otto e mezzo

Lawrence Russell

82 (Otto e Mezzo) 1963 dir.Frederico Fellini writ. Fellini, Flaiano, Pennelli, Rondi cine. Gianni di Vernanzo music Nino Rota star. Marcello Mastroianni (Guido/Director), Anouk Aimee (Luisa/wife), Sandra Milo (Carla/mistress), Edia Gale (La Saraghina), Guido Alberti (Producer), Claudia Cardinale (Claudia) et. al.

In 1963 autobiographical expressionism wasn't new in literature or the plastic arts but in feature films it was unheard of, thought impossible because a) film is a collaborative art, b) film costs so much money. But due to the international success of La Dolce Vita Fellini was able to gain the necessary carte blanche to make a film on the highly personal theme of an artist who makes films and is confronted by writer's block. Fellini was able to extend his symbolisms into a narrative that alternates between the exterior and interior worlds of the protagonist Guido (Mastroianni) without warning, presenting an integrated reality of past and present -- even the future, perhaps -- but within the usual beginning, middle and end narrative structure.

"It was self-centered of me, I suppose, not only that my own ideas seemed more attractive to me, as our own ideas seem attractive to all of us, but I believed I could carry them out with greater feeling, I could stay with them and give them a unity because they were born of me, and I could achieve the greatest understanding and intimacy with my characters."

Drama requires crisis and 8 ½ starts with one: Guido suffers a claustrophobia attack when he finds himself trapped in his car in a tunnel during rushhour. As he claws at the windows, watched by the impassive passengers in the other stalled vehicles, he astralizes and floats clear of his car and the tunnel until he is over the beach, anchored by a rope as if he is a kite. Then, in the classic anxiety dream-fall, he crashes towards the beach....

Cut To: a doctor's office where Guido is being tested.

Doctor: Well, what are you working on now? Another film without hope?

Now you recognize that Fellini is slyly creating an autobiographical commentary on his previous work as well as presenting the universal artist confronting a guilty past within a confusing present. Soon Guido is consulting with his writing collaborator, his producer, his cast, his mistress and various incidental characters at a health spa which also shares time and space with the film studio... and incidents from his past as well as his dreams and fantasies.

The doctor recommends 300 milligrams of mineral water every day before breakfast and every second day a mudbath. The Spa is sited at a spring which is to be the opening sequence in his film. Meanwhile the elderly and the infirmed line up for this elixir in a continual confluence of theatrical possibilities with his cast and family. Guido's older friend Mario is there with his young mistress, his folly a more advanced case than his own, a biological anomaly between the sexes, institutionalized in Italy but here presented as part of the multiple personae of the artist rather than a chauvinist double-standard. Guido meets his own mistress at the railway station, although her materialization is as much an erotic dream as it is a literal event.

At the Spa, his "collaborator" harangues him about the script:

Collaborator: This film is merely a series of senseless episodes... oh, their ambiguous realism is perhaps quite amusing... but what is the writer's real intention? To make us think? To frighten us?

Again, this elliptical commentary fits perfectly with Fellini's own experience and the actual film you are watching. This sort of personalism, where the play within becomes the real structure, and the play without a dismantling of the old determinist model, is both existential and revolutionary. It abandons the fixed certainties of a religious universe in favour of the uncertain topographies of a psychological one where dreams and trauma shape the soul of the individual.

Guido is often in narrow spaces, hotel corridors, tunnels, between buildings... even a cemetery where the ancient walls enclose a pasture that seems more like a forgotten roadway between past and present. Here he meets his mother at his dead father's tomb... his father, in the bizarre logic of dream, is inspecting his own tomb. As they part, his father shakes his hand, sinks into the ground and disappears in a surreal event as natural as the propitious arrival of the Producer and Mario. Ergo: Guido might be dreaming in the arms of Carla or postulating a scene in the film he assembled this cast to make.

And so it goes. There are a number of amusing scenes which make no political distinction between dream and actuality, memory and the status quo. The Catholic Church is satirized, criticized, even chastised. Guido submits his script for approval, but the Cardinal says "I don't believe film is the proper medium for some subjects". In the long sequence in the steam baths, Guido's friends and associates exhort him prostrate himself before the Cardinal and he does... but the Cardinal simply says "There is no salvation outside the Church". The window closes on the Cardinal's private steam room, effectively shutting Guido out.

"I was a little shocked when I saw on a church door a poster that had my name on it that had a black border... the poster said, 'Let us pray for the salvation of the soul of Frederico Fellini, public sinner.'"

The Church and trauma: the Seraghina episode is Fellini's payback. The boy Guido and his friends visit a coarse voluptuary known as The Seraghina and give her a few coins to dance for them. Seraghina comes out of her cave -- an abandoned concrete gun box on the beach -- and performs on the sand. She is swarthy and obese, yet retains the vestiges of her sexuality and the desire for attention, even if it is only a boy's. She vamps, she shakes her boobs, she shimmies... and a couple of priests from the school show up in pursuit of the truants. They are hauled back to school and Guido is selected for special punishment by the tribunal of Holy Brothers -- to the chants of "For Shame!" he is forced to wear a conical dunce's hat in the company of his classmates.

It's a great sequence, photographed in that familiar Fellini imagery, humans as performers, life as a circus.

Is the film too long? Yes. Guido's condition cannot be resolved, unless by suicide or by accident... and this fatalism isn't in Fellini's world-view. By the time Guido is faced by a revolt of the women in his "harem" and he quells it with a whip -- like an animal trainer -- the action has already reached a cul de sac of analysis and counter-analysis, symbolism and contradiction. Despite the secular heresies along the way, Fellini is merely a neo-Catholic who reinvents the nightmare of his histrionic paternalism (as Director, lover, family man and hypochondriac) into a c'est la vie fatalism that allows him to avoid compromise and get past the ethical considerations that go with the job.

"Having always loved the circus, I saw the resemblance between movies and the circus. As a boy, my greatest dream would have been to be the director of a circus. I love the fantasy and the sense of improvisation in both."

The ending is at the launch-pad for the huge rocket that Guido has built, the only tangible evidence that he actually has something "real" that a producer can relate to. The closing sequences are a montage of crowd scenes (the cast of his movie, his family, hangers-on, et. al.) around and on the scaffolding that supports this phallic fantasy. Guido holds a press conference, but ignores the questions of the journalists in favour of some head-talk with his wife. Eventually he gets the show on the road, "directs" everyone onto the low perimeter of a circus ring that just happens to be on the sand... and they flow around him like a zoetrope in the dance of life. He links hands with his wife in an apparent reconciliation and they too join the flow....

It's a cluttered conclusion that resolves nothing, a smoke and mirrors montage of psycho-babble dialogue and photo cut-ins which might accurately reflect a day-in-the-life of a movie director but does very little to make sense of the psycho-drama to this point. But -- where else could it go? Guido orders the dismantling of the space ship set and the scaffolding begins to fall -- just like the determinist structure that is the cladding of all conventional film.

Highly original, the first of the mass-market "art" films to succeed. Like many of the great Italian and European Catholic muralists, Fellini's personal symbolism fits perfectly within the orthodoxy some claim he opposes.

Fellini quotes from I, Fellini by Charlotte Chandler

© LR '65/revised '99


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