Something like "A story about cannibalism, impotence and food." But
since it's a Fellini film, the only advertising the film needed back in
1969 was his name, and nothing has changed since then. Fellini
remains a rare foreign superstar director, a name recognizable even
to those who haven't seen his films, as long as you were alive in the
60s. The film itself is neither as insightful or focused as his greatest
works (despite being about himself, 8 1/2 is actually a very cohesive
and well-thought out film). Part of the problem may be that the film
has nothing to do with Fellini himself, as some of his best films did.
Instead, as Fellini stated, he set out to make a film as he might make
a film documenting the habits and lives of Martians.
Essentially plotless, the film follows a pair of young men and
various, changing companions through a journey all over the Roman
Empire. There's no reason to recount their travails; it seems that
everyone thinks of this film in terms of their favorite parts anyway.
Who am I to buck a sensible trend? Fellini opens the film with the
puzzling image of a man in shadow against a wall of graffiti. Is he a
Roman or a modern day man examining ancient day murals? The
difference, Fellini suggests, may not be that great. Eventually, the
man starts on a furious monologue about how his new boyfriend has
been stolen and sold a slave. (Incidentally, the dubbing of various non-Italian actors can be atrocious). Eventually, he ends up at the film's first famous set piece: a humongous dinner. The new cook has roasted a whole pig, but forgotten to gut it. Master promises to be benevolent as long as it's gutted RIGHT NOW. Out comes the knife and the sausages and intestines. This is a key touchstone, evidently, for Terry Gilliam, who reworks the moment in his terrific Time Bandits; when the knife went in, out came colorful fruits.
Later on, we have the film's emotional highlight: a simple and deeply touching portrayal of a couple who, after sending their kids away, commit suicide. Before that is what appears to be Fellini's answer to Ben-Hur, a crammed galley ship sequence full of no buff shirtless Anglo-Saxons. Still later comes the terrific and ingenious ending. Based on fragments of the ancient Roman book of the same title, the film's plotlessness and lack of cohesion is the logical result, yet the ending is perfect. In the middle of a voice-over narration, the pictures dissolves to a mosaic depicting our characters, preserved in time 2000 years later. It's a beautiful touch.
Because there is no cohesive plot, Fellini is allowed to riff on Satyricon (by Petronius), which he assumes everyone in the audience has read and therefore can keep up with what he's thinking. Well, I hadn't. My Latin teacher assures me that the film makes perfect sense if you've read the book (well, almost), in the manner that Sokurov's Mournful Indifference tackled Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House" and, using the play as a reference point, created its own vision. That vision is realized in Giuseppe Rotunno's gorgeous and brilliant cinematography, some of the best I've seen in a long long time. That, ultimately, is the reason, along with Fellini, why this film remains relevent: marvelous cinematography plus an undeniably important auteur equals an interesting if lumpy and dated movie which, for all its indulgences, has things you just can't get anywhere else.
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