Originally published on So So Gay on 12 November 2013.
Consistently in the BFI’s Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, 8½ is a much lauded cinematic classic, its title a reference to the number of times Federico Fellini (the film’s writer and director) had been a director by this point in time. 8½ won two Oscars (including Best Foreign Language Film) upon its original release, and was subsequently praised by critics the world over for its imaginative and thought-provoking presentation.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmo, a renowned film director who is suffering from ‘director’s block’ after a run of acclaimed productions, the film follows his struggle to balance his attempts to complete his latest film project whilst also juggling the attentions of the various people in his life, both personal and professional.
There’s very little that can be said about 8½ that hasn’t been covered already, though if nothing else it’s worth bringing it to the attention of a whole new generation of film lovers who may be unaware of it. While watching, it’s quite remarkable to think that the film is 50-years-old, since its pacing, script and direction is as polished and sharp as anything made today – probably more so in the vast majority of cases. The fact the film is, for the most part, in Italian shouldn’t put viewers off – even if there were a couple of hiccups in the English subtitles.
Opening with a rather surreal sequence of Anselmo struggling to break out of his car while stuck in a traffic jam, it’s clear you’re in for something different. With a brooding and often indifferent posture, Anselmo isn’t the most likeable of characters, but the impact from the pressure of his situation is perfectly conveyed though Mastroianni’s understated performance. He’s more than ably supported by the rest of the cast. Anouk AimÃ©e and Sandra Milo are particularly brilliant as his end-of-her-tether wife and kooky mistress respectively. The witty script also helps keep the film entertaining rather than getting bogged down by the potential melodrama of the central love triangle or mechanics of Anselmo’s work.
With impressive and memorable set pieces delivered with no let up, there doesn’t feel a superfluous moment during its 138-minute running time, though neither does 8½ feel an exhausting watch. While perhaps the cause of some of the film’s more confusing moments – something that repeat watches would undoubtedly help clarify – Fellini segues brilliantly and seamlessly between Anselmo’s reality and his various memories and daydreams, with the latter occasionally encroaching on the former. His creative direction shows that you don’t need billion dollar special effects budgets to create something visually arresting.
While some viewers may be put off by it being a foreign-language film, or even it being in black and white, it would be a great shame, since 8½ is an entertaining film that rightly holds the title of ‘classic’.