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  • Ravi Swami

"81/2", Dir: Federico Fellini, 1963

Federico Fellini's "81/2", (1963) is generally considered to be a high point in the directors' work but knowing that wasn't the reason why I settled on it - checking my record of films watched during the lockdown, it was an early entry that followed "La Dolce Vita".

As I've mentioned previously, I was a little circumspect when it comes to Fellini's films, based purely on early experiences and viewings that left me confused and unsettled, due largely to the fact that films I'd seen are representative of a period when he explored "magic realism", dreams and experiments in visual narrative, of which "Juliette of The Spirits" is a prime example.

As I discovered later as I drilled down into his earlier films, the subjects tended to focus on the realities of life in Post-War Italy, dwelling on the hopes of ordinary people escaping poverty in the provinces for a better life in the cities that were being re-built after the war, at the same time expressing a freedom of expression and commentary that was absent under Mussolini.

"81/2" sits roughly half-way between his social-realist films like "Nights of Cabiria" and "Juliette of The Spirits" and is essentially an autobiographical piece - a meditation on the difficulties a creative person encounters when trying the express himself within commercial constraints and how success can mean a move away from one's roots - Marcello Mastroianni plays a successful film director who can command huge budgets to make an epic film but he struggles with the social mobility that the success brings with it and the film is peppered with flashbacks to his youth and ever-present Catholic guilt, forcing him to question his worth and validity.

Unusually, Fellini uses the backdrop of a huge-budget science-fiction film to effectively caricature the director's vaulting ambitions, as if to say visually and literally that "the sky's the limit" - I say unusual because commercial cinema in Italy at that time was typified by equally extravagant historical epics in line with similar films emerging from Hollywood and which reached a peak with "Cleopatra" or "The Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire", that tooks full advantage of colour and widescreen film formats to whisk audiences away to the ancient world - science-fiction by then was a genre that was falling out of favour, if indeed it had ever taken root in Italian commercial cinema, and had yet to shake off the "B" movie tag, something that didn't really happen until Stanley Kubrick made "2001 - A Space Odyssey" in 1968 and re-wrote the rule-book for the genre.

Fellini could have used a Roman epic to represent the director's vision and his producer's willingness to take a huge financial risk but by using science-fiction he is really commenting on the aspirations of Post War Italy in shaking off any associations with ancient history and the glories of the Roman Empire, something that was capitalised by Mussolini, replacing it with a sense of wonder about the technological marvels of a new world.

The film opens and closes with a party of people visiting an enormous, several stories high gantry which will support a rocket that is under construction for the intended film, and the scenes act as bookends for the bulk of the film as Mastroianni's character navigates dealing with his nervous producer and several romantic relationships whilst reflecting on traumatic episodes from his early life, all tinged by ever-present guilt.

These scenes verge on being surrealistic and dreamlike and also a little leaden as you try and decipher the layers of symbolism and intended meaning - by the time he made "Juliette of the Spirits" he had achieved a lightness of touch in these areas helped in large part by the central performance of Giulietta Masina and imaginative art-direction.

I have to admit that I did struggle with "81/2" and semi-autobiographical films can tend to drag, in general - in this case you are taken to the conclusion via a very long and circuitous route of artistic introspection.

I recently watched a documentary on the lives of actors who had starred in Dino Di Laurentis' 1980 film of "Flash Gordon" - "Life After Flash" (Amazon Prime), in which it is claimed that before settling on the director Mike Hodges, (via Nicholas Roeg), Di Laurentis had considered Federico Fellini, something that strikes me as a very odd choice of director and I'm curious to know if it ever got beyond simply a wish by the extravagant producer.

Di Laurentis produced several of Fellini's films and is the archetype of the producer featured in "81/2" but where did the idea of getting Fellini to direct "Flash Gordon" come from ?...the rocket in "81/2" ?...the visual extravagance and surreal quality of his later films, something seen in both "Flash Gordon" with its flamboyant constume design and theatricality and also Di Laurentis' earlier science-fiction effort "Barbarella" ?...or was Fellini a huge fan of the "Flash Gordon" comic strip ?...these are all questions that will have to remain unanswered...

*The film's working title was, rather tellingly, "La bella confusione (The Beautiful Confusion)"..


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