The Numbers Game

If life is a circus, then I imagine making a film is even more so. Or perhaps it’s only in the hands of director Federico Fellini that it seems that way.

In Fellini’s autobiographical 8 1/2 (1963), Marcello Mastroianni stars as a famous film director suffering from director’s block. With his new science fiction film stalled, he is surrounded by artistic and marital difficulties, and countless beautiful women. The title refers to Fellini’s eighth and a half film as a director, based on his six features, two short segments, and a collaboration with director Alberto Lattuada, the latter three productions accounting for a “half” film each.

I had never heard of 8 1/2 before Nine won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1982. Though I became an immediate fan of Maury Yeston’s lush score (which was butchered in 2009 film adaptation), it took nearly 30 years before I finally watched the film.

With gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Gianni di Venanzo and stunning sets and costumes by Piero Gherardi, the film, blending flashbacks and dreams, memories and fantasies, is endlessly fascinating to watch, if you can get past the odd dubbing. As with most Italian films of the period, the sound was entirely dubbed in afterward. Fellini followed his traditional technique writing many lines of the dialogue during post production, while the actors on the set mouthed random lines. But in this case, the dubbing somehow adds to the unique, circus-like atmosphere, as does Nino Rota‘s score.

The film is sparsely scored and includes a healthy dose of Wagner, Rossini and Tchaikovsky, which fit in beautifully with the surreal images, as well as the off-kilter atmosphere of the German spa where much of the action takes place. But the two most memorable musical moments are pure Rota.

The first is a flashback scene in which young Guido joins his school chums in playing hooky from Catholic school to visit the prostitute Saraghina (Eddra Gale) down at the beach. Bursting out of her cheap, tight black dress, the slatternly, voluptuous prostitute dances an impromptu rumba in the sand. Rota’s memorable music for accordion and electric guitar (which is not included on the soundtrack album for some reason) feels dirty and cheap, yet has a certain sultry allure, much like Saraghina herself.

The film closes once again on the beach after Guido gives up on the film and the scaffolding for the launchpad set is being dismantled. In the finale, Guido directs one final scene as all the men and women in his life (it’s all women in the stage version), living and dead, return to dance “La Passerella Di Addio” around the circus’s center ring. The scene, originally shot for promotional purposes, replaced the original ending and it’s hard to imagine any other. Thanks to Rota’s oom-pah march, the film ends on a joyous feeling of reconciliation and a tentative peace.

Perhaps I was always predisposed to like 8 1/2 because of my fondness for Nine. But the film does not disappoint and demands multiple viewings. It’s odd, captivating, and fantastic, in every sense of the word. A “10” in my book.

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