Poetry of Film: Fellini’s 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita



Federico Fellini

The filmography of Federico Fellini remains one of the most diverse and evolutionary directorial careers in the history of cinema. Throughout his works, Fellini was able to carefully create his own imaginative world – a world of nostalgia that explored the struggles of living in a commercial environment. This world is painted across his movies, ranging from the post-war neorealism of his earlier films, including La Strada (1954)), to the extravagant and carnival visuals cemented in his later films, notably Amarcord (1974). Fellini became the master of iconic visuals, influencing a generation of filmmakers from Scorsese to Kubrick, and it was through two masterpieces he established his legacy: La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963).

Marking a major stylistic break from his previous works, La Dolce Vita (1960) catalogues a week in the life of gossip columnist Marcello (Marcelo Mastroianni) as he reports on dwindling film stars and aging celebrities; the film remains Fellini’s most famous, largely perhaps due to its subject matter, depicting a lifestyle not showcased previously on the screen and much to the distaste of the Church. The movie bounds with unchecked energy from frame to frame filled with spectacular visuals, and marked from beginning to end with images of Christ. From the outset we become aware of the film’s overarching use of symbolism, as a figure of Christ is carried, with a rope tied to a helicopter, flying overhead of nude women sunbathing; this scene encapsulates the entire movie – the loss of innocence to a hollow lifestyle of decadence and glamour, with the juxtaposition of a modern and old Rome.


Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in ‘La Dolce Vita’

A blend of powerful images and realism underline the greatness of this film; it remains his most popular not only because of its cultural and social implications but also due to Fellini’s subtle and symbolic progression of the movie’s episodes, to a realisation that happiness is elusive. The movie shows an emptiness of this hedonistic lifestyle but more importantly, the lack of something better – an idea summarised in the final scene where the ugly fish washes up on shore as a metaphor for Marcello’s way of life. Across the beach, the shy girl Marcello met, whilst on a retreat into the country in search of peace to do his writing, attempts to get his attention, but he does not remember her. A brilliant, almost elegiacally wistful scene ends the movie, leaving a profound impact upon the viewer of Fellini’s sublime effort to capture the nothingness of life.

Three years on, Fellini grew his stellar reputation with 8 ½. This remains his true masterpiece, standing light-years beyond what he or any other filmmaker had managed to create by 1963. There is such an abundance of features to admire about Fellini’s effort; including the choreography of the movie as the camera is continuously kept moving, the extraordinary juxtaposition of colour with fierce blacks set against soft whites, and the back and forth through time and memory, as well as dream sequences. We follow a director, Guido, struggling with his life and work, looking for some resolution which he can never find. The movie ebbs and flows between reality and dream, evidenced in the initial scene which still stands as one of the finest openings to a movie. Opening up to a busy street, we look upon Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) trapped in his car as the people in neighbouring traffic gaze at him. The scene quickly jumps to surrealism as we see Guido flying or floating in the clouds, held to earth by a thin tether. From the outset, the immediate rush of peculiar, bold images provides an insight into the troubled psyche of the central character, struggling for help as strangers stare disdainfully on; a theme developed throughout as Guido visualises his ideal woman (Claudia Cardinale) continuously – a comforting, beautiful figure who has all the answers.


Mastroianni Ottone as Guido in ‘8 1/2’

The entire film remains filled with inspiring and surprising visuals, all working to allow the viewer a glimpse into the mind of the movie’s leading character. Ranging from an entire dream sequence where Guido rules a house and is attended to by his wife, mistress, mother, aunt and all those he has wanted to sleep with, to a scene on the movie set where the jovial rhythm of circus musicians rouses Guido from his existential despair into joining the whole cast as they move into a circle of dance in an almost celebration of the moment and of life itself, this movie has proven ground-breaking. Watching it, one realises it as a driving influence of modern day filmmakers such as Terrence Malick or Alejandro Innaritu; Fellini was able to introduce poetry into the art of filmmaking, which would go on to transform cinema.

Fellini also revolutionised the use of music in film through this work, employing it not just to enhance the frame or dramatise dialogue, but to establish it as the central focus of the scene. As we see in 8 ½, Fellini had learnt to carefully craft his distinct use of music, showcased in the scene where Guido invites his estranged wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) to join him and the pair begin to dance (this is similar to the dance between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction). The music remains the central focus of the shot where it suggests that the couple still has a chance to reconcile; Fellini is able to overlay great meaning merely through music. Similarly, we also see this in a key scene where the youthful Guido, retreating into his childhood memories, spends the night at his grandmother’s villa, meeting a prostitute, La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), on the beach, where she dances provocatively. The combination of stark visuals and music allow the viewer to understand the central character further through his reactions. Dialogue is absent and we are guided and led to focus on the dance and beautiful music of Nino Rota – another point of brilliance in Fellini’s work

Spike Lee once said of Fellini’s work, ‘There are no boundaries. There are no limits’. This seems a highly apt summary; Fellini persistently looked to push what was possible to create on the screen, exploring the troubles and despair of his own life, mirrored in the society around him. Fellini was able to take the vocabulary of film given by D.W Griffith and take it to new, unimaginable heights, where he explored film to the point at which it can do something no other art form can do. The combination of music, camera movement, theme and visuals all work distinctly in these masterpieces to single out Fellini as a true visionary.

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