Tuesday, July 11, 2017

1963 Winner, 8½

Directors:      Federico Fellini

Distributed by:  Embassy Pictures (in U.S.)

Released:  February 1963

Country:  Italy

Anyone who has ever had to write anything of any length, be it an assignment or something done voluntarily, knows what “writer’s block” is.  Staring at a blank page, trying to come up with an idea to start things off, is the worst.  And I can tell you, reviewing a Fellini movie like , 1963’s Best Foreign Film, is a good way to come up with writer’s block.  Not only is this movie is a tough nut to crack, but it is considered a masterpiece.  What can I possibly add?

Well, the honest answer is nothing.  However, I’m not alone in my writer’s block.  The film is about a director, Guido, who essentially has writer’s block, only it’s in relation to his being a director.  Presumably, Guido is really a stand-in for Fellini himself, trying to figure out what he wanted to say in this big budget science fiction he is doing.  Guido is unsure of himself and his relationship with the women in his life. In other words, he’s just like every other guy, except he needs to figure out a way to translate his feelings into film.

Mastroianni and Aimee
The movie starts with a traffic jam.  But unlike the singing, dancing kind in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, this one is stifling and claustrophobic to the point of suffocating Guido in his car.  He cannot breathe, but finally escapes the death trap automobile and floats to the clouds.  Next, he’s a human kite with a rope around his leg, and when he returns to earth, he does so violently and at the hand of his critics.  This is what “director’s block” is for Guido, and this is the movie where Fellini abandoned neo-realism for imagery and symbolism.

Essentially, Guido is trying to figure out what to put in his film.  He is played sympathetically, and often comically, by Marcello Mastroianni, one of Italy’s biggest stars.  Intertwined with this “director’s block” of Guido’s is his relationship to all the women of his life.  First, there’s his mistress, the curvaceous and uncouth Carla, whom he keeps around for one obvious reason.  His wife Luisa, played by A Man and a Woman’s Anouk Aimée, comes to visit him on the set, and his hopes that the two can reconcile don’t seem too promising.  Then there’s his “Ideal Woman,” who is at first just a fantasy, but materializes late in the film as the actress he’s been waiting for.  She’s played by Claudia Cardinale, perhaps best known to American audiences for her role in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.  Guido’s views on women are best shown in his extended fantasy that begins with a harem of women existing only to serve him, ending a whole lot less enjoyably.  As confused as Guido is, it’s hard not to envy him just a little for having all these women revolve around him.

Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West
No doubt this is an odd film, from its strange start to its bizarre finish.  Martin Scorsese said in an interview once that in introducing his daughter to this movie, he knew he first had to show her some of Fellini’s earlier, more accessible works, like 1960’s La Dolce Vita, because is such a tough one to get your head around.  Well, I don’t know about that.  What I can tell you is you cannot expect to pick up on everything when you first watch it; but significantly, you can get the point of the movie without necessarily understanding every scene.  This is film as art: a well-shot, black-and-white masterpiece about relationships and directing and yes, writer’s block.  If you just type away, or in Guido’s case, direct away, you’ll get through it, even if in the end it isn’t as good as you would have liked it to be.  Like this review.

Opening scene in La La Land
The Title:  Otto e mezzo.  Previous to this movie, Fellini did six feature films, two short films, and co-directed a film; by his math, that’s 7½ pictures.  This one would be his 8½th.  I guess he had writer’s block when coming up with the title.

The culture:  There is some Italian culture from the early ‘60’s in here, but more to the point, this is a movie about the culture of filmmaking.  Roger Ebert called it “the best film ever made about filmmaking.”  Certainly it surpasses Truffaut’s film Day for Night, Best Foreign Film from 1973, a pleasant enough movie also about a director dealing with the difficulties of directing a film.  But what I kept thinking about was the terrific documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, made by Eleanor Coppola.  That movie is about how her famed director-husband, Francis Ford Coppola, just about went off his rocker making his epic Vietnam War drama Apocalypse Now.  In that movie, Coppola also has director’s block, not knowing how to finish the movie, and plowing through anyhow.

opening scene
Agenda danger:  Fellini is basically criticizing his own failings in this film, and really there is no political persuasion to this story.

Best Picture that year:  Tom Jones.  It’s not unusual for the Best Foreign Film to be much more noteworthy and acclaimed than the Best Picture of the same year.  This is one instance.

Rating:  Take Martin Scorsese’s advice—this is a great one to watch after having seen La Strada (review coming) or even Amarcord (which is reviewed here).  But you can’t watch without realizing you are watching a great film.  Mastroianni is a pleasure to watch, and the fantasy scenes, though sometimes difficult to interpret, are interesting and often humorous, like a good dream.  My feeling is that anyone seriously studying film needs to see this, but it isn’t so bad for the average movie-watcher either.

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