Guido fantasises about hosting a harem of the women he has known, of how they will bathe him like a baby and he will attack them with a whip. Which is precisely where we find the reason people had warned me away from 8½. This sexist fantasy creates a shuddering hard-stop in an otherwise fluid and dreamlike movie. It’s not an unexpected development (do any of us go into these classic films entirely blind?) but a deeply unpleasant one. Sgulp!

There’s no law that says I have to admire Fellini’s hero, and now may not be the time to pick a fight with a film that was made more than half a century ago, not least one that contains its own critical commentary. Guido is repeatedly reminded that he treats women badly, just as he is told that his film is disjointed, indulgent, incoherent – although that’s largely, and mostly enjoyably, the point.

It’s a dazzling film with all its sheen and puzzling digressions: beautiful and, in its own way, passionate, if offputtingly introspective. I enjoyed it most when it was funny, and there is a lot here that recalls my beloved silent cinema – wouldn’t you love to see it in a double-bill with Sherlock Jr? It’s a film I’d happily watch again, and surely find more in each time, even if not as much as others do. Not that it matters. The critical consensus that hurtled it to the top of the canon will continue without my qualms. Sometimes those dresses hang in the wardrobe for so long because, however cleverly they’re cut, they’ll never really suit you.


Pamela Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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