Frederico Fellini's masterwork 8 ½ is difficult to approach largely because of its reputation. Many critics also state that the film is so complex that it requires multiple viewings to understand, and this is likely to intimidate many viewers. But in truth, and in spite of its surrealistic flourishes, 8 ½ is more straight-forward than its reputation might lead you to believe.
The storyline itself is very simple. A famous director is preparing a new film, but finds himself suffering from creative block: he is obsessed by, loves, and feels unending frustration with both art and women, and his attention and ambition flies in so many different directions that he is suddenly incapable of focusing on one possibility lest he negate all others. With deadlines approaching the cast and crew descend upon him demanding information about the film--information that the director does not have because he finds himself incapable of making an artistic choice.
What makes the film interesting is the way in which Fellini ultimately transforms the film as a whole into a commentary on the nature of creativity, art, mid-life crisis, and the battle of the sexes. Throughout the film, the director dreams dreams, has fantasies, and recalls his childhood--and this internal life is presented on the screen with the same sense of reality as reality itself. The staging of the various shots is unique; one is seldom aware that the characters have slipped into a dream, fantasy, or memory until one is well into the scene, and as the film progresses the lines between external life and internal thought become increasingly blurred, with Fellini giving as much (if not more) importance to fantasy as to fact.
The performances and the cinematography are key to the film's success. Even when the film becomes surrealistic, fantastic, the actors perform very realistically and the cinematography presents the scene in keeping with what we understand to be the reality of the characters lives and relationships. At the same time, however, the film has a remarkably poetic quality, a visual fluidity and beauty that transforms even the most ordinary events into something slightly tinged by a dream-like quality. Marcello Mastroianni offers a his greatest performance here, a delicate mixture of desperation and ennui, and he is exceptionally well supported by a cast that includes Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee, and a host of other notables.
I would encourage people not to be intimidated by the film's reputation, for its content can be quickly grasped. When critics state the film requires repeated viewing what they actually seem to mean is that the film holds up extremely well to repeated viewing; each time it is seen, one finds more and more to enjoy and to contemplate. Even so, I would be amiss if I did not point out that people who prefer a cinema of tidy plot lines and who dislike ambiguity or the necessity of interpreting content will probably dislike 8 ½ a great deal. For all others: strongly, strongly recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer