When all is lost, why not retreat into fantasy: Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2″

8 and a half harem scene fellini

Director: Federico Fellini

Writers: Federico Fellini (story), Ennio Flaiano (story), 4 more credits »

Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” named because Fellini had previously directed 7 movies and co-directed another, contains one of the strangest sequences ever to appear on celluloid. Our main character, Guido Anselmi, is a film director of some renown. He has made a number of well-loved movies and is attempting to make another. It’s not going so well. He doesn’t really have a script. He has no real ideas for one either, just a few half thought out bromides about his childhood and vague recollections of strange dreams.

But the pressure is on. The producer is asking about the shooting schedule. The actors want to know more about their parts. The crew is building an enormous space ship in the middle of nowhere. No one seems to know what it’s for. Neither does Guido. Overwhelmed, anxious and lost, Guido’s answer is to retreat into his fantasies.

One such fantasy occurs as he eats lunch with his visiting wife, Luisa. In walks his mistress, Carla, who is staying at a nearby hotel. Guido pretends not to see her, but Luisa recognizes her gaudy clothes and unaffected air. She becomes angry that Guido would have his mistress nearby when she was visiting. Guido denies knowing that she was at the resort. Luisa walks away. But not where the audience thinks. Luisa walks to Guido’s mistress, and they start talking amicably. They compliment each other’s appearances and laugh giddily as they start to dance. It’s obvious like many parts of “8 1/2″ that this sequence is not real.

Then there is a cut. We are at an unfamiliar home.  We first see Luisa in the clothes of a servant. She screams “Guido’s home!” And then the camera pans to a cavalcade of women walking toward the door as Guido walks in with snow fluttering behind, gifts in his hand for his harem. Everyone, you see, is there to serve and presumably cater to Guido’s ever desire. As beautiful woman after beautiful woman fight for his attention, Guido just smiles through it all.

It’s a glorious, hilarious scene, filled with more life in one shot then whole movies by other directors. Nino Rota’s music creates a dizzying air, and instead of moving, all the characters feel like they are gracefully moving to the music as they are in a musical. (At some point, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays in the background although in a very different context than “Apocalypse Now.”) Even if one is not the biggest “8 1/2″ fan, and I am not, the movie is worth watching because of this scene alone.

Freud’s concept of personality influences the scene. It’s Freud mysterious Id run amuck. When we are born into this world, we think we can have whatever we desire. But as we grow older, the superego, that relegating agent of the human personality that has internalized cultural rules and morals, tells us sometimes, maybe most of the time, we cannot have whatever we desire.

Luisa 8 and a half

Guido, Fellini’s alter ego in many respects, has regressed into an infantile state. Because he can no longer control nor handle his real life, he craves easy desires and safety. In his mind, a harem of all the woman he has slept with or ever has desired qualifies. It’s obvious part of this is about sex. But much of it is all about feeling secure and loved. He might rationally understand why is wife hates him as he has acted like an ass for their entire marriage. But he still wants her love and attention, wants her to tell him everything is going to be just fine. In his dream harem, she does, as the picture of above shows.

It’s a sentiment I certainly understand although I’ve never had quite the ambition to imagine a harem. When depression sinks in and anxiety overwhelms, it’s comforting to feel the unconditional love of a woman. In a world filled with feminism and identity politics, where men are socialized to think of women as equals, there are plenty of Guidos in the world looking for motherly acceptance when things have gone awry.


“8 1/2″ is often called the best movie ever made about a director making a movie. But despite it’s universal acclaim, it’s never been one of my favorite Fellini films. (I greatly prefer “La Dolce Vita” and “La Strada.”) It’s just a bit too narcissistic for me, a bit too overwrought and in love with how silly and funny it wants to come off as. I know Fellini intended “8 1/2″ as a satire about the narcissism of so-called creative people and the difficulties of creative expectations, but I’ve had my fill of self-important creative people who are trying to fill their own empty holes by acting like selfish assholes to the world around them. But obviously I’m just bringing my own projections to the story. (I was happy to hear that while many loved “8 1/2″ upon its release, the twin giants of American film criticism, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris did not.)

opening 8 and a half fellini guido

That being said, there is so much to love about the filmmaking and its insights into mankind’s basic anxiety and the isolation of the creative process as a whole especially in the face of great expectations. What impressed me after watching it again recently was its imagination, particularly with its dream or fantasy sequences. I’ve already discussed the harem scene in detail above. And there are several lovely sequences where Guido imagines a beautiful actress named Claudia coming to save him from his despair. (The actress is played by Claudia Cardinale. She is my choice for the most beautiful woman in film history.) But many others are just as salient. For one the visionary opening sequence is one to behold.

It opens in a traffic jam. No car is moving. The camera pans to Guido trapped in his car. He kicks and kicks, trying to escape but no one is there to help. Somehow he escapes and begins to float away like an apparition, flying high into the clouds toward the sun.

opening 8 and a half floating guido

The camera cuts to a beach where a man rides on horseback. Another man holds a rope and tries to tug down Guido who is inexplicably floating high in the sky. The man continues to tug until Guido falls face down into the ocean.

Freud begin dream analysis with his seminal work “The Interpretation of Dreams.” But like so much of Freud’s works, it was far too hung up on sexuality. It was Carl Jung who really took dream analysis’s first big steps, recognizing that dreams were not just about sexuality but were deep, unmined warehouses of our most basic feelings. The opening sequence of “8 1/2″ explores Jung’s conception of dreams better than any film I know except for maybe in Ingmar Bergman’s greatest works.

It expresses Guido’s very fundamental need to be free, floating high in the sky; but along with freedom comes anxiety, which at its fundamental level is a fear of death. One can never be completely free because that is the nature of existence. (The great Ernest Becker once said,“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”) Few other sequences in film history perfectly shows the underlying terror in all of us.

And would be remiss not to discuss the incredible fantasy ending. It seemingly ties nothing together and everything together all at once. I’ve watched it several times now, and I’m still not sure what exactly is happening. This is what I do know: Guido’s movie has failed. Everyone has packed their bags. The crew has gone home. The abandoned spaceship begins to be taken down. 

But then the film goes on. It seems a circus is gathering near the spaceship. Clown’s play Nino Rota’s infection tune as it rings out into the gathering dusk. And then everyone from Guido’s life begins to gather. His dead parents. His mistress. His wife. People he hasn’t seen in years. Almost everyone is dressed in white and appears happier than they did at anytime in the movie. It is because they are not real but Guido’s projections of them at their happiest state. They all start to hold hands and move around in a circle. Guido directs them at first in total control of his creation, which is simple, because it is the creation of his unconscious. Then Guido grabs his wife, Luisa’s hand, and they enter the circle together. Everyone dances. The film cuts to night and focuses on the clowns playing the music. The camera moves back before fading to black.

It is bizarre, a bit insane, but also an ending of unbridled joy and energy. I’ve talked much about the greatness of Fellini’s endings in my other reviews of his works.  But this is his best. It’s as if Guido (and Fellini) is ridding himself of the self-reflexive narcissism that plagues much of “8 1/2″  and saying, life is just too absurd and painful to take too seriously. Come lets dance and laugh and have a little fun instead.

2 thoughts on “When all is lost, why not retreat into fantasy: Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2″

  1. Pingback: The Loss and Recovery of the Romantic Spirit: Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” | Magical Reelism

  2. Pingback: The Auteurs: 5 Essential Federico Fellini Films | Magical Reelism

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