Sonorous thumping beats in the background, a man is caught up in a traffic jam, besieged by people with eerily stagnant and indifferent countenances. Then along with hearing some panting sounds, the audience sees fumes pluming from the car’s dashboard. The thumping beats transit into the sound of the man pounding on his car window, trying to escape. After struggling out of the car, he stands on top of the car, arms wide open resembling a kite. The next moment, riding the gusting wind, he floats into the air. From his bird’s-eye view through the clouds, a vast ocean lies below and a ramshackle construction stands alone. Another man is on a horse, trotting down the beach, and a third man tugs on a rope that is tied to the ankle of the man gliding above. As he plunges towards the sea, a vehement gasp, sounding frightened and strained, carries us to the next scene where the protagonist, Guido, is lying on a bed with one arm tautly raising. At this point, we realize that we have been brought into Guido’s dream sequence.
“Waking up is a jump, a skydive from the dream.” The famous line in Tomas Tranströmer’s poem coincides with the dreaming-awakening episode at the beginning of 8½. In the film, Guido Anselmi is a famous film director struggling from a director’s block and also his rickety marriage. Guido commenced a film production, consuming big money on a gigantic rocket set, drawing attention from actresses and socialites and the press, while he yet has no idea what to film. Endless confrontations from his producer, his assistants, a journalist, and an actress beset Guido. He is married but invited his mistress to accompany him at a spring resort. His wife and mistress asked for the truth, which he is incapable of telling. The opening dream where he is trapped in a congested tunnel is a projection of Guido’s inner state, a motionless situation alluding to the obstruction of his creativity and the frustration in his life. The fumes leaking from the dashboard urge his escape, yet he is helpless, as the surrounding crowds stay aloof from his quandary. Finally, he squeezes through the tiny window and soars into the sky. At once, we would think that he has become free. He flies with his arms wide open, as if a kite, and we should notice that a kite, though seemingly glides freely in the sky, is never free. As soon as Guido sees the construction of the rocket launching pad, a man on the beach (who is actually an actress’s agent) yanks the rope tied to his ankle, and he plummets into the ocean. In his “real” life (should a life of a fictional character be considered real?), Guido is often absorbed in his own thoughts and reveries, and his pragmatic associates time after time pressure him with realistic matters, as they seize him from the sky in the dream.
Though self-conceited, Guido is nevertheless confused. Within all realistic and unrealistic ideas, within his wife and paramour, he doesn’t know which to choose. He promised a non-existent film, barely maintained his superficial marriage, and partook a desultory affair. While all the others incessantly question him, he adopts a nonchalant, confident, if not arrogant mien, dodging all inquiries acting as if his idea is too brilliant to share with. Often he ponders on his childhood memories and easily falls into childhood reminiscence — in the telepathy magic show, he bears in mind the enigmatic phrase, “asa nisi masa,” originating from a childhood playmate; he recalls the memory of the Saraghina dancing by the beach when he stumbles upon a voluptuous woman. He put up an insouciant pretense to make believe that he is indifferent to the predicaments, yet quite on the contrary, while being alone, Guido is plagued by self-doubts. The root of his stress stems not from the external world but his inner self. He is the one constantly interrogating Guido. His evasion of reproofs is an action of defense rather than callousness, as he knows deep inside that the accusations made upon him — his childishness, his dishonesty and his inability to love — are the essentials which he is least willing to consider as part of his personalities.
There is never a lack of female characters in 8½, and within them are some insinuating links between the women in Guido’s adult life and those from his childhood. Guido has always considered Claudia the symbol of purity and close to the end is confronted by her his incapability of loving someone. The relatively candid and innocent dynamic between Guido and Claudia could trace back to his childhood. When Guido is lining up for the spring water, he sees Claudia prancing down the hill in pure white with her arms crossed over her chest, precisely the gesture made by the little girl in his childhood memory while whispering a myth and revealing the secret phrase, “asa nisi masa.” The nonsense phrase has no translation in any known language, but if we read it using the rules in an Italian children’s game, where syllables are added to the words to encrypt them, then “asa nisi masa” could be interpreted as “anima”, the keyword in Jung’s work referring to the unconscious feminine side of a man.
In the courting scene of Guido and Carla, he requests her to put on an ostentatious makeup: sharp exotic eyebrows, without curvature but a straight slant toward the middle. The pair of exaggerated eyebrows is later seen on the face of Saraghina, a sultry woman living by the sea from Guido’s childhood memory. Saraghina and Carla do share other similarities: they both have luscious figures, walk in a seductive gait laugh boldly and sing beautifully. In stark contrast, Guido’s wife, Louisa, with an androgynous hairstyle, dressing in suits, speaking in a flat tone — especially compared with Carla, and rarely losing her composure, is the epitome of adulthood. Though Guido denies being childish, the Shadow cannot be eliminated, and still expresses itself in an unconscious form. The repression on his Shadow leads to his tendency of being attracted by women on whom he could project his childhood memory.
The display of his Persona is meant to seek acceptance from the others except he only receives confrontation and condemnation. He is desperate and in need of salvation. As the story elegantly unfolds, we follow Guido on his journey toward salvation. Guido attempts to find salvation in the pristine women, Claudia, in his passionate mistress, Carla, in the prestigious Cardinal, and in his estranged wife, Luisa. All the trials turn out to be futile, if not maleficent. During Guido’s confession, one of the rare moments when he does attempt to approach his concealed identity, to the wise friend, Rosella, Guido says that he wants to “make an honest film, without any lies at all.” Then he realizes that “[he has] nothing to say, but [he wants] to say it anyway. [He] thought [he] had something so simple to say.” The lack of material, his impasse, results from his lies and denial of certain aspects of his personality. After all, it is the greatest art to be simple. How could one tell an honest story if he could not accept the truth?
The ultimate salvation arrives when he truly accepts who he is. “Everything is as it was before! Everything is confused again. But all this confusion…it’s me, myself. Myself as I am not as I would like to be. And it doesn’t frighten me anymore.” He acknowledges the existence of the childish self, the dishonest self and his vulnerability. As Jung has written: “The point is not to identify with either the conscious or the unconscious mind, but to forge and keep a living tie between them. (Fredericksen, 1979)” Only after the recognition of the Shadow could a breakthrough becomes possible. The sudden joy that makes him tremble and gives him strength is the ecstasy of enlightenment and of the psychic renewal. It is by no means of serendipity that the remarkable final scene where all the characters dance joyously takes place on the beach, by the sea, as “the sea is the favorite symbol for the unconscious, the mother of all that lives. (Jung, 1969)” One could even read the entire film as a single dream, and each character a projection of an aspect of Guido. They are at last recognized and integrated into a circle, arriving at a state of wholeness.
8½ is a celebration of artistic creativity (Bondanella, 2002), a celebration of life. It is a self-contained cinematic work, a film with its title referring to itself, with its imaginable criticisms included in itself, and with its production process and its director’s life mirrored in itself. Fellini became fascinated by Jungian psychology in his middle age, whence unsurprisingly, Jung’s ideas on unconscious and symbols, and one of his key concepts, “anima”, has slipped into 8½. Fellini portrays his then experience, a creativity block, in a Jungian reading and presents it within the cinema. Kael, in a sarcastic tone of voice, briefly describes the film: “This is the first (and, predictably, not the last) movie in which the director seems to be primarily interested in glorifying his self-imprisonment (Kael, 1965).” Ironic or not, this trenchant statement is no doubt truthful. Even so, most critics admire Fellini’s artistic creation, and 8½ has been regarded as one of the greatest films in history.
The story of a director facing his artistic blockage and existential crisis, interweaving dreams and realities, fantasies and memories, “truths” and “lies”, is told in a magical and mystical style, drawing the audience into its symbolic realm and leaving them bewildered afterward. Jung says for symbols that “if we reduce [the symbol] by analysis to something else universally known, we destroy the authentic value of the symbol (Jung, 1953).” The viewing of 8½ is an unspeakable experience as speaking degrades the symbols into language and renders it universal. 8½ raises questions, but not the same questions for every viewer; it invites reflection, at an angle differing from one person to another. It is an ethereal film abounding memorable images and sounds, a misty mirror displaying diverse facades, a meticulous riddle coming with no absolute answer.
Bondanella, P. (2002). The Films of Federico Fellini (pp. 93–115). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fredericksen, D. (1979). Jung/Sign/Symbol/Film. Quarterly Review of Film & Video, 4(2), 167–192.
Jung, C.G. (1953). Two Essays in Analytical Psychology. Cleveland: World
Jung, C.G. (1969). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 9(1), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Kael, P. (1965) I Lost it at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954–1965 (pp. 261–268). New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Bachmann, G. Commentary from the Criterion release of 8½.
I’ve always had the feeling that a written analysis of 8½ distances and more or less distorts the film, and that a symbolic response (e.g. a film, a painting, etc.) to 8½ would be a more sensible choice. Nevertheless, I compromised the entirety of 8½ for the sake of my final grades and have pled guilty since this article came into the world.