Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

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Is the subject of this film a religious one? – A Religious Leader 

Yes, well, in a manner of speaking. – Guido

It famously opens with a dream. Our main character stuck in a silent traffic jam, completely disillusioned by the scene around him until he’s able to escape everything inhibiting him and soar into the upper echelons of the atmosphere. But it hardly lasts. Soon he finds himself tethered, being brought back down to earth.

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Our protagonist of sorts turns out to be Guido (the famed Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni), a film director who is going through a spell of director’s block. His most recent activities include an extended stay at a luxury spa at the behest of his doctors. It’s also early on in the film that someone asks him if his next film is also going to be one devoid of hope. It’s a very quick statement but in some sense, it sets the groundwork for Fellini’s entire film.

And it is a very personal film and a fascinating exploration of the art of filmmaking — the thing making it the most compelling is the strange suspicion that parts of Fellini himself dwell inside of Guido. Perhaps Guido shares a bit of his philosophy and stance or more precisely Fellini is like his main character.

The film within a film soon becomes evident and in that sense, it’s also a personal picture. Its title being derived from the number of pictures the Maestro had directed thus far. And numerous meta qualities come to the fore, most obviously when Guido is going through the screen tests his producer (Guido Alberti) and wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) among those viewing the proceedings.

But going back to that issue of hope, the film’s finale has always been striking to me but I realized that it takes on new meaning put in the context of higher issues altogether. In some respects, Guido or Fellini, whichever you prefer, is trying to derive some sort of higher meaning, whatever that means to him.

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That’s in part why he has his legions of characters join hands in an almost communal dance of absurdity. Simultaneously, a journalist can be heard throwing his questions out, “Are you for or against eroticism?” and in the same breath, “Do you believe in God?” Because this is Fellini’s answer — the solution he has drawn up for himself. There is a sense of grandiose absurdity which is full of dreamscapes — where the distinction between reality and fantasy hardly means anything. Because in the eye of the beholder they are hardly different.

On purely a level of spectacle, it’s indubitably a fascinating set-up. Fellini is known for his quintessential style. To be Felliniesque is to be wrapped up in the surreal and the fantastic. But the philosophical conclusions that go hand in hand with such a provocative approach to film are rather disheartening. If this is part of what Fellini is trying to grapple with as it pertains to love and ultimate truth then 8 1/2 does fall back on a rather dismal ending.

As Guido explains to the man of the cloth, he is looking for some flash of understanding, some obvious moment of truth, like Saul at Damascus. He, like all his peers, carries the foundations of a Catholic upbringing. The religious authorities tell them that there is no salvation outside the church. His strict Catholic school told him what was wrong. Likewise, Guido plans to have a spaceship in his next film — humanities “new Noah’s Ark.” And it’s true that space exploration has been the final frontier, a beacon of potential hopes and truths. You see that in later works like 2001 and Solaris.  However, Noah’s Ark was also a vessel to escape destruction as much as it was a ship of exploration.

In drawing other cinematic comparisons, Fellini’s film revolves around a pointless MacGuffin (the phrase Asa Nisi Masa) rather like Welles famed Rosebud. Truthfully, this is a comedy in the same way perhaps Citizen Kane is a comedy. In a similar way, Guido seems isolated, but his mind, in particular, is twisted up with fantasies.

The most divisive scene in the film is yet another fantasy conjured up by Guido that is either extraordinary humorous or sadly indicative of his state of being depending on how you view it. He dreams himself in the stead of all the women he has crossed paths with thus far. — all ready and waiting on his whim — his personal harem of sorts — totally and completely objectified for his pleasure. Again, it’s played for truly comic effect but what are the implications?

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As the eternal beauty Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) notes, “He doesn’t know how to love.” She speaks of Guido’s protagonist but as the meta-ness suggests, this protagonist is Guido himself and going down even a layer further maybe even Fellini too. It’s precisely these problems that tie back into Guido’s disillusionment. “There’s no part in the film. And there’s no film. There’s nothing anywhere,” he says to Claudia.

Chaos and nothingness. True perfection is nothingness. His final conclusion? Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together. In essence, it’s true but the carnival showmanship and parlor tricks cannot obscure the bottom line here. As Francis Schaeffer once noted someone like Fellini “has no way to distinguish between right and wrong, or even between what is objectively true as opposed to illusion or fantasy.” That’s a terrifying world to come to terms with. During filming, Fellini supposedly kept a note on his camera to remind himself that this was a comedy film. But much like Citizen Kane, perhaps there’s a need to label it a Tragicomedy. You cannot deal with such issues without elation being matched with some amount of melancholy.

5/5 Stars

Divorce Italian Style (1961)

Divorceitalian.jpgI never thought I’d get so fed up with hearing the name “Fefe.” But it’s true. There’s a first time for everything. In fact, Fefe is the name of our main character played so magnificently by Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni. In my very narrow view, he still very much epitomizes Italian cinema for me.

As for the film, a Sicilian Baron Ferdinando finds himself in rather an unfortunate conundrum — at least from his point of view. He relates through voice-over his family dynamic, with his parents, his soon to be engaged sister, his doting wife (Daniela Rocca), and of course his beautiful ingenue cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). Aside from not being particularly enthralled with married life, the bigger problem is that Ferdinando is infatuated with Angela. He can’t take his eyes off her.

For those who are paying attention this comedy from director Pietro Germi, at times feels strikingly similar to the screwball comedies of Classic Hollywood where men such as Preston Sturges made light work of society by skirting censorship and building a barrage of gags almost to the point of being incomprehensible. But they might also conjure up comparisons with the darkly funny Ealing comedies out of England. And it’s true that films like Divorce Italian Style also carry a very particular name, “Commedia all’italiana” or comedy in the Italian way.

What becomes evident in a film such as Divorce Italian Style is the pointed attack on Italian social mores — the very framework that the culture is built on — and all involved are poking fun. Morality, class distinction, even the institution of marriage, are all dissected satirically as our protagonist goes through his life dreaming of knocking his wife off and living happily ever after with Angela — a girl that shares his affection — if only society didn’t say otherwise (she gets whisked to a life in a convent to maintain her purity).  Not to be deterred, the Baron attempts to hitch his wife up with a suitable suitor and as the shameful scandal finally breaks over his wife, he secretly jumps for joy. He’s getting a step closer to what he wants.

Meanwhile, the men about town all ogle at every girl that happens to walk by. Fefe’s old man is constantly harassing the maid, and more than once he walks in on his sister and her beau making out passionately.  There’s even a theatrical screening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (also starring Mastroianni) which literally seems to break any form of censorship in the town. The crowds flock to it joyously — men and women alike — because they want to see the lavish romance projected up onto the screen.

Mastroianni is not surprisingly a long way off from his debonair lovers taken the likes of La Dolce Vita, La Notte or 8 and 1/2. He goes through the film with a certain comedic despondency. He’s hardly a real figure. Comic and dismal with overblown ideas of how to make his existence invariably better. It’s quite a display because while it’s easy to laugh it’s also rather pitiful.

So Divorce Italian Style is perhaps even more audacious than the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. Because it gives the plotting Fefe the “happy” ending he was hoping for. It actually gives it to him, but the comic (or sad) thing, in the end, is that his girl is already playing footsies with another man. You see if we look at what is going on here,  he’s never going to find contentment. The ultimate irony, if there was a sequel, is that it would probably show Fefe actually trying to kill his wife because she’s cheating on him. Then it wouldn’t be so funny.

Yes, the strict societal pressures put on the members of this Sicilian community undoubtedly deserve to be questioned. There is so much obvious hypocrisy bubbling up through the layers of society and it makes for provocative comedy. But also there’s something to be said for living life under some sort of moral framework. Otherwise, life is purely about our pleasures, what makes us feel good, what our desires are and oftentimes those fail to regard what is beneficial for others. Needless to say, I’m partial to “Marriage,” not “Divorce” Italian Style — or any other way for that matter. However, I won’t even try to tackle the whole marrying your cousin thing. This is a comedy after all and Stefania Sandrelli is quite pretty. I don’t blame “Fefe” too much. He’s only human.

4/5 Stars

Sunflower (1970)

Vittorsunflowerio De Sica is at the forefront of Europe’s most accessible filmmakers of the 20th century and that’s because the stories he crafts are heartfelt, moving, and also enter comical territory with ease. Sunflower pairs him once again with two of Italy’s Titans Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, and as you would expect the film starts off full of passion, playfulness, and a little pasta. It’s the dawn of WWII and the frisky pair is in love, deciding to get a quick marriage so they might get a 12 day leave before Antonio has to ship out.

In a sense, this is a kind of war film, because Anto gets sent off to the Russian Front and we get a glimpse of the harsh realities there. We are treated to some newsreel style war footage all the while veiled with a billowing red flag. Sunflower is not a film about the politics of the war per se, but rather the effect that war has on people and their relationships.  It can heighten passion, tear people apart, and change lives for good.

When the news comes home that the war is over, there is a flood of relief and then everyone including Giovanna (Sophia Loren) frantically begins the search for their kith and kin. Worried mothers and wives bring their long-cherished photos into train stations clinging to the hope that just one person passing by will be able to give them some fragment of hope. That’s what Giovanni gets and it’s not much, but a jaded soldier who suffered alongside Anto tells her the last time they were together, he was freezing to death in the snow. Her first reaction is to berate him, but he’s too tired to care by now. So she prepares for the journey to Russia to find the whereabouts of her long-lost love. She will not take no for an answer, but what she finds is more painful than even she could expect. It’s a different type of scar, a different type of hurt that no one could foresee.

sunflower1In some respects, Sunflower feels like a precursor to Life is Beautiful (1997), because both films are full of hopefulness, but they both exist as heart-wrenching stories. They deliver the same moving swells of emotion, but for different reasons. Sunflower ends up feeling a little like Umbrellas of Cherbourg in its tragedy. But the title seems to suggest, maybe, just maybe, like the old adage says, out of the ashes beauty can still rise. All the pain and suffering are only the fertilizer for flowers to spring up from the desolated earth. A memorial of what has happened, but also a harbinger for the future.

This is truly an international film because although it’s in Italian, it was partially shot in Russia (a first for the USSR) and features Russian performer Lyudmila Savelyeva in a prominent role. But the lovely score comes courtesy of America’s own Henry Mancini, rounding out this film perfectly. It’s another pleasant surprise from Vittorio De Sica.

4/5 Stars

Marriage Italian Style (1964)

Marriage_Italian_StyleI had never seen any of De Sica’s later work and with the quintessential pairing of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni this seemed like a perfect place to start the journey. The character Domenico is easy to dislike from the beginning because he constantly floats in and out of the life of the former prostitute Filumena who is ironically devoted to him.

The film relates the struggles of matrimony and family in Italy as Filumena tries to support her family while struggling with Demenico who is never truly ready to commit to her. In fact he becomes absolute fed up with her after a trick marriage, but that is just the beginning.

I can only imagine what Divorce Italian Style will be like (which also features Mastroianni). Without question Sophia Loren is certainly the driving force in this film.

4/5 Stars

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

Yesterday,_Today_and_TomorrowThis is the lightest of any De Sica film I had seen up until this point and interestingly enough it was split up into three narratives. The first one follows a woman who continually gets pregnant in order to avoid going to jail, but after seven kids, the toll is too much on her jaded husband. Needless to say there is a happy ending.

The second tale follows a superficial socialite with a Rolls Royce. She ditches her cars as quickly as she ditches her lovers. Although the story does not go very far it is easy to see she is a snob used to getting her own way. Ironically a humble man would in many ways be too good for her.

The final vignette follows an amiable prostitute as she befriends a young man destined to join the clergy. However, he becomes smitten and so she must do her best to encourage him to continue his calling.

That really is only the basics, but it was certainly enjoyable to see Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in three separate roles playing off of each other in different ways. They reflected three very different walks of life and three varying relationships mixing a great deal of humor with a few more somber moments. All in all it was fairly enjoyable.

4/5 Stars

8 1/2 (1963)

4b2c1-8mezzoDirected by Federico Fellinni and starring Marcello Mastroianni, the film follows the famous director Guido. After an opening sequence that reveals how he feels, we see Guido as he spends time at a spa trying to get healthy. However, he also must prepare for his next epic film production and he is constantly being bombarded by his writer, producer, actors, and all others involved. First his mistress arrives which he is unhappy about and then his wife comes and he is glad to see her. All these various things leave Guido confused since he does not have any answers. He wanted to make a genuine film full of truth and yet he cannot even be truthful in his own life. Even the ideal woman, the actress Claudia, has no real answers for him. Despite this, the film ends on a positive note with everyone holding hands in dance. What makes this film so fascinating is the interlocking dreams, reality, fantasy, and Guido’s childhood memories. Sometimes the viewer may get confused and yet often it is possible to decipher what is going on still. This is  a very personal film about film making itself and for Fellini it is also considered by many to be his greatest achievement.

5/5 Stars

La Notte (1961)

36075-lanotteposterHere is a film full of glitz reminiscent of La Dolce Vita, a cast starring the likes of Mastroianni, Moreau, and Vitti, with a meandering plot courtesy of Michelangelo Antonioni and gorgeous black and white visuals.

This film is certainly not for the action fanatic because we are given very little. In fact the story revolves around a couple who have trouble communicating so even the dialogue seems sparse at times. The marriage is slowly going down the tubes and neither partner is ready to acknowledge it until the end when the wife finally does.

Moreau definitely had stronger performances like Jules and Jim because here she hardly talks and is highly misanthropic. Monica Vitti is more interesting in her role simply because she has more energy infused into her.

One of my favorite moment in the film had to be at the party where Mastroianni first sees  Vitti playing a rudimentary shuffle board. We are watching just like he is except there is a strange sensation that something is doctored with the image. It turns out that we are only looking at the reflection and then the camera swivels to the right to actually show reality. It was one of the noticeable artistic shots that really stood out to me.

La Notte is a subdued film, more often than not, and so if you go expecting that type of pacing you start to enjoy the little pieces here in there that are given to you. By the end it is rather sad because the marriage not working. There is no huge fight, no bickering, just apathy and that is in many ways more painful to see.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Marcello Mastroianni

1. 8 1/2
2. La Dolce Vita
3. Divorce Italian Style
4. A Special Day
5. Marriage Italian Style
6. Le Notti Bianche
7. La Notte
8. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
9. The Organizer
10. Dark Eyes
11. Big Deal on Madonna Street
12. Everybody’s Fine
13. Adua and Her Friends
14. Sunflower
15. The Law

La Dolce Vita (1960)

bc0c3-la_dolce_vita_1960_film_coverartStarring Marcello Mastroianni and directed by Federico Fellini, this Italian film set in Rome follows a tabloid reporter named Marcello. If he is not finding a scoop with other ravenous reporters, he spends time with his wary girlfriend, falls for an American bombshell, talks with a cultured family man, or spends time with his good natured father who he does not really know. All the while he witnesses the lives of the rich and has many romantic relations. The underlining theme of it all is boredom,  unhappiness, and superficial lifestyles. This film is not really about a main plot but rather Marcello’s many different episodes and experiences. Some are funny and others maddening, but he muddles his way through. This film, much like Breathless, is international and chic. The cinematography and score are both effective in helping to create this feel.

5/5 Stars