Written and directed by Federico Fellini, 8 1/2 is an Italian avant-garde film released in 1963. Its title derives from its position as the eighth and a half film that Fellini directed (if one considers his two short films and a collaboration each as "half films").
Produced by Angelo Rizzoli, the film garnered two 1963 Academy Awards (for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design) and was nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction in black-and-white. In addition, it won prizes for best director, producer, original story, screenplay, music, cinematography, and supporting actress from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists that year. Its exhibition at the third Moscow International Film Festival in 1963 likewise made a huge splash.
The idea for 8 1/2 took years to fully develop in Fellini's imagination, but the frustration and absurdity of this process actually informed the film as we know it today, which is centered on a protagonist suffering from writer's block while making a film. Having harvested the widespread acclaim of his last film, La Dolce Vita, the Fellini of the early 1960s was subject to gossip and envy, according to friend and biographer Tullio Kezich. As a result, rumors spread that Fellini was facing creative block and was out of ideas. In the summer of 1961, Fellini embarked on a tour of Italy, claiming he was scouting locations for his next film, which he would shoot in October of the same year; no one believed him. As reporters began questioning Fellini about his next project with increasing vigor, he began to retreat from the public eye, even avoiding conversation with friends and colleagues (Kezich 233-34). Even the crew on which Fellini regularly depended grew skeptical of the project. Reaching his peak frustration, Fellini even began (but ripped up) a letter to his producer confessing he would give up on the film (Kezich 238-39).
According to Kezich, Fellini's epiphany about the film's structure and story arrived with the realization that his protagonist would be a director in the same situation as he was. "After that, he might have mentioned the notion to the other screenwriters, but he never [said] openly: 'I have realized that I am Guido Anselmi [his protagonist]. He [would] start to admit this only once the movie [was] completed" (Kezich 240).
That 8 1/2 was based on Fellini's real experiences and persona is pronounced enough as to be apparent even to someone unfamiliar with the director's backstory. In searching for the actor that would play his protagonist, Kezich writes, Fellini was actually looking for "a human mirror, someone who can reflect his own image." Thus, Fellini chose admired thespian Marcello Mastroianni, who had already performed a leading role in La Dolce Vita but was nervous to approach Fellini about new projects (Kezich 235). Despite his timid respect for Fellini, Mastroianni would go on to play roles in four more of his films and is still associated with Fellini's persona on the big screen today.
Like the supporting characters in 8 1/2, Mastroianni understood that it was useless to ask his director about the details of a role or scene because it would always change just before it was filmed (Kezich 236). Kezich also writes that many of the characters in the film were based on Fellini's colleagues; Mario and Gloria, for example, were based on film producer Carlo Ponti and his wife, actress Sophia Loren. Madeleine, the moody French actress slated to act in Guido's film, was based on Luise Rainer, with whom Fellini worked on La Dolce Vita. As Kezich writes, "It's important to remember that in 8 1/2, objectivity and autobiography coincide, and that truth and lies are two sides of the same coin" (241).
Originally, the famous ending of the film was shot with the intention of using it in the film's trailer; recognizing its exuberant power, however, Fellini ultimately used this scene to replace a more conventional, even dismal ending of the film. He would later lose the film negatives for the original ending. Kezich writes of the ending, "Rarely has an artist recounted his crisis with such lush invention and imagery, freedom of voice and associations" (243-45).
Upon its release, 8 1/2 was the subject of almost universal praise by audiences and critics alike. The film was so popular, in fact, that one company wanted to mass-produce the black hat that its protagonist wears. Ironically, a few critics did criticize the film using arguments likewise employed by the nasty reporters in the film, namely that Fellini was a "self-mythologizer...and a liar" (Kezich 246-47).
Today, 8 1/2 is often ranked as one of Fellini's best works, and indeed as one of the world's top films of all time. It remains a treasured artifact of Italian and world cinema.