Thursday, June 23, 2022


The Mother, the Whore, and 15,000 Extras

1/2: Luci del varietà [Variety Lights] (co-directed with Alberto Lattuada)

1-1/2: Lo sceicco bianco [The White Sheik]

2-1/2: I vitelloni [The Loafers / The Fellas]

3: Un giornalista racconta: Agenzia matrimoniale [A Journalist Reports: Matrimonial Agency]

4: La strada [The Road]

5: Il bidone [The Swindle]

6: Le notti de Cabiria [The Nights of Cabiria]

7: La dolce vita [The Sweet Life]

7-1/2: Le tentazioni del Dottor Antonio [The Temptations of Doctor Antonio]

8-1/2: 8-1/2

Like Nabokov's crowning and final Russian-language novel Dar / The Gift, Fellini's 1963 8-1/2 ("otto e mezzo") is a work about itself and its own creation, and represents the grand, outstanding achievement of the first portion of the maestro's œuvre. It's not a summation-culmination per se as are Bergman's Fanny and Alexander and Saraband, but surely some familiarity with Fellini's psychography helps the viewer appreciate the experience that much more richly. Ironic then that it is often the entry-point for many young cinephiles to this body of work — I think it was my own when I was 17 — if not in fact to the European cinema in general. And why shouldn't it be? 8-1/2 is a deeply personal and inspired film, an infectious opus that places each viewer in the psychology of its two main protagonists — Mastroianni and Aimée —and their mutual sense of aspiration and resignation.

The Dream and the Cure

The hero of the movie, film-director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), is stuck in his car in logjam traffic beneath an overpass. The vehicles surrounding him are filled with individuals from his own life and, most generally, from the crew of the film whose production he's about to embark upon. This is too much an alone space, Guido's car interior — claustrophobic: he needs out. As smoke infiltrates the cabin, he's able to escape out the newly descended driver's side window, and arms akimbo takes flight like the martyr Christ in the opening sequence of La dolce vita. Guido has stymied himself over what this film (8-1/2) he's embarking on is supposed to... less represent, rather be — less thematically than somatically. And thus: this traffic sequence, a dream from which Guido will awaken with an arm outstretched to God.

Inside the lush bedroom of a first-class hotel within the vicinity of Guido's movie set and the site of a restorative "mineral water cure," the director awakens and is surrounded immediately by members of the production alongside other affiliates, pecking about this or that, prepared to answer Anselmi's directives if only he would reveal them.

He ventures outside, and among the geriatric crowd of attendees he spies Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), the most attractive of the cure administrators, an angelic vision of purity, an earthly Virgin — "the mysterious apparition," (literally so we'll soon infer) according to Daumier's (Jean Rouguel's) 'notes' — this, expounds the French intellectual invited to set to 'give notes' to Guido's design for the film, is the worst of Guido's symbols. I'll return to Daumier as this note proceeds.

But Guido can't get by without the presence of a magic woman. Signal the arrival by train of Carla (Sandra Milo) at the director's own invite — for the purpose, of course, of diversion — all mommy-nurturing and gratification. Carla is fleshy from being pandered to, her millinery "peluche," and her sedevacantist's chin-mole, beckoning. She relies on the pet-phrase, "Sgulp!" E quindi —

Asa Nisi Masa

A foul-faced magician reads Guido's mind and traces the phrase "Asa Nisi Masa" onto a blackboard. Guido's own formulation takes him back to this childhood, an 'imaginary' sequence (the film itself, Fellini's eighth-and-a-half-conception, an imagination) in which siblings and cousins are given a metaphorical baptism by wine as they help to crush the grapes and indulge in the jam between toes. Once the children are dried off and put to bed, the eldest, a girl, sits straight up to remind her roommates that the eyes of the painting in a corner will in the middle of the night move, and their gaze will indicate the location of "the treasure" so long as the incantation be intoned: "Asa Nisi Masa... Asa Nisi Masa..." Someone once pointed out the first syllables of each word: "A - NI - MA"... One could expect, that for Guido, the moving eyes on the painting, in concert with the chant of "Asa Nisi Masa," forge an infant alphabet for the elements, the type-setting, of Anselmi's/Fellini's future cinema.

Shortly after Guido clicks back into the present, Barbara Steele implores her fiancé Mario Mezzabotta, "Play 'Mystification'..."


The adolescent Fellini always loved being under the kitchen- or dining-room-table and watching and inhaling the legs of the women in his family pounding the outer ridge of the structure. Likewise, for Guido the sight of a woman during his meeting with the cardinal takes him back in memory to his and his schoolfriends' encounters with Saraghina (Eddra Gale), the plus-size town prostitute. She lives in a more desolate version of the seaside shack we witnessed in The Nights of Cabiria. They pay her to dance, to shake, to reveal her shoulders. Another origin of Anselmi's directorial predilections. Two monsignors drag Guido off, and he faces an inquisition of butch lesbian priests. Exasperation and shame. Blasphemy and bliss.

The Sheik of Araby

The towels will be transposed to the spa steam room. The perspiration and detoxing of guilt.

All Guido can do is chew his nails, ineffectual observer, at the side of his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) and her presence which looms over him. The Anselmis attend a convention, an auction, more or less. 

Snap into Guido's transparently auto-psychoanalytic fantasy: All the women in his life past and present occupy a two-floor home consonant with that of Guido's prepubescent wine-bath rituals — when one's looks falter with age, she is relegated to the upstairs. Guido imagines a revolt against his authority, presumed masculine supremacy, and the whipping spectacle begins. Proposition: The cinema does not begin and end with the cinema — its end result is desire, is not cinema, but rather is the accolades, devotion, connections, reconciliation (wish-fulfillment), etc. In the harem, Luisa is the voice of calm and order, scrubbing the floor on her knees: another elevation, which I'll soon examine.

The Screen Tests

Time to watch the screen tests and for Guido to select the actresses he wants for his film (already cast to perfection in Fellini's framework-film / Guido's life). He's accompanied by Daumier the doctrinaire — who muses upon "clearly defined faces" — and who is clueless as to the kind of fantasy realm that Guido inhabits. The director summons two workers, who hood Daumier and summarily hang him in the aisle of the screening room. Wish-fulfillment.

There is something to this film — about elevation, and Guido's head. All the chambers and the factions. The repeated rise to the stop of the rocket-scaffold, to the top of the wine cask, to the top of screening-room, and so on. Luisa scrubbing the floor on her knees. Psychoanalysis thrown on screen like with Hitchcock. It's torture for Luisa. It must have been torture for Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina. Guido has insisted after all that Luisa arrive, as though he has forgotten what she'll be put through, and hazards the chance meeting — which comes to pass — between his wife and his mistress Carla, whom only a day earlier he painted up like a whore. "Luisa, I love you."

Claudia shows up at the screen tests after Luisa has already walked out in disgust. She 'marries' Carla and Luisa, enacts the ideal of Guido's. But he "doesn't know how to love." All is fleeting.

The Circular Dance

"There are so many superfluous things in the world today — no need to add chaos to chaos."



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