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8 1/2 (1963)

Forgive this observation, but if you're undecided about what film to make, 135 minutes is rather self-indulgent on the worry. But then you'd have to consider the argument as to whether Federico Fellini—full of art-house celebrity and restless facility—didn't turn to self and selfhood as opposed to story or subject. I know that seems ungrateful when you consider the unique and endearing insouciance/lethargy/fraud/boredom that Marcello Mastroianni turned on for this role—to say nothing of the photography (by Gianni Di Venanzo) that produced sophisticated blacks and whites like the layouts in a great fashion magazine. (It's not that you admire the clothes in this film—you want to purchase them. A boutique in every lobby would have cleaned up!) And surely, after the brooding disquiet of, say, Antonioni, there were more Italians than just Fellini who saw the charm in having the greatest problem in the world be what will you do or wear next?

But Antonioni—give him his due—hovers over spaces filled with mystery, whereas the gravure look that Fellini perfected here has an instantaneous accessibility that shuts out subtexts, doubts, or inner meanings. What you see is what you get—and what you see is Fellini reveling in the ironic self-centeredness of a whole film in the way Guido (Mastroianni) dreams up the harem set piece to give equality to all the competing (and betrayed) women in his life. So the considerable bitterness and justice of his wife (Anouk Aimée) can be shrugged off as high-strung nerves.

On the other hand, I agree with anyone who observes that as Fellini gives up on the charade of being interested in anything except himself, his style becomes richer and more mellifluous. It's not that 8 1/2 could or should go on forever, just that it feels as if it does. Whereas there was an authentic conundrum awaiting him after the specious La Dolce Vita: What should he do next? The matter of pressing subject was waning, and it was one among many signs that film was losing its grip on him. So Fellini turned to celebrity, with some wry grace but still as wholeheartedly as far more painfully vain directors.

Now, there is talk about his life as an ongoing circus or party—but we know those parties we cannot remember, and after a few years we gaze in dismay on the hundreds of nights they consumed. This was an act Fellini could turn on anything—his Rome was to come. He could as easily have made a film about his shirts or shoes. For myself, I don't think another real movie for him comes after 8 1/2, and I include Amarcord, which is something like My Youth, yet in a way that has forgotten how to notice pain. So the word Fellini-esque crept into being at almost exactly the moment when it had come to mean much less than ever before.

But Di Venanzo's photography changed the world. And Nino Rota had the oil to add to every dish. Also with Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele, Rossella Falk, and Madeleine LeBeau. The script was by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi.

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