Federico Fellini's 8 1/2
Style, sex and extravagance are synonymous with the films of Italian director Federico Fellini.
Soundtracked by circus marches and fanfares and featuring some of the most exotic beauties working in European cinema in the 1960s, 8½ slides from past to present, reality to dream, from opulent spa to film set location, like silk on skin.
It begins indistinctly with a dream of a car in a traffic jam, stopped somewhere between places unknown. We see a suited man stuck behind the steering wheel, fumes emanating from the dashboard as an audience of hundreds watch silently from their own vehicles. Suddenly he is soaring hundreds of feet into a bright sky above a sparkling sea, before plummeting rapidly down to the beach below. With a start, he awakes. The fallen man, our protagonist, is movie director Guido Anselmi. It’s 1963, and he has a film to make.
This opening episode’s thinly-veiled nod to paralysing creative block is revealing. Despite the director’s international success with La Dolce Vita three years earlier, 8½ (named after the number of films to Fellini’s name up to its release) nearly didn’t get made.
In a letter to long-term financier Angelo Rizzoli, Fellini confessed that he had "lost his film" and would have to abandon the project. But with the cast in place and the film’s launch imminent, something changed: “I was a director who wanted to make a film he no longer remembers. And lo and behold, at that very moment everything fell into place... I would narrate everything that had been happening to me. I would make a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make".
Fellini puts himself at the centre of his film as the elegant, soft-spoken Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, with his signature dark sunglasses, grey wool suit and silvered mane. We meet him for the first time at an idyllic spa on respite from shooting his latest film, an expensive sci-fi epic. Guido glides through the scenes of his life like a casual observer, powerless and puzzled by journalists, his production team and the endless roll call of women he surrounds himself with. And these were certainly puzzling times.
Italian cinema was booming and Rome was the throbbing epicentre of the new brand of cinematic style. Low production costs brought a steady stream of Hollywood films to the continent and the legendary Mussolini-built Cinecitta Studios became the stomping ground of the jet setting A-list. For Fellini, the studios provided the transformative platform where anything could happen: "My ideal world, the cosmic space before the big bang".
In Rome, Fellini tells us, the inspirational properties of space are endless. We see palatial reception rooms and baroque chambers, marble floors and gold-leaf door frames. Whether Guido is wrapped in crisp white sheets on a mahogany four poster bed, or sipping aperitivos on a sun-strewn piazza, he is always observing. There is no humdrum; everything is inspiration.
The line between life and fiction was thinner than ever before. The secret lives of the rich and the beautifully dressed played out on and off screen. On the Via Veneto, stars lived out the forbidden romances of the mythical heroes they aped, all against the real backdrop which inspired the fictional worlds of these epic stories. This is where Richard Burton kissed Elizabeth Taylor between takes on Cleopatra. The star of La Dolce Vita and 8½, Marcello Mastroianni, wooed Faye Dunaway and fathered a daughter with Catherine Deneuve.
Chic Hollywood megastars could be spotted draped on ancient monuments in an unprecedented collision between the contemporary and the classical. And at the centre of it all – the paparazzi, christened after Fellini’s news photographer character Paparazzo, who ensured everyone could see the secret liaisons, moonlighting, and impromptu stripteases. It was set photographer Pierlugi Praturlo who witnessed the moment when Anita Ekberg scaled the Trevi fountain and caught it on camera. The same scene turned up in La Dolce Vita.
Actresses were walking straight off the film set into the fashion houses and back again. Fernanda Gattinoni, credited with reviving the high-waisted Empire style, and famous for her sumptuous wedding dresses with long trains made from heavy taffetas, founded her own couture house and dressed actresses Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman as well as style icons Eva Peron, Princess Margaret and Jackie O, and was nominated for an Oscar for her costume designs in War and Peace (1956). Street fashion was an advert for the film industry and vice versa.
And the fashion on the street was pure elegance. Fellini’s women encompass an overtly sexual joie de vivre characteristic of the time. And yet they are refined, demure even. Fellini uses costume to define his characters. Guido’s wife Luisa goes to bed in swan-white slips that represent her innocence and thick-rimmed spectacles. The doe-eyed mistress of his middle-aged friend wears knee-length black frocks, hair scraped back beneath her wide-brimmed straw hat. The only exception arrives in the form of the prostitute Saraghina, a bawdy clown-like figure from Guido’s past, who lives in a seaside shack and dances on demand. With a voice like a siren and comically ill-fitting attire, she is as charming as she is monstrous.
It’s no accident that all of these women and their male counterparts return, dressed all in white, for a seaside parade in the film’s grand finale. If life is truly a catwalk, we may as well follow Guido’s example, sit back, and enjoy the show.