“He is lost. He has nothing to say.” This line summarizes the plight of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastoianni), the main character in Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2 (the next film in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies). Guido, much like Fellini, is a famous Italian director who finds himself pressured into making a new film. The problem is, Guido doesn’t have any good ideas. Clearly 8 1/2 was a very personal film for Fellini, but it also manages to be a fascinatingly abstract piece of art that takes on as many themes as it can.
As the film opens Guido is days away from production on his latest film, a hodge-podge of science fiction and avant grade autobiography that he has already been warned will be terrible. Guido has become overwhelmed by all of his responsibilities and it is beginning to show in his psychological and emotional well-being. His problems are compounded by the arrivals of his mistress (Sandra Milo) and his wife (Anouk Aimee) on location, not to mention the constant presence of religious figures to remind him of the old traditions he left behind.
Guido’s stress manifests itself in the form of dreams and fantasies, which take over the narrative from time to time. It becomes harder and harder to tell what is memory and what is concocted whole-cloth from his imagination, and by the final third of the film the line between reality and unreality becomes blurred completely.
Fellini’s picture becomes intentionally less coherent as Guido’s mental state deteriorates. What the man desperately needs is to break free from the chains of his responsibilities, to begin anew. Guido is able to acknowledge this fact, but still drags his feet. And once he finally takes action, Guido immediately regrets his choice, longing for everyone and everything he has lost.
Indecision is at the center of Guido’s character; he is a man who falls in love with every woman he sees (one of the movie’s best scenes is a fantasy sequence in which he imagines these women as his harem, eventually losing control over them even in his mind). Guido is happiest when he can create his own reality – when he can be the director of his entire life, and not just his film.
Guido comes to terms with his place in the world by the film’s end, realizing that whatever he does create should be for himself and not for the money-conscious producers or the overly-analytical intellectuals. It is that same mind-set that led Fellini to make 8 1/2; it is a movie for its own sake, rather than anyone else’s.