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It's apparent from the first moments of watching 8½ that it stands in a different world of cinema. Many accolades have been heaped upon the film and most of those are deserved. The film has had a profound influence on a number of other filmmakers and has been referenced throughout cinema history. After watching it, yet again, I have to admit that I was still impressed, but the question remains: why?
8½ is a metafilm of sorts, being a semi-autobiographical look into the life of director Federico Fellini. Set as Fellini-esque Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroinna) as he endeavors to commence filming on his latest project. As he struggles with creating some kind of statement with his film, he also struggles with the various women in his life, including his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), and his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée).
A pretty vague synopsis, right? As he meets with his advisor, his advisor basically lays out the flaws with the film that's unfolding: it's episodic and doesn't seem to have a concrete destination. And, in a logical sense, it's very true. The film itself doesn't really fit the storytelling mode of the cinematic narrative, even as it's sort of a journey of a man who discovers himself by struggling with his indecision and selfishness. Rather, it's an experiential work that focuses on Guido's experience as a means of personal and emotional storytelling and it works because we get to journey with Guido as he struggles along. That's not to say that the film isn't bewildering or unfocused at times, but as Guido is both surprised and unfocused, it actually turns out not to be disadvantageous for 8½ to adopt this approach as it puts us further into Guido's experience and the end pays off well as a result.
Of great immediate notice, however, is the absolutely gorgeous black and white photography and costume design. Almost every single shot seems like it could fit perfectly into a photography coffee table book and the costumes are still gorgeous to this day, from Luisa's simple white dress, to Guido's sexy block sunglasses; the film oozes with style. And that style is backed up with strong performances by most of the cast, even selling the characters when the lip sync goes off sometimes. Also, there's an impressive use of sound, especially in the opening sequence which stays mysteriously silent until a pivotal moment--and the score, featuring classical works will inevitably stay etched in your memory, tying those pieces to memories of this film, much like how "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is tied to Lang's "M".
8½ would be a masterful film even if just for the visual splendor and strong performances, but that such a seemingly chaotic story can form a coherent personal and emotional narrative really takes it from just eye candy to an indelible moment in cinema. Even during my first watching of the film where I fell asleep during sections of the film, the parts that I witnessed were seared into my mind and it was clear that I was watching something special. I will say that this film is not for the lazy. It doesn't spoon-feed you everything that you're supposed to think and feel and you have to work to focus and try to empathize with what you see. But those that do will be rewarded with a rather unique piece of cinematic history and one that lingers on in its memory even through today. 9/10.