Fellini would have turned 100 this year. To mark the occasion — or really just because we’d been jabbering about our favorite movies — some friends recently invited us over for pizza and a screening. We took a cheap bottle of Italian red. By about the three-quarter mark in the film’s 140-minute running time, my daughter was asleep on one shoulder, my wife on the other. And I was absurdly content.
I have seen “8½” in its entirety about half a dozen times. My experiences with it feel so personal — so choppy with exuberance, pathos, nonchalance, hilarity and despair — that I have mostly left them unexamined in the hope that they might remain generative, hallowed, inviolate. (Anything inviolate these days has my full attention.)
The film, released in 1963, is about a movie director named Guido. His latest project has stalled before filming has even begun.
Played by the incomparable Marcello Mastroianni, Guido is suffering from anxiety and creative block. It’s no wonder. He has sown chaos in his love life, and his creative indecision is producing near-mutinous levels of angst among actors, agents and crew.
But all of this is mere surface tumult. Guido is haunted by something deeper. Something to do with . . . what? His parents, his childhood, the Catholic church? Feelings of shame and bliss? Death?
“8½” can seem like “a series of gratuitous episodes,” as Guido’s critic-friend says after reading his script. The narrative thread keeps disappearing, like the body of a swimmer in surf. But seeing the film again reminded me how intricately its parts are connected.
Hovering over everything are questions to which we all would like answers: Why are artists so selfish and entitled (and often better, artistically, the more this is true)? What are they protecting? Why must the rest of us suffer as they go on suiting themselves, indulging their fancies, toying with their precious notions the way children toy with marbles?
A clue comes during a classic Fellini party scene, about half an hour in. (It leads directly into the one I adore.) Appearing out of nowhere — like a terrifying apparition in a David Lynch film — is a mind-reader. Wearing a top hat and tails, he works in tandem with a clairvoyant and goes from guest to guest offering to read their thoughts. By now, though, the party is breaking up.
“Tell me,” says Guido. “What’s the trick? How do you transmit?”
The mind-reader’s answer doubles as a succinct definition of art: “It’s partly a trick, partly real. I don’t know how, but it happens.”
“Can you transmit anything?” Guido asks. The question is vibrant with the static of his own preoccupations. He wants to know why he is finding it so hard to “transmit,” via film, his own mind’s most precious images.
We are smiling along at this point, enjoying the familiar turbulence of circus acts, preposterous social performance, skittering eros and laconic charm that has come to define the term “Fellini-esque.” And then something extraordinary happens.
With his hand above Guido’s head, the mind-reader appears to make a woman across the way write on a blackboard. The words she summons are what Guido is transmitting: “ASA NISI MASA.”
If “8½” is Fellini’s greatest film, its greatest sequence — perhaps the most enchanting in all of cinema — is the dream sequence that follows. Guido is suddenly a child in an old Italian villa. He and the other children are being bathed in a big barrel for crushing grapes (bath time, then, as a kind of Dionysian rite). After bouncing in the wine, Guido is tumbled into a soft white towel and carried up to bed, where he joins more children waiting excitedly for lights out. The fond old nonna, muttering bitterly, checks that they’re settled for sleep (“Close your eyes! You can’t fool me.”) and finally departs, closing the door.
At which point the older girl, a mischievous sprite, springs upright, points at a portrait on the wall and says: “Guido, tonight’s the night, the eyes in the painting will move.” When that happens, she says, treasure will appear in the corner, and they will be rich. Guido need only chant the spell, “Asa Nisi Masa,” and perform the accompanying gesture: arms crossed in front of the chest, hands flapping.
Every frame in “8½” is a voluptuous, rippling mosaic of deep blacks and stark whites. But the cinematography of Guido’s childhood dream is the most beautiful of all, and Nino Rota’s score, a descending minor-key melody overlaid with a solo female voice, is itself a kind of spell.
What does “Asa Nisi Masa” mean?
Wouldn’t we all like to know! The phrase and the secret gesture come up several times in the film, so that we are given to understand that it is a code word or secret key, unlocking . . . what?
You can look it up on Wikipedia — but, unless you want the spell broken, I advise against that. For all the attention artists seek, there is a kind of shame for them in being “understood.” Being “explained” is never more than an inch from being “explained away,” rendered redundant, losing the vital quality that makes you unique.
What do artists want, then, if not to be understood?
Fellini’s answer is there in the dream sequence. It has to do, I think, with his apprehension that the urge to make art is connected to a time in our lives when we were lifted and carried about, lowered into baths, tucked into bed; when we first used our lips to suck and to kiss; when we flapped our arms and kicked our legs. When we felt ourselves to be unique.
“[T]his was a time,” wrote the poet James Fenton, “of pure inventiveness,” when “everything we did was hailed as superb. We leapt up and down and our innards went wild with surprise. And the palms of our hands were beaten together. We learnt about rhythm and we learnt new ways of making a noise, and every noise we made was praised. And we learnt how to walk, and all eyes were upon us, the way they never would be again.”
“Because,” wrote Fenton — and here comes the part that Guido, the anxious, grown-up filmmaker, must reckon with — “there follows the primal erasure, when we forget all those early experiences, and it is rather as if there is some mercy in this, since if we could remember the intensity of such pleasure it might spoil us for anything else. We forget what happened exactly, but we know that there was something, something to do with music and praise and everyone talking, something to do with flying through the air, something to do with dance.”
Something Fellini-esque, you might say (although Fenton was writing about something else entirely).
“And during this period of forgetting,” Fenton goes on, “we have been forced to take a realistic view of the world, and to admit that there are other people in it besides ourselves and our adoring audience. And in our various ways of coping with this fact we form the basis of our personality.”
Artists may be more reluctant to accept these so-called “adult realities,” and so they may struggle more than most with this process. But the rest of us watch keenly as they struggle. Our hope, perhaps, is that if they do regain access to that enchanted domain, they will toss us the key or whisper the secret password.
“Genius,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, “is nothing other than the ability to retrieve childhood at will.” But is this all there is to art? A kind of solipsism? An inability to get past the egoism of infancy? A pathetic desire to revert to childhood bliss?
Of course not. There is much, much more to art, which, at its best, is always about transcending solipsism. But the self-centeredness of great artists — and by no means just male artists — is bound up with their desire to find again the treasure in the corner of the bedroom, when the eyes in the portrait move and the children chant: “Asa Nisi Masa.”
From this apprehension, Fellini sucked every last bit of comedy, pathos and magic. He produced, in the process, what is for me the most beautiful, the silliest and the greatest film ever made.