When a film gets the Criterion treatment, two things are usually true, with few exceptions: No. 1, the film is an important piece of cinema [Editor’s note: or directed by Michael Bay]; and No. 2, the DVD will be of the highest possible quality, loaded with more than enough extras for the film geek in all of us and well-worth the rather hefty asking price.
Such is the case with “8 1/2” arguably the greatest achievement of Italian master Federico Fellini. While Image Entertainment released a bare-bones single-disc edition of the film, this—as is invariably the case with the Criterion Collection, is the definitive edition of Fellini’s classic.
“8 1/2” is not only one of his best films, but a landmark of his lengthy career. It was his last black-and-white film, and its style marks a sort of middle ground between his neorealist roots and the over-the-top extravagance of much of his later work. It was also an extremely difficult film for Fellini to make—but that very difficulty made “8 1/2” what it is. As Fellini explains in his essay, “I, Fellini,” which appears in the DVD’s 22-page booklet, “I suffered director’s block, like writer’s block. I had a producer, a contract. I was at Cinecitta, and everybody was ready and waiting for me to make a film. What they didn’t know was that the film I was going to make had fled from me. There were sets already up, but I couldn’t find my sentimental feeling.”
And so the director’s ninth film, originally titled “La Bella Confusione” (“The Beautiful Confusion”), became a film about Fellini’s own artistic crisis—a film quite literally about itself. The DVD booklet chronicles this process in great detail, not only in Fellini’s own essay but two other essays as well: “When He Became I,” written by Fellini biographer Tullio Kezich, and “A Film With Itself As Its Subject,” written by film professor Alexander Sesonske.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Fellini’s alter ego, Guido Anselmi, a film director struggling to make his next film while facing a dilemma between himself, his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) and his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), not to mention his obsession with his “ideal woman,” the movie star played by Claudia Cardinale, quite simply the most beautiful woman ever to walk the earth. In the end, Fellini’s crisis spawned possibly the most brilliant exploration of the creative process ever put on film. And in what has become par for the course for the Criterion Collection, the film’s transfer is near-perfectly crisp and absolutely gorgeous.
One of this DVD’s best features is a set of interviews with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who talks about the work of fellow cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo—who shot “8 1/2” as well as Fellini’s first color film, 1965’s “Juliet of the Spirits”—director Lina Wertmuller—who got her start on “8 1/2”—and the most revealing interview of all with actress Milo, who had an on-again-off-again relationship with Fellini over many years.
One of the most interesting revelations is that Fellini desperately wanted Milo to play Gradisca in his 1973 masterpiece, “Amarcord.” Milo’s husband, wary of her relationship with the womanizing director, prohibited her from appearing in the film. So when Fellini brought in Magali Noel for the part, he made sure to make Noel look as much like Milo as possible. Milo and Wertmuller go on to talk about Fellini’s creative process and his oft-criticized tendency to “throw away” those he’d worked with once he no longer needed them for his films.
One of the regular features of the Criterion Collection is a Director Introduction, in which another acclaimed filmmaker introduces and analyzes the film for a few minutes; for instance, Robert Altman introduces “Rashomon” and Martin Scorsese introduces one of Fellini’s other greatest films, “La Strada.” On the “8 1/2” disc, Criterion brought a filmmaker who has clearly been stylistically influenced by Fellini’s work, Terry Gilliam. In fact, Gilliam’s original title for his 1985 sci-fi satire “Brazil” was “1984 1/2” in co-reference to Fellini and Orwell.
In addition to some run-of-the-mill features that you see on most DVDs—i.e. the theatrical trailer, behind-the-scenes photos—the DVD features a scene-specific audio essay by two experts very knowledgeable about Fellini’s work: the director’s good friend and film critic Gideon Bachmann and an NYU professor of film, Antonio Monda. Disc Two features a look at composer Nino Rota. While Rota was often dubbed “Fellini’s composer,” the 48-minute documentary suggests that perhaps Fellini could be called “Nino Rota’s director.” It’s interesting to see how the notoriously reclusive Rota expressed bitterness over how music critics praised his film scores while scoffing at his classical music.
But one of the most interesting features for Fellini fans is “Fellini: A Director’s Notebook,” a strange, sometimes-confusing, but nonetheless fascinating pseudo-documentary by Fellini himself, in which he takes viewers through the creative process. Originally made for Italian television, the 1969 short film was filmed in large part on the set of his 1969 film “Satyricon,” as Fellini and his colleagues explore Rome, from the Coliseum to the Appian Way (the oldest remaining road built by the ancient Romans).
Not surprisingly, the Criterion Collection version of “8 1/2” is loaded to the gills with extras and a pristine digital transfer for the film itself. For a legendary film that critic Roger Ebert once called “the best film ever made about filmmaking,” it is deserving of nothing less than the best.
chris [at] saltshakermagazine.com