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Blu-ray Review: 8 ½ – The Criterion Collection

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.

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
  • 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!

  • Mark Saleski

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

  • 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.

  • 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.