In 8 ½ Federico Fellini uses the Catholic Church as a means to depict Guido’s isolation from society and by the end of the film we see how the church has completely outcast him and also how he has completely abandoned the Church. For it always works both ways. As we go on a fantastical journey through his memories and daydreams we see that the church is always present as an ideal he cannot accept. It comes to be the symbol for all that Guido is rejecting in his half-hearted attempt to make a film. Yet it is the Church’s rigidness and hypocrisy that has driven Guido to this point as Fellini shows.
The film starts off with a very famous sequence where Guido is stuck in traffic. The very fact that he is stuck will reverberate through the film, his relationships with the women don’t change and he avoids telling people about the film he has no intentions of making. The car starts to overheat and it’s the first time Fellini uses smoke or steam to symbolize Guido’s clouded vision and confusion as life is going on about him – lovers caress each other and old people stare at him he is lifted from the car, he literally dies, exalting himself to the heavens. After he makes it through the clouds we see him float above a beach, a man is holding a rope that is tied to his foot then an evil looking rendition of St. Peter says “Down, definitely down.” Guido then falls and wakes from his dream. The dream speaks volumes, however, Guido feels damned and confused about his life and one of the doctors at the spa caps off this sequence emotionally by saying “What are you working on another movie without hope?”
The first introduction to the clergy we get in this film is in the spa. Guido is walking around aimlessly and we are introduced to I think one of the most interesting symbols this film has to offer and they are the nuns carrying umbrellas. Now one would think with the wimple that wouldn’t be necessary. I think Fellini is trying to just show that they’re human and they to fear what God can bring upon them, in this scene there’s also a smiling priest on a bench. My favorite is when Guido goes to meet with actresses on a set there are some clergymen who walk in the opposite direction highlighting the separation of film and religion which will come up later on.
In this film Guido examines his whole life and goes back to his childhood in one scene he meets with his parents in a mausoleum. From them, as would any child, he seeks answers and solace yet finds none. His parents feel they have not been honored as states the 4th commandment. Yet so mundane and disconnected are these apparitions that they cannot see Guido is in a crisis or that he needs help. They cannot communicate with him on any real level. His mother for the second time complains of the tears he made her shed and his father oddly remarks of how low the ceiling of his tomb is. An odd insistence of vanity from someone who is supposed to be in heaven, so estranged is Guido from his parents that they are but ghosts in this film, especially, his mother who we will see is strictly religious and Guido has found through his life that he cannot agree with the monoliths the Catholic Church has constructed.
At the dinner scenes we get questions posed to Guido by who I like to call the Annoying American Intellectual. These questions very closely mirror the cause of his isolation. He asks two questions of which religion are the focus the first being: “Is Italy a fundamentally Catholic country?” and a girl gives the immediate stock response “Yes,” then the man she’s with says “Shut up, and eat your ice cream,” it’s a funny and great illustration of the religious ambiguity that pulses throughout this film. Guido doesn’t answer and the question remains hanging in the air. He then later asks in his staggered Italian “Could you create something meaningful and important on demand, for example, on commission from the Pope?” The idea of creating on demand in the context of this story is ludicrous because Guido can’t even make a film about his own life much less one someone tells him to. His answer, however, is more telling “I’ll think about it,” He says and that’s what he does through the whole film is think about his life. While talking to the Cardinal he drifts off and thinks about were his rift with the Church began. But before that at the dinner the entertainer asked if they could read his mind and they saw but three words: Ana Nisi Masa.
We go back to Guido’s childhood; he is at an age where he still runs away from baths. The women of the house all chase him down and throw him into the vat of wine with the other children. Later, when the lights are out, and a girl, likely his cousin, gets up and tells him to be alert because “Tonight is the night when the eyes on the painting move. And where the eyes go that’s where the treasure is.” And they start their incantation ‘Asa Nisi Masa,’ this scene is important not only because of the way it reflects on ‘The Harem Scene’ but because of the only intangible thing Guido ever believes in, “if I say these words the picture will move its eyes and we’ll be rich” it seems to say. Maybe this set up lead to his disillusion with the Church but Fellini does most definitely illustrate a turning point there as well.
In the interview with the Cardinal Fellini lays out in black and white what Guido thinks about religion. Guido says he wanted to examine the traditional Catholic Italian upbringing because he felt it had created many ‘complexes’ in the people. The Cardinal states simply “I don’t believe that film is the right medium to explore such issues. You mix spiritual love and sex too easily.” The Cardinal never directly answers Guido’s concern about the Church and never asks him why he might feel that way. His interest is a mass one because he has achieved stature he is beyond the people. The only statement he makes close to addressing Guido’s film in this meeting, he will make one in the second, is that “Film has the power to educate and to corrupt.” Guido believes the same about the Church and it is reinforced when he sees a woman walking down the hill that looks just like Saraghina.
We again flashback this time Guido is a grade schooler and at recess all his friends yell out to him “Saraghina!” There is a moment of indecision outside the school a statue of the pope is framed in the foreground overshadowing Guido, he then runs towards his friends and Saraghina. Leaving the statue shows Guido turning on religion’s inflexibility and conservatism. When the boys arrive at the beach they give Saraghina their money and watch her Rumba. The party ends when the priests show up, everyone gets away but Guido. Here Fellini has his fun with the clergy speeding up the film while they chase Guido making it seem like an absurd version of the Keystone Kops. When he is punished Guido hears the same things he’s been hearing all his life and that’s why we hear them in duplicate and triplicate “How shameful,” “It’s a mortal sin” and so on. Then at confession he is further pushed by being asked “Didn’t you know Saraghina’s the devil?” which is all part of the wonderful psychology of Early-20th Century Catholicism telling kids the Devil himself walks among us. And that’s pretty much ends Guido’s connection to the Catholic Church. So much so that he went back to see Saraghina right away he saw nothing Satanic there only beauty. The logic works: The Church put a dunce cap on me and a “Shame” sign on my back; the prostitute danced for me, it’s obvious.
We then find Guido talking to his producer and the producer says: “If you want to make a film about the Catholic conscience in Italy you have to do it on a higher intellectual and philosophical level…these are just detached memories.” This statement not only puts down Guido as an artist but says that his struggle within the Church and against the Church to find an identity doesn’t matter and that the public would only be able to accept the film if it were more of an allegory and less personal. It’s a blow saying his search for meaning through film and relationships has not mattered.
Guido is called out of his sauna for another discussion with the Cardinal. On the way out Guido faces a parade of people who want help with one thing or another that they want to ask the Cardinal. Again, irony creeps in as everyone thinks Guido can help them but he doesn’t know what he’s doing. When he arrives the Cardinal has a towel hung in front of him putting him in silhouette and creating a bizarre confessional. He then gives Guido some advice which is in essence condemning him saying “There is no salvation outside the Church. Outside the church there is no salvation. Everything outside the City of God belongs to the City of the Devil.” Guido who has abandoned the Church has now been convicted.
“He can’t communicate,” says one of the women on the way up to the space tower. And therein lies his sentence. Guido has removed himself from the Church and in essence has been excommunicated. They are visiting a structure to something that will never be reached, the space tower, a cinematic Tower of Babel. Guido’s alienation at this point is so extreme it’s obvious he’ll find some way to get out of making this movie.
This film ends in a circus-like parade which upon first seeing it seemed very facile. Looking at it from this point-of-view, however, I think it works. This is not an evil 16th-Century Excommunication I’m talking about but one that happens every being that the person doesn’t care to go back and the Church isn’t crying. In this light the ending is rather happy Guido having quit the film has stripped himself of the falsehoods in his life and is just going with the flow as is shown by the parade.