This short essay briefly discusses the status of the artist as reflexively expressed in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. By focusing on the disconnected nature of Fellini’s narrative and visual style within both films, I made GIFs of scenes which I think encapsulate the idea of disconnected narrative images that function to express specific themes within both films.
Halfway through Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a struggling artist named Steiner delivers a monologue about existentialism and artistic uncertainty about the future in his children’s bedroom. While it seems as though we’re watching Steiner from Marcello’s perspective, we never see Marcello, the lead protagonist of the film, enter the room behind Steiner after this cut and into the next:
The story of La Dolce Vita depicts Marcello’s psychological dissipation in a narrative spiral of seemingly disconnected episodes. Throughout the film, Marcello’s passions are waning and he can’t help but succumb to the seduction of high society and its bodily offers. As for Steiner’s monologue, it represents a moment of creative reflection via Fellini; an artist becoming more and more detached from the cinematic movement he began in (neorealism). Fellini’s creative state is slightly unclear during La Dolce Vita, at least compared to 8 1/2, as expressed by the ambiguity of whether or not this highly-reflexive moment is attached or detached from Marcello’s body. The question then becomes, “Who is Fellini addressing?” Us? Or Himself?
This self-awareness and reflexivity that Fellini injects into both of films is a way for him to use cinema as a tool to uncover something valuable and worth expressing; a cure to the creative block. However, the detachment of the self from the cinema (e.g. Guido from 8 1/2 distancing himself from his art and the perspective of the camera becoming detached from Marcello’s body during Steiner’s monologue) establishes an associative connection between what the camera represents for the director. A bodily extension, of sorts.
The monologue of Vita is perhaps one of the more obvious self-aware moments in the film, as Steiner literally stands in front of a mirror and then looks at the camera as the scene fades out. It is not, however, the only reflexive moment. Later in the film, Marcello meets a young girl by the name of Paola, a symbol of pure thought and youth, something that Marcello can no longer relate to as he tries to write a ‘story’ on his typewriter.
Marcello’s meeting with Paola appears as a seemingly out-of-place sequence in the film, unrelated from any of the other narrative episodes so far. Though towards the end of the film, Paola returns as Marcello sees her across the beach, however, he doesn’t recognize her. The connection, or rather, disconnection, between the self and the ability to think clearly and consciously as a creative mind is where La Dolce Vita leaves Marcello, and in that case, Fellini as well; stranded in metaphorical isolation, unable to make sense of the surrounding world due to the inability to process what’s in front of their eyes, literally and figuratively.
What’s interesting about the final image of Vita, however, is that Fellini chose to end it with another fourth-wall breaking moment, as a close-up depicts Paola waving goodbye to Marcello, then turning her head to look straight at the camera before the film fades out. The camera here can’t be from Marcello’s perspective because of its proximity to Paola and sight lines change from where she was watching Marcello a second earlier. However, it relates back to the composition of Steiner’s monologue in a way that’s indecipherable as to whether or not it is from a character’s fixed perspective or detached from any physical body. Paola’s shift of focus could simply be her watching Marcello walk back up the beach. It’s a slightly haunting moment that, at the time, must have confused many viewers who wondered what Fellini might do next.
In the end, children and their presence establish a connective link between Fellini’s reflexive moments within Vita and 8 1/2. As he moves on to 8 1/2, the image of childhood becomes more prominent in the journey of an artist who desires to return to a moment from the past where creative thought was free and pure.
8 ½ presents itself as a sort of antidote to Vita‘s conclusive note of indifference and creative imprisonment. It is a semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical mirror held up to Fellini by Fellini. In addition, he connects back to Vita’s themes of detachment, creative struggle, and faded nostalgia; when a moment in time seemed to be eternal, no longer tethered to reality in the present moment, unlike Marcello and Guido, and in this case Fellini, as beings trying to break free from the tethers of present reality.
The ending of 8 ½ is the culmination of Fellini’s transition from an artist with creative concerns to an artist who’s free to express what’s important to himself rather than what’s important to those around him, including audiences. The protagonist, Guido, finally decides to direct a scene where everyone he knows and once knew, simply parade freely around a deconstructed movie set. Thought it’s not only Guido, the adult, doing directing it. The child version of Guido, brought into the film through a flashback at an earlier point, is also present and directing the players around. In this respect, the final scene of the film is the flip-side to La Dolce Vita. It’s a moment of acknowledgement, recognition and artistic breakthrough.
Rather than a desperate confusion manifesting itself in a negative way for Fellini, 8 ½ celebrates this confusion as artistic redemption by the simple act of directing and filming who and what he loves in disorganized, chaotic fashion; everything that makes Fellini “Fellini” in a single image, free of narrative constraint. After all, Guido’s film is far from finished by the end of 8 ½. So, in essence, the narrative doesn’t end conclusively for the viewer; it simply “ends” on the note of continuation for the director. Guido/Fellini doesn’t surrender to his creative block, he simply embraces it and chooses to continue making films, regardless of what their narratives might be. As a result, Fellini acknowledges the cyclical process of film-making and celebrates it. Whereas La Dolce Vita represented the death of the artist and and a certain purgatorial decay, 8 ½ represents reawakening and rebirth. Fittingly, I think these GIFs conceptually function as both: images of cyclical purgatory, and ones that constantly begin, end, and begin again.