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Classic Film Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

Copyright Columbia Pictures

A work of pure genius from the undisputed king of surrealist cinema.

What is 8 1/2? The short answer is that it is the story of a film director, Marcello Mastroianni, who  is unraveling during the production of his latest film. The long answer can be found in the many books, films and styles in cinema that have all tried to explain, emulate and even rediscover the genius of not one of the best foreign films of all time, but one of the greatest works of cinema to ever be put to film. Lucky then that it is the subject of Cityscreen’s latest retrospective.

So many times it has been said that when a classic comes to revisit the big screen its wonder, once thought timeless, is lost, its masterpiece status only consigned to the playing field of its day. 8 1/2 is not one of those films. A picture still shocking, sexy and awe-inspiring to this day, it is a film that’s ability to astound will remain forever, it is a film too original to ever fade.

The undisputed king of Italian surrealism, Frederico Fellini’s ability to display the twisted and corrupted nature of his main character is a skill not matched to this day. The camera is Fellini’s creature, weaving its way through a soundtrack so theatrical, performances so disturbingly melodramatic that one would think it at times perverted, not in what it reveals but what it implies with its lens. This is cinema of the highest order, its world constructed with such imagination and detail, playing the eyes and ears of its audience like an instrument.

Seen as a retrospective, 8 1/2 is also a window to its generation. Its characters all dressed to perfection, it glides by with such elegance- a level of class simply unattainable in today’s cinema. Not because if the inability of today’s movies, but rather because 8 1/2 possesses something of a unique vintage appeal, it’s from another time, but it is also of another universe. As our main character Marcello falls ever deeper into his own inner turmoil of sex, isolation and despair, so does the world of the film with him. By the end of the picture it is unsure if it even the same film as the tone has shifted so dramatically.

Insanity has always had mixed results when translated to the big screen and 8 1/2 will always remain the standard to which other films strive.