The Criterion Collection has released Federico Fellini's 8 ½ on Blu-ray. The Academy Award-winning 1963 Italian film is a world-cinema landmark. Voted number three in the 2002 Sight & Sound Directors' Top Ten Poll and number nine in the Critics' Top Ten Poll, its influence is evident in many films, including Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, and Spike Jonze's Adaptation. This is likely because it speaks to filmmakers about the struggles of making films personally and professionally, and can be applied to any artistic endeavor.
After Fellini's La Dolce Vita, a critique of Italian high society, his next planned feature, which he counted as his eighth and a half (six features, another he co-directed, and two segments for films; hence the name) "had fled" him during pre-production in a case of director's block. He explains in I, Fellini that rather than give up he turned inward and created a story about his creative struggles. But the film isn’t that straightforward. Author and Film Studies professor Alexander Sesonske describes it best in the liner notes: "8 ½ is a film about making a film, and the film that is being made is 8 ½," resulting in a film that is both recursive and meta.
It opens with a visually captivating sequence, one of many in the film. A man dressed in black who we will later learn is famous director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is trapped in a traffic jam and within a car. Everyone is staring at him. The car fills with smoke and he struggles to get out. He crawls out a window and flies over the cars. He takes to the sky, floating through the clouds, but someone on the beach lassoes him around the leg. He quickly descends to the ground and before impact awakes from a dream. Guido has checked himself into a spa for two weeks to take a break, but the film and his life constantly intrude.
Guido is stuck in pre-production limbo on a new film with a science fiction angle, evidenced by the spaceship being built. His life has informed his art and vice versa, but now he finds himself creatively blocked, in part because he is having a midlife crisis. His mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), insatiable like a fire to the point she gets sick with a fever, comes out to stay at a nearby hotel. When his cold, cerebral wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) suspects him cheating, he suggests she come out and he juggles the two women. All the while he is forced to deal with people associated with getting the film made: producers trying to move ahead with the project, an actress trying out for a part she doesn’t understand, a cardinal wanting to know Guido's intentions. He must work out the direction to take his film, its sci-fi element standing as a metaphor for the future, before he can move on.
Guido is constantly escaping into memories and dreams that blend into his reality. He has a strong desire to go back to the safety of his childhood like Charles Foster Kane. We witness how events have shaped him, such as his innocently dancing with Saraghina the prostitute and the reaction to that by the clergy (actresses playing men) at his school. The women in his life appear throughout both worlds and change roles. A fantasy containing all of them begins with Guido acting like a sultan in a harem. Everyone is devoted or he is quick to grab a whip, but order is up-ended rather quickly and he discovers his power was an illusion.