A common misconception about Federico Fellini's 8½ stipulates that the film concerns the issue of writer's block. It does not. Rather, it is a film about an overdose of creativity, so bursting at the seams with ideas that it has no idea how to form them into anything resembling a story. Its protagonist, the director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), is not struggling to make something from nothing; he attempts to condense everything into a two-hour piece of disposable entertainment. No one at a loss for ideas would hear the blaring brass of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" as he waits in line for a drink.
And yet, when one is tasked by a studio, which runs on commerce, not art, to create a hit, is there any difference between having no ideas and too many? That question plagues Guido, whom we meet ailing in a hotel room from stress as a doctor enters on a house call and compounds the problem by mentioning that he's a big fan. His writer, a Marxist, clearly disdains the commercial product they're meant to produce, and he makes his feelings about the project and the director unmistakably clear at times. Studio reps whisper friendly warnings after he gets up and about, and when they do not feel like addressing him directly they send notes harshly criticizing the poetic scenes Guido envisioned as unnecessary and distracting.
Of course, as well all know, Guido serves as Fellini's avatar, and 8½ gently -- ever so gently -- morphs into Fellini's justification for how far he'd managed to get in his follow-up to La Dolce Vita without actually committing any linking ideas to a page. The gigantic spaceship set that looms over Guido for much of the film, the great shadow that threatens to engulf him, was a set Fellini had built for the original iteration of this project. Only after it was finished and all the money spent on it did the director realize he had no real use for the damn thing.
As that shadow grows longer, Guido/Fellini retreat into dreamspace, where ideas are like oxygen. But the dreams become nightmares, specters of Guido's past visiting the director to haunt him. Manifestations of his insecurity with his current project, visions of Guido's childhood, particularly concerning his Catholic upbringing. He sees his father in a dream, and the man complains that the house his son "built" for him in the mind is too small and asks why he couldn't make it a bit more comfortable. Guido meets with a bishop, and the priest who introduces the two asks Guido about the film's religious content and warns that the director has the power "to educate... or corrupt millions of souls." As Guido's writer's block drives him further to despair, he manages to swing an audience with a cardinal in the hopes that a confession and blessing might help him. On his way to meet His Eminence, various passers-by offer advice, and one man tells the director to go for broke -- genuflect, kiss rings, all that jazz -- as "getting in their good graces means you can have everything you want in life." But the cardinal merely runs through what is essentially a bullet-point sermon, repeating ad infinitum the mantra that "there is no salvation outside the Church." All the clergy can offer him is more guilt, more unhappiness.
Naturally, Fellini mines that other facet of Catholic guilt: the sexual dysfunction. Fellini uses Guido to purge himself of his sexual repression and lust. Guido becomes the vessel through which the director could have all the affairs and dalliances he could never engage in in the real world. Thus, the pudgy, awkward Fellini becomes Mastroianni, then the sexiest man alive, playing a nightclub fixture and a rampant womanizer. Guido loves his intelligent, snappy wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), but she's perhaps too smart for him, so he spends his time with his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), a loud, obnoxious woman with tacky tastes who offends Guido on nearly every level -- he looks as if he'd be actively embarrassed of her even if he wasn't conducting an affair with her -- yet she's attractive enough to entice one part of Guido's anatomy.
Indeed, the regressive sexual stereotypes on display in 8½ can drive you crazy. His mother's specter always appears to be disappointed with him. Guido's older friend leaves his wife for a much younger woman, who typically smiles and widens her eyes as if someone had just pulled the actress off the street and told her she would be in a Fellini film with Marcello Mastroianni. Most of these types were outdated and simplistic even for their time, but one could attribute such reductive character writing as Fellini's exaggeration for the purpose of exploring his fantasies and repression. Granted, I'm likely making excuses for someone who grew up in a time when such views of women were accepted, but Fellini spends most of the film pointing out Guido's (and his own) deep personal flaws while looking sympathetically at the women he hurts through his actions.
Fellini's oneiric imagery highlights his sexual hangups. Guido imagines himself as a sultan presiding over a harem of all the women in his life, a sequence that amusingly turns south as Guido's own shame causes the women to revolt against against fantasy. He visualizes his star, Claudia, as his ideal woman despite her airy vacuity in real life -- in his perception, she becomes intelligent, graceful, the holder of all the answers. So, he makes her into his muse despite her utter lack of any genuinely inspirational traits. The film's most memorable scene, a flashback wherein a young Guido and his friends paid a prostitute named Saraghina to dance the rumba for them. Eddra Gale manages to inhabit every aspect of sexual awakening as the prostitute: she's fat, cumbersome and hideous, yet her dance is sensual and erotic, turning her monstrous frame into an assault of pure sex that leaves the young boys tingling with unchecked hormones. Gale's exaggerated appearance is matched in the next scene, as clerics catch the lads and bring in Guido for a beating. His mother stands to the side, wildly gesticulating her disappointment as the priest whips the boy in front of an unreasonably gargantuan painting of a saint, a reminder to Guido of his transgressions and inability to lead the life the Church instructs him to lead.
Separating Guido's visions from his reality can be difficult due to Fellini's direction. 8½ is both a dream and a demented circus, propelled by too-smooth camera movements (the old Italian practice of dubbing all the lines greatly aids the dreamy imagery). The actors glide and dance instead of walk, as the camera moves on perfectly level dollies. Fellini rarely sits still, tracking actors until they move into the background and another character walks into the foreground and becomes the tracked subject, rinse, lather, repeat. His camera is so elegant that it makes the director's distaste for the modernization of the world even clearer. While not presented nearly to the extent that the theme pervades Godard's work or Tati's Playtime, the distrust of growing commercialism can be seen here and there. The opening dream, in which Guido sits in a car surrounded by immobile traffic, the fumes of the other vehicles seeping through the air vents and countless faces look at him, waiting for him to move, reflects the pressure Guido feels but also sheds light on congestion and overpopulation. At one point, Fellini films a car show, his camera floating through gorgeous Italian architecture that highlights the garish, simplistic logos of advertising car companies. Even that set that so tortures Guido represents modernity, what with it being a replica of a spaceship.
But this is not a film that dwells upon the negatives of society; even the relentless journey through "Guiderico's" guilt and shame ultimately finds a positive resolution. The ending of 8½ is a gigantic release -- sexual, personal and professional. Guido, after stumbling across a pocket of creativity, begins to link the threads of the film, as if we're watching Fellini piecing together the clues just before he started the film we've been watching this whole time. But the director must still face that set, which saps the strength from his knees and weakens his resolve. Suddenly, everyone who'd previously appeared in the film shows up, encouraging him to make his way to the interview table where the press badger him to give them something -- anything -- to placate their curiosity. But Guido cannot answer them, and he crawls under the table and imagines suicide. This dreamed act, of the phallic bullet blowing Guido's brains out, also serves to expel all the issues weighing on his mind, allowing him to walk away from the project with a clear head instead of driving himself to a real suicide for the sake of pleasing a producer who will simply go on to make money with something else.
Amusingly, Fellini casts an intellectual critic as the secular voice of reason who guides the director to his final epiphany. The critic lauds Guido for making the artistically brave decision to fold the film rather than make an empty commercial object, and his flowery praise leads Guido to make amends with his wife. To do so, he expels all of his hangups, the women and the clerics bid a fond farewell by a man who can now live a normal life. And as they all line up as if to take a bow, we see the final beauty of 8½: Guido organizes those thoughts that overflowed and caused him such pain. In this moment, the separation between Guido and Fellini disappears entirely, just as the walls between the director's personal hangups and his artistic concerns crumble, leaving a film that doubled back on itself not as an intellectual measure but an emotional one. For all of the rigid, staid typing and confusing asides, 8½ in its ending becomes one of the most moving films ever made, and surely the best film about the process, the personal stakes, and the spiritual reward of filmmaking.