Creativity and Constraint: Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963)

In many ways, director Guido Anselmi is just a grown-up version of Fellini’s earlier I Vitelloni. He is absurdly if charmingly irresponsible, but without a hint of malice (to his credit the understated Marcello Mastroianni doesn’t try too hard to elicit our sympathy). For at least five months he has been working on a high-budget film for which there no actors cast and for which his script is not yet finished – it is still a loose collection of dreams, memories and fantasies. Yet he continues to waste the time and the efforts of his dedicated and loyal production team, who work late into the night while he takes the most bourgeois and roundabout cure for his director’s block. He refuses to commit to any of the women in his life. He doesn’t tell the actresses what their roles or lines are, he tries to get his mistress’ husband to take care of her, he doesn’t tell his wife of his affair. He even tries to convince his sister-in-law and his friends that it is his wife who is opaque, not he. This smart, chic, well-dressed, intellectual vitellone with a creative crisis seeks solace in the memories of past women who treated him like a child. In beautifully-shot scenes of warm wistfulness, we see his being nurtured by his mother, his aunts, and all those other women who let him cavort and be irresponsible – in other words, be creative. He may have graying hair, a fantastic suit, and several responsibilities, but he has not yet grown up.

In a way, Fellini is right. Creativity can be linked in our hearts, if tenuously, to childhood and innocence. Guido wants his thoughts, dreams, memories, and fantasies to run free, and literally: cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo takes us through beautiful scenes of a younger Guido running through houses, beaches, courtyards. His childhood memory is the wellspring of both his creativity as well as his refuge from responsibility. The constraints of real life – schedules, budgets, and producers and women desirous of commitment – leave his memory adrift. He has a lifetime of material which he thinks he cannot get on film without complete freedom from others’ demands.

What saves Guido is the realization that his creativity is inspired by those same people who he feels constrain him. In other words: he can’t create without them. Art cannot be produced in solitude. Fellini upends the notion of the tortured artist for whom others must slave to feed his creativity – Guido needs them more than they need him. He can be free, but in other ways he has yet to imagine. Art, as in life, is a balance between past and present and fantasy and reality, and consists of the little lies and the grand wishes.

8 1/2 (Otto e Mezze). Dir. Federico Fellini. Cineriz, et al, 1963. In Italian, French and English.