By the early 1960s, Neorealism had run its course. The scars of war and the abysmal social conditions that gave rise to the movement were finally receding into the past. More importantly, Italy was embarking upon an age of intense industrialization and progress, and their cinema reflected this desire for modernity. Much of this was driven by an energetic youth culture, not unlike that found in France, Britain, and the U.S., where the pop markets became dominated by a new demographic. Italian composers Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota were redefining the role of the film score by using unconventional approaches to sound and questioning the rules of what constituted “acceptable” instrumentation, adding anvils, whistling, manual typewriters and dissonant harmonicas to the mix. Sergio Leone “out-Westerned” the Western with Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistfull of Dollars) and Il buono il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), creating an odd international hybrid of the classic American genre which came to be known as the “spaghetti western.” On the “artsier” side, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were redefining modern narrative and pushing the boundaries of linear storytelling.
Like so many others, Federico Fellini started his career during the war years, at first as a screenwriter, and then moving on to camera work in 1943; never one to feign intellectualism, he acknowledged later that this was to avoid conscription and not from some deep innate love of cinema art. Nevertheless, he found that he enjoyed his work and quickly developed a knack for organizing cast and crew. His first major artistic contribution of the postwar period was acting as co-screenwriter on Rossellini’s Rome Open City, and several of the film’s moments of dark comic humor are undoubtedly his. Despite the film’s anti-fascist views, Fellini was notoriously apolitical for the entirety of his career and admitted this openly, a position for which he often caught flak from Italian progressives. By 1963, he had already achieved international recognition with La strada (1954), Il bidone (1955) and Le notti di Cabiria (1957) to his credit. But it was 1962’s scandalous La dolce vita, starring Anita Ekberg and then-unknown Marcello Mastroianni, that had him proclaimed a “public sinner” by the Pope, a title Fellini no doubt wore with great pride.
History shows that the biggest success can segue into the biggest paralysis. So it was with tentatively-titled “La bella confusione” (The Beautiful Confusion), the project following La dolce vita. Fellini later described this terrifying moment of paralysis with an affinity that seemed to reflect its central importance to his creative maturation. By his own account, he unexpectedly hit the creative doldrums for what was to be his eighth feature film (the “1/2” is for an earlier co-credit). Things became so dire that both friends and financial backers began to question his ability to get things going again, with the project stopping and starting several times over the course of the year. His initial idea was to have Marcello Mastroianni play a disillusioned writer, not realizing that Mastroianni had just done the disillusioned writer bit in Antonioni’s La notte. Fellini found his sole idea dead in the water. Then, the what-seems-altogether-obvious-now dawned on him: why not make him a disillusioned filmmaker instead? The elimination of this barrier between himself and his protagonist was a bold and risky autobiographical move but one that ultimately paid off. After that switch, the problems in the creative process evaporated and things fell into place rather quickly.
One cannot really talk about the transition between “neorealist” Fellini and “oneiric” Fellini without acknowledging the revolutionary impact of psychology on his narrative and visual style. To treat the sudden onset of acute depression, he began psychoanalysis in the early 1960s and became an ardent admirer of Jungian thought, of Jung’s theories of anima/animus and subconscious archetypes. Seeds planted in La dolce vita came to fruition by 8 1/2, with its meandering and self-reflexive narrative. Fellini later talked at length about his supervised experiments with LSD during this time period, and it is clear that this drug had some impact upon his fractured approach to narrative, the merger of plausible and impossible, the solid with the symbolic. From this point onward, and for the next twenty years, “Felliniesque” would gain cultural ground on “Kafkaesque,” eventually becoming the de facto shorthand for all situations surreal, circuitous, or dreamlike. And it is this odd intangibility that makes 8 1/2 still so engaging today.