(Originally published on the Examiner in October 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)
Guido (Marcello Mastrioanni) is a filmmaker. Suffering from director's block as his big-budget shoot draws nearer, Guido finds himself tossing and turning between baroque fantasies, an even more carnivalesque reality, and childhood memories both soothing and haunting. Serving as guide on the artist's quest for inspiration is the fleeting image of a beautiful muse (Claudia Cardinale); she appears every now and then like a splash of cool water - all too briefly. Then Gudio is submerged once again in the sweltering sauna of questioning producers, condescending writers, boorish acolytes, tormenting cardinals, preening mistresses, hectoring wives... The concluding image, which captures the film's wild characters marching around a circus ring with the director as the ringleader, nicely sums up the spectacular nature of the movie. The opening images (and sounds) - with the director trapped in his car, barely able to breathe, before floating in the sky like a balloon, with a mysterious figure tugging on a rope attached to his leg - also set the tone, establishing the artist's alternating claustrophobia and free-floating imagination, while preparing us for a film which will be told, most often, viscerally rather than narratively.
8 1/2 is widely regarded as Federico Fellini's masterpiece, yet however one judges it against the Italian director's body of work, it's an essential movie. Usually placed alongside classics like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Godfather in lists of the greatest films ever made, 8 1/2 has had an immense impact on popular culture since the 60s, furthering the idea of free-associational storytelling, glorifying the artist's humorous explorations of his own hang-ups, privileging the power of imagery and style over devotion to exposition and objectivity. None of this was new, of course, and even that which was relatively new already had already found expression in the vibrant New Wave films pouring forth from France. Nonetheless, 8 1/2 was one of those films which consolidated innovations and gave expression to the zeitgeist in a particularly memorable way. As such, its influence was carried on through all the envelope-pushing works of proceeding decades; today its idiosyncratic vision, devotion to individual consciousness, and modish style have perhaps found their latest home in the more innovative television series. This may say as much about the precarious nature of the filmic medium at present as it does about the eternal adaptability of "Felliniesque" flamboyance.
As for the marvelous movie itself, it remains sumptuous, romantic, entertaining. It is both timeless in its airy, imaginative, highly stylish approach, and charmingly of its time, as a portrait of early 60s chic on the cusp of mid 60s Pop bohemianism. The night scene, in which the director climbs the scaffold of his eerily empty outdoor set with his wife's lesbian gal pal, sharing his existential neuroses, perfectly summons a contemporary mood of melancholy dislocation. That feeling, for the moment confined largely to intellectuals and attributed variously to the Bomb and Sartre (both a bit old-hat by '63), would soon explode into the public consciousness, carried by the surging youth with their psychedelic drugs, hedonistic rock music, and apocalyptic politics. For the moment, at least, the seed of this mass mood was sprouting in a series of remarkably fresh and adventurous movies bursting forth from Europe, 8 1/2 being but one of the most notable. Personally, I find several Fellini films I connect more deeply with - beginning with his coming-of-age (somewhat after the fact) I Vitelloni and ending with that aching elegy to the good life and cynically cool celebration of the "sweet life," La Dolce Vita. However, there's no doubt that 8 1/2 is a summit in Fellini's cinema, and in the history of movies: there's nothing else quite like it.