It's been said before: Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a fictitious, 43-year-old film director with a personal crisis that stunts his creative flow and his inability to get on with his new film after the enormous success of his previous one. The character is iconically brought to life by the immortal Mastroianni with artificially greyed hair and is universally identified as an alter ego of Fellini himself.
The first time I saw 8½ I was in my teens and hated it. I then rewatched it only a few years later, in my early 20s, and something miraculous happened. It was probably a pivotal moment in my film-viewing experience: it suddenly gave me new parametres by which to judge movies and even art in general. I suddenly learnt this new language, so much more beautiful and sophisticated than anything I had heard before. What was most amazing was that after the first negative experience, I had somehow tapped into this language's secret, and it wasn't in the least bit hermetic or difficult, though more complex and sophisticated than other languages I already knew. Many of the movies I'd considered greats became amateurish or dwarfish in comparison.
To me, this was no longer simply a movie, but Art in a more universal sense of the word, Art that just IS and has nothing to strive for or prove. Which is why I find it so nonsensical and contradictory to call something like 8½ "pretentious" - to me, pretentious is when an insecure auteur is trying consciously and hard to be profound, difficult, original, ground-breaking, and you can see their intent clearly, and detect the effort behind the artifice. Nothing of any of this is anywhere to be perceived in 8½, which makes creating masterpieces look easy.
I admit that 8½ is not an easy movie, nor one for everyone. Visually, fewer movies are as iconic, memorable, original, poetic, funny, inventive, allegorical, exhilarating.
The scenes I love are too many to mention, but here are just a few: The steam bath scene when in an odd procession/ritual, the patients are being led into what must be a Turkish bath. All the steam surrounding them, the men wearing sheets that look like shrouds or togas, all looking like mock-ancient Roman dignitaries... Then, through a loud-speaker Mastroianni-Anselmi is told the dried-up, turkey-like Cardinal, will now condescend to meeting him. Before Guido rushes off to meet the Cardinal, all his friends and colleagues beg him to put in a good word for them. This is such a gleeful stab at Italy's grovelling, nepotistic culture of ingratiating oneself to the powers-that-be by paying them lip-service even for the most petty personal advantages. Then Guido stands before the embodiment of Catholic paternalism and his obsequious minions. And everything is at its most pompous and lifeless - this dusty, mummified institution is less in touch with the humanity it's supposed to comfort and advise than it is possible to believe.
I also love the character of Guido's mistress, Carla, played by Sandra Milo at her gaudiest and most voluptuous. Though initially it's difficult to understand what Guido would have seen in her, eventually it become more apparent. Meeting his wife Luisa, you see how well the two women's ways of being complement one another. See for example how she reacts in a simple, good-humoured, self-deprecating way when in the café scene, Guido's elegant, neurotic wife played by Anouk Aimée at her most androgynously attractive - mockingly compliments Carla's tacky outfit for its "elegance". In such instances one gets a sense that though Fellini is parodying his subjects, he also has a fundamental love and human compassion for them.
The prostitute La Saraghina is probably one of the most memorable female characters put to film ever. She is probably somewhere in her 50s and rougher than sandpaper, overweight yet strangely fit and voluptuous, with lots of scary, wild dark hair, overdone raccoon eye make-up caked onto her aggressive, striking, sardonic face as she sits and dances on the lonely beach in Rimini next to her war bunker-home. Guido is fascinated by what is "young and yet ancient", eternal, meaning what is muse-like, archetypically, like the divinely beautiful Claudia character, perfectly embodied by Claudia Cardinale (the ultimate director's muse rather than a real woman or mistress). La Saraghina may not be a young woman like Claudia, she may not represent spontaneity and fresh, uncluttered artistic inspiration like she does, but she is also a muse of sorts - the muse of guilt-free pleasure and non-self-conscious, free, unidealised, earthy femininity. All this is La Saraghina - the town's young boys respond to this in her (including Guido as a child) and are bewitched by her and pay to her to see her demonic yet liberating, visceral dance.
I have so much more to say about this movie, for instance about Nino Rota's memorable score, or how the movie's non-linear structure and juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated scenes emulates the rhythm and mood of dreams to perfection. Also, the scenes featuring Guido's parents and their embodiment of the emotional blackmail, that eternal sense of guilt and the stunting of individuality that the paternalistic institution of family at its most traditional represents in Italy. Or of Guido's touching childhood memories, of the wonderful way in which the movie ends, in a merry-go-round of what really matters in life, when all else has been swiped aside and all that remains is the desire to cherish (with all their imperfections) all those who have really mattered most in our lives...