8 1/2 is a black-and-white film from 1963, it starred Marcello Mastroianni, one of the great screen lovers of the time. as the harried film writer/director Guido Anselmi. The character mirrored Fellini in certain ways and the movie is considered to be at least partly auto-biographical. In fact, Fellini felt he had done only seven and a-half films before the one that became 8 ½.
The plot, if there is a plot, concerns the near nervous breakdown of the writer/director, Anselmi. He has contracted to do a new film for his producers but he cannot come up with a workable idea.His producers, whose money is on the line, pressure him to hurry. He checks himself into a seaside spa that becomes a backdrop for his musings and his memories. The stark white pillars and fountains of the spa give a classic look to his internal drama.
Hard on his heels comes his wife Louisa (Anouk Aimee) and his mistress. Carla, played by Sophie Milo, as well as his producer and sundry other people connected to the project. At the spa, he spies Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) who he immediately idealizes as the perfect pure woman. He now has the intellectual woman (his wife), the sensual woman (his mistress) and the pure woman (Claudia) in his harem. Add to that his mother (the stern yet nurturing woman) and assorted females who flit around him to create his quandary — how to relate to women in a meaningful way.
One of the hallmarks of 8 ½ was the weaving of fantasy, reality and memories into the storyline without any break or forewarning. In other films of the time, if someone were daydreaming the camera would zoom in on his face to give the sensation of delving into his mind. Or the character would lean back in a chair and circles would appear to denote that the audience was about to enter the thoughts of the protagonist. But Fellini’s greatest feat was to meld the fantasy into reality is a seamless way. Movie directors have copied this since the sixties, so that modern audiences accept the method in a way that earlier audiences did not.
One memorable scene in the original movie is from the hero’s childhood, when the schoolboys run onto the beach to see Saraghina, the prostitute who dances for them. She is seriously overweight, not young and a little crazy-looking with black-circled eyes. She was certainly not sexy in the usual sense of the word, although she seemed to represent a sort of earth-mother. She looked grotesque, and grotesques became of feature of Fellini films, and became more pronounced in his later movies.
Another power Fellini had was to use his cinematic eye to construct classic images in a symbolic way. In one scene, Guido descends the stairs of the steam bath in the company of the producers and other members of the spa. As they walk down the stairs draped in the bath sheets of the spa, they look like Roman senators from the 1st century BC, debating on the steps of the senate building.