In the interest of keeping this somewhat short and not overly analytical, I am going to use the bullet format to showcase some of the famous imagery and moments that make this my favorite film of all time: the masterful, beautiful, poignant, elegiac, sexy, and highly influential and innovative 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini. Fellini said that when he made 8 1/2 he wanted to create a film that showed the three levels upon which our minds live: past, present, and conditional. There isn't another film that I have seen that is both so pleasing and wonderful to look and still has the ability to move me every time I watch it. Most films will always have the aesthetics down, but the power of the film erodes after each viewing (think a film like The Bicycle Thief). Not so with 8 1/2, I still get a little choked up at the "audition" scene where all of Guido's sins are being displayed in the form of screen tests...but more on that later...here are the bullets, in a somewhat orderly matter:
Opening Sequence/Traffic Jam: An almost ethereal experience as some form of gas fills up Guido's (the main character played by the awesome Marcello Mastroianni) car and he can't seem to escape. The film is definitely an exercise in self-reflexive art. Guido is indeed Fellini (Marcello often represented forms of Fellini in all of his films) and in this opening sequence you can see Guido being suffocated. But then he appears out of the car and floats away...only to be pulled down ("down, for good.") by a man who is in control of the string attached to his leg. The metaphor is clear: the camera is the creative force, the liberator, and you have the producer, the money-man, pulling the director down from his heights to dwell in reality -- or rather what people will pay money to see. This is the dilemma for Guido (and Fellini who often said he "winged" it on the set of 8 1/2) as he cannot think of a way to get his film (read: life) started and on track. Guido is like any good Italian man...he loves women, and when he invites Clara the mistress to come to the shoot instead of his wife Luisa, that's when things get even murkier and more confused for the cheating Guido. And simply: it's one of the most amazing sequences I have seen in any film. The crazy and frantic opening shots, the compartmentalized imagery of arms hanging from a bus and quick shots of faces. There is such a weird feeling to the opening, and so much to see and admirer, that you may have to stop the film after the dream sequence is over, and start over again.
The Thermal Spa: What's great about this scene is the use of music that accompanies the great tracking shot. It's one of the first films to use an already-composed piece of music as the guide track for the scene. Also, this introduces the always beautiful Claudia Cardinale as the woman of the spring, the muse Guido seeks all film. It's an amazing one-take tracking shot.
Framing/Blocking/Lighting/General Symbolism through mise-en-scene: Throughout the film there are brilliant examples of mise-en-scene especially in the hotel sequence where Guido wanders the halls keeping watch on all of his production assistants working, but he has nothing creative to add to the process. Also, the scene where young Guido encounters Saraghina and the punishment from the priest that follows (and the tracking shot of young Guido and the portraits of all the priests on the wall) as he confesses, but decides to return the seductress Saraghina rejecting the sacred for the profane. Later in the film there is a masterful use of lighting as Guido sits in a car with his muse; she fully lighted, Guido dark except around the eyes, as if in a confessional booth. The moment is brilliantly executed. There are too many examples to share about blocking and lighting and so on...so I will just say, the entire film is a feast for the eyes. Visually, there is nothing boring about this film
The Women: Fellini always employed beautiful women to star in his films, and even though most of them are regulated to being ogled at; Luisa is one of the strongest female characters in a Fellini film. Played by the gorgeous Anouk Aimee, she isn't fooled once by Guido and his cheatin' ways. Her scene with Guido after the embarrassment of the screen tests is so sad and so telling of how Guido (Fellini) treats the woman he is supposed to love and be faithful to. The famous Harem sequence is also a hilariously overblown wet dream for Fellini, as all of the women in Guido's life come together to serve him, and when they are revealed to be too old or from a time too far past, they resorted to the "upstairs" where they are more Madonnas and caretakers than sexual objects; which means Guido will pay them no heed. It's a brilliant scene, hilarious and awful all at once, and very telling of how Fellini felt about women.
Shades/Glasses: A common image found in Fellini's films. Marcello wears shades in most of Fellini's films; representing a blindness to what is around him. Whenever Luisa is around or when there is some confusion about the plot of the movie, he puts the shades on, as some form of escapism and voluntary blindness. Luisa is the only woman seen without shades. Her normal glasses make her look "unattractive" (she really isn't), but they are clear lenses, able to see into Guido what he cannot. They are mirrors adding to the self-reflexive themes of the film. The screen test is just another example of what the glasses represent: mirrors. Also, by the end of the film when Guido has his epiphany, he is wearing clear lenses rather than shades.
The real vs the fantastic: I have already mentioned the Harem scene, one of the most fantastical of the film, but also the whole nature of the film is a revolt against artistic reality -- remember Fellini began working right around the time Italian Neo-Realism was huge -- for artistic freedom. The film fades in and out from reality to fantasy (the influence here on Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is obvious) often times making it hard to tell which is which.
Control: Young Guido vs Mature Guido. Who controls what by the end of the film. 8 1/2 is the greatest film about a film ever made, and with that comes the importance of the director; the person who controls things. The entire film we see that Guido has little control over his film (read: his life) and by the end when we hear the words: "life is a celebration, let's live it together" it is an epiphianic moment, he may not change his womanizing ways, but he is inviting Luisa to join him in celebrating life, and he too for the first time will enjoy life with her. Guido has realized that he can't control everything, and that he should just live life and make films and enjoy everything as it comes. The dance around the spaceship structure at the end of the film is a beautiful image: the opposite of what Bergman portrays with his dance to conclude The Seventh Seal. Hear Fellini is interested in a dance of life, rejuvenation; a celebratory moment of reverie, keeping with the films dreamy feel, the end just lifts you up both emotionally and physically as you cannot help but get up and want to cheer for Guido. There is no way you cannot be moved by the end of this picture. It's simply the perfect example of narrative and aesthetic working together to create the most beautiful moments in film. It's why film is such a wonderful medium, 8 1/2 has the power to change who you are. Just like Guido the viewer is invited to use the film as a mirror to reflect on their own life and the choices they have made. It's a perfect example of the power of cinema.
Fellini invites you to participate with him in reexamining life and what it may mean for you. It's like the end of another Fellini film La Dolce Vita (clip is above for context), the symbolic "dream girl" turns to the camera and smiles: asking us whether or not we do indeed see. It's not a matter of if we hear the words over the breakers, it's whether or not we are able to see that her lips, her actions, are signaling for us to cross the threshold, take that first step towards the sweet life. She is physically uttering the words: "Come with me, I will usher you into a better life, a life of celebration; a life worth living." If you can see, then the dream girl, or whatever that may represent for you, is obtainable...but you have to be able to see. Take the shades off and see what life offers.
8 1/2 is such a beautiful film, not only asking us to reexamine as look in the mirror, but also inviting us to laugh. When Fellini was making the movie he kept a note on the camera that read: "Remember, this is a comedy." Reminding the viewer too that it's okay to laugh and enjoy life. There is no other film that moves me, makes me feel the poignancy and that special deep satisfaction and clarity -- a rare state of reverie, when you know you have just witnessed something special; something that leaves you speechless and in a a state of awe -- that is what 8 1/2 does to me every single time I watch it. It's something special and something to behold. I am glad I am able to talk about it and share it with you all. This is what film is capable of doing and this is why I am so passionate about it.