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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 26, 1993


Federico Fellini
Marcello Mastroianni;
Anouk Aimee;
Claudia Cardinale;
Barbara Steele;
Sandra Milo
Not rated

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In 1964, when Dwight MacDonald reviewed Federico Fellini's "8" for Esquire, he called it the Italian maestro's "obvious masterpiece." Today, as the film approaches its 30th anniversary with a spanky new 35mm print, that evaluation still sounds about right -- perhaps even more so than when "8" was first released.

Of course, MacDonald intended for "obvious" to serve a double meaning. And he used the term "masterpiece" as if it set his ornery teeth on edge. "Fellini has made a movie," he wrote, "that I can't see any way not to recognize as a masterpiece."

Not appreciate. Recognize, as if he had to squint and put on his glasses.

And yet MacDonald's grudging faint praise isn't merely a case of critical distemper. He'd hit on something fundamental, not just about "8" but about all of Fellini -- that he is that rare sort of artist who can be loved, revered and just barely tolerated, all at the same time.

What we just barely tolerate in this chronologically numbered, blatantly autobiographical opus is the shamelessly overluscious "Italian-ness" of it -- the priests and the nuns, all that symbolism and emotionalism and chicly weary self-absorption -- a trait that through the lead character of Guido, his alter ego and filmmaker without a clue, Fellini parodies with one brush stroke and indulges with the next.

Also on this list of negatives is his sentimentality, and his tendency to substitute his trademark mannerisms -- his auteur's stamp -- for true substance, and cover his deficiencies with his astounding sense of visual lyricism and romance.

Yet, still, what beautiful mannerisms, what lyricism and romance.

Never again was Fellini as successful as he was here in his use of film as a theater for soul-searching. Loaded with self-referential detail, "8 1/2" is the director's self-mocking chronicle of his inability to come up with a worthy subject for his next film. Guido is dried up as an artist, and spent as a man. And so lacking a true subject or thematic direction, he turns inward, focusing on his emptiness (which out of vanity he mistakes for depth) and his suffering, most of which is self-inflicted.

With gray streaking his hair, a black hat, black suit and black-rimmed glasses, Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido (and for once the verb fits perfectly) as Fellini, down to the last detail, and from the outset it's clear that he is an irresistible weakling, a pampered mama's boy and a lout -- self-proclaimed! Which is supposed to make him all the more adorable.

Has there ever been a filmmaker who got more pleasure out of hating his weaknesses than Fellini? Or displayed them with greater pride and verve? Fellini hates Guido (and Guido hates himself) for the lies he tells his wife (Anouk Aimee), his mistress (Sandra Milo) and the rest of his harem of women (including Claudia Cardinale) who clutter up his life and make it impossible for him to create his greatest, most personal, most definitive work.

The irony of course is that Fellini is in the process of creating the very sort of sweeping, ground-clearing work that is beyond the talents of his own feeble stand-in. Structurally, the film has been much imitated -- by Woody Allen in "Stardust Memories," for example, which stole its basic premise -- but no other filmmaker (with the possible exception of Cocteau) has been able to move as easily back and forth in time, to range from childhood to the present, or shuttle as seamlessly between dreams, fantasies and reality as Fellini does here.

Guido is an artist in extremis. Feeling the need to purge himself and escape into his art, Guido goes to a fashionable spa for their mineral water cure. Once he's arrived, though, he's clawed at everywhere he goes by producers, hangers-on, starlets, friends and foes alike, all of whom want to know when he's going to tell them something about the breakthrough film they're supposed to be making.

They wait throughout the entire picture while Guido squirms and equivocates, until out of desperation he grasps at the closest, easiest solution. Fellini's final stab at resolution at the movie's end comes dangerously close to trashing the flashes of genuine brilliance and insight that had come before. It was then -- and still is now -- a facile, unsupported ending. Instead of forcing this phony family-of-man finale on us, he might have left us alone with Guido and all he has left, himself and his charming, ludicrous suffering, the clown and his circus of pain.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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