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8½ Reasons to Celebrate Cinema

Alexandra Greenfield


8 1/2
Director: Federico Fellini
Italy, 1963.

What more is there to be said in favour of a film which, on its initial release in 1963, stole the show at the Cannes Film Festival, despite not being an entrant in the competition? Nominated for five Academy Awards, and winning two, as well as taking the Grand Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, and ranking tenth in Sight and Sound’s 50 Greatest Films of All Time, Federico Fellini’s 8½ is a powerhouse of a film, and one which has left an impressive legacy in its substantial wake. Newly restored by the BFI, and with a slick and sexy new trailer to match, returns to cinemas across the UK this month.

What exactly makes such a masterpiece? To put into words what makes this film so enigmatic, so invigorating and so very satisfying is, inevitably, to do the film an injustice. For is a film which must not just be seen, but one that needs to be experienced. Marcello Mastroianni triumphs as Guido Anselmi, a frustrated film director trying in vain to realize his own magnum opus, as takes us across landscapes littered with rocket ships, dancing devil-women, gluttonous producers, and corrosive cardinals before arriving at a dizzying finale that is, quite simply, stunning.

At once fantasy film and at the same time a brutally realistic semi-autobiographical encounter, the power of is found in Fellini’s ability to effortlessly combine these two worlds into one explosive realm. Coupled with a memorable soundtrack from Nino Rota that quite literally sets the score for this cinematic tour de force, Fellini’s film is a spectacle unlike any other. The narrative dips effortlessly between memory and reality, allowing the two realities to mesh magnificently, so that at points it is almost impossible to tell which is which.

And herein lies the beauty of . The film has been accused of being obtuse, convoluted, and close to impossible to navigate on first viewing. True, it could hardly be said that Fellini has chosen to follow a typical narrative plot structure, but the episodic styling of this film – which is arguably less complicated than that of his earlier masterpiece La Dolce Vita – in fact offers the viewer a visual and imaginative feast, rejecting simplistic linear plots in favour of a more creative and ultimately stimulating narrative structure. There are moments which stand out, of course: the afore-mentioned finale, Guido’s theatrical encounter with his mistress, and Saraghina’s rumba, an exquisitely composed sequence which remains in the mind long after it has disappeared from the screen. Yet, it is the manner in which Fellini combines these episodes together which gives the film a wonderful, symphonic sense of wholeness. In short, is a carnival of cinematic ingenuity, a celebration of the visual, aural and synesthetic dexterity of the medium.

Yet for all its artistry, for all its ability to stun the spectator, remains a film with a heart. Deftly funny at times and incredibly moving at others, Fellini articulates, through a living poeticism, simply the story of a life. Perhaps the knowledge that so many encounters in this film are drawn from his own experience adds to that potency, perhaps it adds to the absurdity, but in any case the achievement of is its ability to make us participants in this story. Such is Fellini’s ability that both the comedy and the poignancy of the film transmits across languages (a fact I discovered when I found myself, with my virtually non-existent grasp of the Italian language, at a screening without subtitles). The communicative power of is so great that one can almost sense the director laughing along with his audience, creating a feeling of intimacy amidst this visual riot. The opportunity to see this film restored upon the big screen is one not to be missed.

Alexandra Greenfield is reading for a Master of Studies in Film Aesthetics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.