8½ is a meta-film that follows an artist and the pressures of creating art.
In 8½, Federico Fellini creates a suffocating atmosphere whenever he wants to visually show the stress of a writer’s life.
The movie starts with Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic. People with disapproving faces stare into his car (into him) and then the car fills with a cloudy gas. Guido tries to free himself, but is locked inside (trapped) and this is a metaphor for Guido’s life.
He has the means to escape (his car), but due to the masses of people that surround him, he can’t get away. From this first scene, the smoke — and every variation of it — reoccurs.
This suffocation is shown in the next scene, when Guido is being flown like a kite. His leg is wrapped by a rope, controlled by someone far below. The clouds he soars among form a similar smokey effect to the gas in the car. The clouds epitomize a writer’s day dreams, yet the fact that he’s anchored by someone shows how even the freedom of flight isn’t enough to release him from captivity.
The rope is like a noose wrapped around his leg and his legs are his means of escape. It’s exactly like the car, he should be able to just leave, but others restrict him. They strangle his leg and suffocate him in clouds.
The people in Guido’s world keep weighing him down, adding to the stress in his life.
The film continues with Guido in his hospital bed where people slowly file inside. As the room becomes packed with executives, Guido is pummeled by questions, orders, news and updates, and when the cacophony of pressures and expectations peaks, a producer in the back lights up a cigarette to smoke the atmosphere.
Guido begins to suffocate from the crowd and he has to leave — but we know there’s no where to run as his previous dream sequences illustrated.
This act also causes Guido to get dressed which is a recurring symbol. Typically, nudity is a symbol of openness. There’s no concealment, no lies… it’s liberating—and, of course, whenever Guido gets close to liberty, it is interrupted by smoke (as seen in the next scene with Carla).
Before Guido can undress and liberate himself (for promiscuous acts to ensue), Guido tries to role play with Carla (Sandra Milo). The role-playing is his way of escape, like the kite flying daydream. However, smoking becomes a factor. The dialogue becomes repetitious, saying over and over, “I know when you’re faking,” and Guido finds himself unable to outrun the suffocation around him.
One of the most interesting aspects to this scene is that he was almost naked, almost liberated, but in reality, he was at the mercy of others.
He puts his shades on—another layer of attire to disguise the window of his soul (the eyes)—but Carla wants him to wear glasses, so he obliges.
After dinner he removes his glasses entirely and is scolded by an actress—with a lit cigarette—who wants to know about her role, asking about it over and over again, suffocating him. When he goes home, he is finally alone, and he takes this time to remove his jacket as he tries to answer what he has been looking for, “purity.” He deliberately states that the producers do not want “symbolism” or “escapism,” they want something pure; he wants something pure.
When he arrives at a spa, he has discarded most of his clothing, save for a towel and glasses. With his lack of attire, this is one of the closest moments Guido gets to being liberated, away from lies, deceit, and the constant stress and commotion of people hounding him.
However, a male colleague enters. And no sooner does this happen than Guido is consumed by the steam (smoke effect). His glasses fog up and a head priest demands his presence — he’s roped in again.
The only time Guido finds liberation is in his fantasy of all the women in his life as he enters the hot tub. He is naked, pure, and truthful about his habits and condition. Every woman from his life is there, each representing a different time in his life, each highlighting an aspect of himself. The harem are the people he’s most closely shared his intimate life with and it’s only now that he seeks to get that back.
The problem is, he’s divided himself among each of these women, so the only way he can re-collect himself is by controlling them all — hence why he pulls out the whip to get them in order. He wants to be whole and complete, but he has failed to acknowledge that they too are fractured because they’re real people, not like his fantasies.
So he fabricates a new woman entirely and walks off with her. She has qualities of all the women in his life and is perhaps the closest to Guido’s self.
But of course what should destroy that fantasy, but the talcum powder. It splashes all around creating a smoke effect and Guido is suffocated by the reality.
At the end of the film, the spaceship that was being built for his latest “masterpiece” is taken down — space was the only means of escape beyond the clouds, but it’s dismantled because Guido has lost all interest in it; he’ll never be free…
But the spaceship’s deconstruction is liberation — albeit of a different variety. The men, producers, and executives were keen on using it because they had already spent money on it, so in taking it down, Guido takes back the control.
Plus, the spaceship was a symbolic gesture; it existed as a means of escape since all other modes of transportation had been exhausted. But Guido’s escape cannot be done through fictitious creation, but real deconstruction. He resolves himself by deconstructing the women that made up pieces in his life; rather than create a new one, he tears them all down.
Of course, this is followed by all the people in his life being happier than they’ve ever been before and the circus rolls in. He realizes life is made up of a series of acts that make the whole experience worthwhile. He leaves in a train to Rome, accepting his past affairs, but not returning to them. Nostalgia is another form of suffocation as it locks him in place and he’s finally moving forward…
Directed & Written by: Federico Fellini
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