Freeing Fellini: Cinematic Self-Discovery in La Dolce Vita and 8 ½
The opening images of Federico Fellini’s most well-known films, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963), demonstrate events that are seemingly polar opposites of one another: a helicopter chopping freely through the sky as it carries a statue of Jesus over Rome; a man trapped and suffocated in his car during a traffic jam. In juxtaposing these two openers, Fellini already establishes a thematically connected spectrum in these films: of creative freedom and entrapment. In illustrating the thematic connections between these images within their own respective narratives, I aim to study the development of Fellini as a filmmaker concerned with his own artistic capability to translate his conscious and unconscious thoughts through cinema.
By the end, La Dolce Vita‘s illusion of creative freedom is deconstructed, whereas in 8 ½, that freedom finds a way to manifest itself when the artist finally identifies his internal struggle. Though narratively unrelated to each other, the dream-like, meandering structure of Marcello’s experiences in Vita, combined with 8 ½‘s Guido as an autobiographical extension of Fellini (as a director facing a creative block) form a thematically linked duology in examining Fellini as an introspective artist attempting to not only uncover the meanings of his own thoughts through his dreams and experiences, but to express them by using the cinematic image as a tool of communication between him, the spectator, and the unconscious mind.
Throughout the history of cinema’s theoretical approach to identification, the viewer is usually placed in the center, as cinema is generally handled as an art made to serve an audience. However, I find Fellini to be a special subject in attempting to analyze his transformation from a filmmaker who started in the era of an established movement such as Italian neorealism to one more concerned with depicting his own blend of fiction and autobiography into dream-like narratives that serve as a tool for self-identification for the artist; as a spectator of their own psychological thoughts. For Fellini, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ are therefore direct extensions of his own mind. Through these two films, I’d like to explore the ways in which film theories involving mirror identification and the mind relate to Fellini as an auteur who is perhaps less interested in black-and-white definitions of reality and fiction, and more in their combination within cinema as a means for self-discovery and artistic freedom. His evolution as a filmmaker is a journey of transformation, not unlike Marcello and Guido. In this sense, I believe Fellini took an established medium in an established movement (Italian Neorealism) and transformed its artistic capabilities into something that transcends concrete definition of genre or classical narrative.
By referring to Christian Metz’s theories on identification and the cinematic mirror, I can explore the ways in which Fellini specifically uses psychoanalysis and reflexivity within his films to hint at a larger philosophy regarding symbolism and figurative representation. My focus on this section will deal heavily on the premise that Marcello and Guido, the titular characters of both movies (who are fittingly played by the same actor, Marcello Mastroianni), are metaphorical stand-ins for Fellini himself. Gregory Currie and Rudolph Arnheim’s discussions of reality, as well as illusion, established within cinema aid in presenting foundations to explore Fellini’s authorial use of realism and fiction in unison with each other. This in turn establishes how the term “Felliniesque” directly involves the peculiarity of his unique cinematic style. I also plan to further expand on cinematic theory of the mind, which in relation deals with the combined nature of Fellini’s illusory sense of narrative progression, evident in not only the temporal and spacial disarray between dreams and reality in 8 ½, but also in the seemingly realistic, yet unsutured episodes of Marcello’s psychological detachment in La Dolce Vita.
1. Christian Metz, Critical Visions in Film Theory. “Loving the Cinema. Identification, Mirror. Disavowal, Fetishism” p. 18-33
2. Gregory Currie, Critical Visions in Film Theory. “Film, Reality, and Illusion” p. 47-60
3. Isabella Conti and William A. McCormack “Federico Fellini: Artist in Search of Self Author(s)”
4. Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory: Introduction Through the Senses. “Cinema as Mirror – Face and Close-Up” p. 63-90
5. Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory: Introduction Through the Senses. “Cinema as Brain – Mind and Body” p. 169-191
6. Rudolph Arnheim Critical Visions in Film Theory. “Film and Reality” p. 280-289
Federico Fellini. La Dolce Vita (1960)
Federico Fellini. 8 1/2 (1963)