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Cinema Italiano: 8 1/2

Welcome to “Cinema Italiano,” where each month Pete Croatto looks at a movie featuring a prominent person of Italian descent—an actor, a director, whomever. This month, it’s 8 ½, directed by Federico Fellini.  

Like Frank Capra, the subject of last month’s column, I don’t immediately consider Federico Fellini (1920-1993) a filmmaker of Italian descent. Capra’s work is so steeped in earnest American ideals that his ethnicity feels secondary. With Fellini, whose films are in Italian, it was because he was considered a stylistic maestro—or at least that’s what I had read. 

I had not watched a Fellini film until last week—I know, I know. Blame intellectual laziness fanned by parenthood. Now that I’m no longer a (barely) working film critic, I’m not looking for a challenge. After cleaning up spills and trying to bend time to my whims. I don’t want to tackle the gems on the latest Sight and Sound poll. I want to marvel over large, fantastic specimens who do incredible things with a small ball. Your sedative may vary. 

The one thing I’ve mastered as a parent is pushing ahead. You can’t have a kid writhing in vomit-covered sheets through the night; you fix the problem at 2 a.m. before another calamity rolls off the assembly line. I had forgotten to push myself with films. And I had forgotten that the effort is worth it, because occasionally you’re reminded of what it’s like to be human, a concept seemingly unfamiliar to Giannis Antetokounmpo on a basketball court

I am glad I watched 8 ½. Fellini’s dreamy, black-and-white semi-autobiographical 1963 triumph chronicling a director’s struggle to make a unwieldy, opaque epic doesn’t examine tangible difficulties. It’s all about the emotional torture in the creative process—and how that destroys everyone in his orbit. (A worthy successor is Bob Fosse’s 1979 masterpiece All that Jazz.) Every moment for Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a chance to pursue his artistic desires, but reality keeps interfering, whether it’s his neglected wife (Anouk Aimée) confounded by his inattention or producers aghast at blown deadlines. He’s in an impossible situation of his own creation: continue to wrangle the ineffable onto celluloid or tend to his life. 

It’s all chaos. Guido’s memories and fantasies and real-life problems crash into each other all the time. Fellini’s representation of the director’s turmoil—using a film shoot as a flimsy but functional narrative base—is gripping, immersive, a crisis with clarity. This is a movie you experience and the deeper you dig, the more empathy you find for these people caught in an immense and perpetual wave of woe. That includes Guido. He might be a handsome charmer—the immaculate, slicked back hair, the black suit with just the right amount of nip-and-tuck—but he’s succumbed to the hype of being a darling auteur. One can only imagine how he’d fare with social media tracking his every move. 

These are easily understandable emotions. With most quote-unquote difficult filmmakers, that’s the common denominator. Great films always provide answers. With 8 ½, you have to pay attention, dissect the ennui-packed parties and childhood flashbacks and fantasy harems turned mutinous therapy sessions8 ½, which won two Oscars, is a lot like It’s A Wonderful Life. They both have big emotions and look at a man in crisis, only Fellini doesn’t present his feelings in a three-act rhythm.  

The old stereotype is that the best films about or by people of Italian descent cover family or the family. It is so strong that Martin Scorsese regularly gets described as making films about mobsters, even though he has directed (among others) Alice Doesn’t Live Here AnymoreAfter Hours, and Hugo, all mook-free and terrific. Ditto Francis Ford Coppola despite Apocalypse Now and The Conversation being classics that captured the fragility of America’s psyche during the 1970s. Fellini is somebody we should relish, because he defied simplified categorization. 

Watch 8 ½. You’ll see. 

Pete Croatto

Pete Croatto is a freelance writer based just outside of Ithaca, NY. His work has appeared in many publications, including The A.V. Club, RogerEbert.com, The New York Times, The Athletic, Shondaland, Andscape, and GQ.com. He is the author of From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA. For now, you can find him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto. 

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