Unfortunately, most 20th-century artists aren't Christian, and their work has little to do with issues of faith. But a small number of creative figures were so touched by religion during their formative years that they can't keep away from the subject even though as adults they're not practicing believers.
The films of Frederico Fellini (La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, etc.) are passionate, surreal, and often autobiographical, evoking picturesque memories of his small-town childhood. They rarely address religion directly, but the filmmaker's Catholic upbringing made an indelible imprint on his psyche and creative personality.
8 1/2, which Fellini co-wrote with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi, reflects these obsessions. It's the story of Guido (Marcello Mastroiani), a film director much like Fellini, who's unable to find the inspiration to complete his latest movie even though it's already in pre-production. Pressured by people from his personal and professional worlds to make decisions, he immerses himself in dreams, fantasies, and recollections from his past in order to sort out the meaning of his life. The title refers to the number of films Fellini had made up until the time of 8 1/2, whoes initial release was in 1963.
The opening images are from a dream. Guido's caught in a traffic jam in a freeway underpass. Trapped inside a small car, he begins to suffocate as the windows steam up. Somehow he climbs out and floats away into the sky like a kite.
Guido awakes and finds himself in a health spa where he's “taking the cure.” The dream sequence is a good indication of the state of his soul. He feels trapped in a lifestyle and set of relationships from which there is no logical way out. The result is a deepseated spiritual malaise which massages, mineral waters, and mudbaths won't be able to cure. As doctors and nurses fuss over him, someone asks if he's “making another film without hope.”
Guido's mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), arrives. Her flighty concern with clothing and fashion fails to lift his spirits as it usually does. His movie's production staff also shows up, demanding direction. Guido escapes into childhood reveries in which his strong-willed mother kindly nurtures him. The black and white images are so stylized it's often difficult to tell what's real and what's not.
Guido and his associates try to unwind at a fashionable night club attached to the spa. But indirect reminders of his spiritual crisis keep popping up. One of the paparazzi there asks him: “Could you create something meaningful if the Pope commissioned it?”
“Yes,” he replies, much to his own surprise.
Also taking the cure is a Catholic cardinal whom Guido describes as representing something he no longer believes in but which still fascinates him. Guido's screenwriter comments that if the director were to make a film attacking the Church, he would wind up “turning into an accomplice.”
Guido meets with the cardinal in a steam bath. When the film director complains about his life, the prelate declares: “Who said your task on earth is to be happy?”
“There is no salvation outside the Church,” the cardinal continues. “That which is outside the City of God belongs to the City of Man.”
Guido's rambling conversation with the cardinal doesn't lead to a conversion experience. The film director doesn't regain his faith. But he does begin to try to put his spiritual house in order.
Guido's wife, Lucia (Anouk Aimèe), makes a surprise appearance. He wants to rebuild their relationship but refuses to tell the truth about his affair with his mistress, angering Lucia.
Guido's co-workers accuse him of having “nothing to say,” and it looks as if his production will be shut down. But in the kind of magical moment which only Fellini can create, the characters from his dreams, fantasies, and childhood memories materialize and join hands with the people in his present life. Guido's despair starts to melt away. “Life is a holiday,” he exclaims. “Let's do it together.”
The director rediscovers the importance of relationships, community, and love. One of the pivotal points of his spiritual odyssey was his encounter with the cardinal, which set off something deep inside him. 8 1/2 shows how the seeds of faith, once planted, can flourish in unexpected ways.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
Next week: George Cukor's Little Women.