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Blu-ray Review: 8 ½ – The Criterion Collection

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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.

The pressures of his life and his film come to a head as they intersect and the film becomes about his life as seen in screen tests of actresses. His wife in particular doesn’t like what she sees. Guido is taken to meet the press with production about to commence. As the climax approaches the viewer wonders if Guido will receive a moment of clarity about how to proceed or will the gun an associate gave him be his way out.

The acting by the cast is top notch, particularly as some of the main actors play variations of their characters throughout. Gianni Di Venanzo's black and white cinematography looks exquisite with this new high definition transfer. Nino Rota's score is wonderfully evocative and will stay with you after the film has ended. It blends well with the famous classical pieces used.

The video has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer and is displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I haven't seen a black-and-white film look so vibrant on Blu-ray. The blacks are rich and inky, and there's good shadow delineation and no sign of crush unless Fellini is intentionally hiding figures in the darkness. Most times, there's great separation and depth when black is on black. The shades of gray cover a wide spectrum and are sharp. The whites are pure, although on occasion during outdoor daylight scenes they are almost blown out due to being so bright.

There are very minor flaws in the image, which are understandable for its age. Occasional specks of dirt, most noticeable during freeze frames, and light, vertical scratches can be seen. Slight aliasing occurs from the lined wallpaper in Guido's room at the spa. There are a few scenes with lens flares from the source that may be mistaken for halos.

The audio has also been remastered and I didn’t hear any flaws. It is presented in PCM 1.0 Mono and plays out the front center speaker, so there's nothing for the surround system. The dialogue is consistently clear, although as with Italian productions of the time, it was dubbed entirely in the studio. The lack of ambiance makes the dialogue sound slightly flat, and there are occasions where Fellini changed the line from what was said on set, contributing to the voice and lips not always matching. The dialogue is well balanced with the music and has a good dynamic range.

Criterion has brought over all the supplements from the DVD release and they provide great insight into Fellini and the film. Director Terry Gilliam, whose works shows a great influence from Fellini, offers an introduction to the film (seven min). The speakers on the audio commentary are documentarian/Fellini friend Gideon Bachmann, NYU film professor Antonio Monda and excerpts of an essay read by Tanya Zaicon. There are interviews with director Lina Wertmüller (17 min), who was Fellini's assistant on the film; co-star Sandra Milo (27 min); and noted cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (17 min). "Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert" (47 min) is a 1993 German documentary that shines a well-deserved spotlight on the Italian composer.

"Fellini: A Director's Notebook" (51 min) is a very odd piece, but typical of the vault-scouring material the folks at Criterion regularly find. This 1969 NBC TV special appears as if the network gave Fellini a check and just sent him on his way, blindly trusting whatever he would deliver. It's a very strange collection of sequences echoing 8 ½ where he appears to be working through his unfinished film, The Journey of G. Mastorna. Fellini narrates and presents interviews of Giulietta Masina, with clips of her in his film Nights of Cabiria, and Mastroianni on a photo shoot. There are some weird pieces related to Satryicon, which was released the same year, and an odd assortment of people come to see if they can get into his film. But are they real or characters in his mind? The video is extremely poor quality and likely to disappoint all but the most ardent aficionado. A letter from Fellini to producer Peter Goldfarb related to the project is included.

Exclusive to this Blu-ray edition is “The Last Sequence” (50 min), a 2003 Italian documentary on the lost, original ending that was supposed to occur on a train car. Footage was shot and destroyed by Fellini but photo stills remain. The real prize here is hearing Fellini talk about film as art. Great stuff.

Still galleries, theatrical trailers, and booklet essays round out the supplements.

8 ½ is a masterpiece by a talented cast and crew. Its multi-layered story is a wonderful mystery to watch unravel and contains many secrets and riddles within. As a bonus, the more learned about Fellini the more sense the components will make and the richer the story becomes, but that knowledge isn't required beforehand to enjoy the film. It’s a must-own for anyone serious about cinema and gets better with each viewing.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://willkillforfood.com Lisa McKay

    Superb review, El B. I have an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my wallet, and this sounds like it might have to make its way into my collection.

  • Jordan Richardson

    A great, thorough look at one of my favourite films. Nice job!

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i love this movie….and sort of think that the dubbed dialog adds to the atmosphere.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Thanks for the comments. It’s a tad daunting to take on something so seminal that has been written about by so many. It’s so dense a book could be easily written about it. Wasn’t sure if I was saying too much or too little at times. Glad my wrestling with it paid off.

  • FitzBoodle

    Very good review. Inspires me to view the Fellini again.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    If you don’t have the blu ray there is a streaming version on Netflix. I started watching it. But it did not grab me in the first few minutes, so I turned it off. I will give it another looksee. I saw it when it came out aeons ago. But forgot it.