Dolce Vita, Fellini By Mike Holsclaw

Why is it that “8 ½”, an Italian film that was released fifty-five years ago, has such resonance and immediacy for me now?

For those who haven’t seen it, “8 ½” is the archetypal story of a film director, “Guido Anselmi”, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is suffering from a chronic case of artist’s block, and who desperately struggles throughout the course of the film to capture an elusive spark of inspiration. In a brilliant case of metanarrative (before the term even existed), Federico Fellini took his own artistic insecurities and uncertainties and folded them into the body of this film, in addition to pouring large dollops of autobiographical detail from his own life into the story as well.  To further complicate things, he also allowed the “fictional” characters of the film-within-a-film to freely interact with the “real” characters in the director’s life, most famously in the film’s conclusion.

All of this sounds like it could have been a jumbled-up mess but Fellini balances all of these elements superbly and, not only does he make a seamless transition from the memories and fantasies inside Guido’s head, but he uses these interludes as a powerful Greek chorus for the events in Guido’s life.

Since its release in 1963, “8 ½” has been hailed as a masterpiece and routinely finds itself on lists of the best films of all time. While acknowledging all that, why does it still have such a profound impact on me personally, why do I feel as if Fellini was receiving secret, telepathic transmissions from the Mike of today when the film was made over half a century ago?

One clue, I think, is that Guido and I both share a certain world-weariness; myself, because I’m starting to see a side of life that doesn’t always inspire a great deal of hope, and Guido because of the post-war, intellectual malaise that had begun to dominate the Europe of that time. In both our cases, also, there is an all too obvious cognizance of the burden of modernity.

Why “the burden of modernity”? Well, although we both try to be polite and not offend the people that surround us, Guido and I are both supremely skeptical of the popular pieties of the cultures in which we live and find it exhausting to continually pay lip service to ideas that we don’t really respect; it is lonely, and enervating, to find yourself out of sync with most of the opinions and interests of a large portion of your society (Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande, anyone?). Guido, for instance, shows an incredible degree of forbearance (and good manners) when he interacts with the Catholic cardinal and tries to explain his unhappiness to him, to which the cardinal only responds by robotically quoting the catechism and displaying an overall air of obliviousness to Guido’s problems.

It has taken several viewings, over the span of several years, for me to unravel what is going on inside Guido but I think that I may have finally deciphered his code; his default mode is a state of melancholy, a wistful regret that all the things that filled him with such confidence in his youth are now under suspicion of being ersatz. His (and my) moorings have been detached and we are in a state of free fall as we wait to see where we will land. There is no sense of triumph in having abandoned some of the unexamined assumptions of our earlier days; rather, there is the vague sense that something important has been lost and a dull, achy feeling of absence because we don’t know what to do to make up the deficit.

Yet, despite this low simmer of surprisingly comfortable angst, Fellini offsets the gloom with humor, particularly the humor of a man who is intelligent and self-aware enough to be amused by his own shortcomings; Guido is unfaithful to his wife and something of a misogynist – he knows these are serious character defects and he feels shame about them, but he also recognizes an element of absurdist comedy in his apparent inability to stop being this way. Like Paul, he knows the good and does it not, but he can’t help but feel ruefully bemused by his weakness. I don’t think he’s giving himself a pass on his flaws but, rather, he takes a small measure of saturnine comfort in realizing that, despite the disillusionments of the modern world, human nature is still human nature.

By film’s end, despite any expectations we may have formed to the contrary, Fellini actually makes an optimistic, life-affirming argument; the verities which once anchored our lives may be on the verge of disappearing, but if artists persevere and remain true to their inner vision, they may forge new courses that continue to make our lives worth living.  This, too, was a trope that had been expressed by other modernists such as Joyce and Proust, but there was something triumphal about an artist in a popular medium like film also presenting the thesis. I’ll confess, when I saw the film again a few months ago, after Guido had his epiphany about the importance of artists, followed by the circus-like processional of the film’s characters as they make their final bow, my eyes welled up and I felt a surprising burst of inspiration inside my chest. If Fellini, in the first year of my life, was able to so uncannily anticipate the state of my adult soul at the beginning of the 21st century, then maybe I should give serious consideration to his prescription for endurance as well. Dolce Vita, Fellini; here’s to the Good Life, Federico!