Catholicism and Alienation in Fellini’s 8 1/2

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.

8 1/2 (1963, Criterion)

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.

8 1/2 (1963, Criterion)

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.

8 1/2 (1963, Criterion)

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.

Shyamalan Week: Things Worth Discussing

What I had wanted to do with this series of posts initially was dust off some old posts that had not yet seen their moment on this blog. That’s easy enough to do when your topic is immutable and not really on a current event. A fictitious conversation among myself, Hitchcock and Truffaut that I created after having read their series of interviews or my interpretation on the role Catholicism plays in Fellini’s 8 1/2 aren’t going to become less relevant in a few years time. A post I wrote, however, calling out a question M. Night Shyamalan was asked when doing press in Mexico for The Last Airbender kind of does.

If you want you can look for it, but my point in a nutshell is the phrasing of the question was leading, trying to get headlines and it received a much better response than it deserved. I wrote it mostly because the reporter seemed to be getting a pass and nothing said on that end was questioned. While perspective may have strengthened or weakened some of my points, it’s all past now.

The one line of the piece that really stuck out, in part because I had just read something similar, was a thought I didn’t think had occurred to me:

The bottom line is: We love movies. We write about them, we watch them and make them. If there weren’t M. Nights around making things at least worth discussing what would the there be? Nothing. So regardless of your opinion of his films as a whole, especially the more recent ones, let us not trash the man in all he does…

After Earth (2013, Sony)

I then finish speaking very specifically about the reporter incident so this is the only part of the conversation pertinent today. However, it is a significant one. The point I allude to is beyond a good/bad subjective interpretation. The fact of the matter is very rarely these days will you go to the multiplex and be shown something that causes any kind of discussion, much less debate. I kind of skirted around this when discussing post-movie conversations. However, what I didn’t address is that few of the movies we see even give you reason to talk at any length about them.

I also don’t think this is entirely the fault of the news cycle in film, which usually has little tolerance for the movie out this weekend but glorifies the teaser of the full trailer that’s going to drop next Tuesday. More often than not Shyamalan, whether you be a devotee, someone longing for him to do something amazing again or a skeptic; has left you with something to talk about. Even if he did break from his twisting ways there’s still a bit of “Wait, what?” to most of his films. Which is saying something because far too often we not only know too much going into a film but we also don’t get the unexpected nearly enough.

You can get milquetoast anywhere. You can get it in at least one major release 52 weeks a year. Whether it hits or misses, I’d much prefer a brash attempt to do something. Many people didn’t bother to see Cloud Atlas. It wasn’t in my Top 25 but one thing I could not get over was how much I loved the audacity of that movie. It was a hard sell but it seemed to be exactly what people always seem to say they want: something different. However, then different comes knocking and where are they all?

With so much cinema being use-once-and-destroy anyone who can consistently refuse to be ignored is worth taking note of. I haven’t seen much in the After Earth trailers and teasers that make it look as if it’s unlike anything I’ve seen. However, the fact that there were no advance screenings until the night before the soft open Thursday night shows, and as of this evening Rotten Tomatoes had no registered opinions on either side give me some hope that there’s something they’re sitting on that’s pretty good fodder at the very least, that stands out, even if it doesn’t quite hit as well as it wants to.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The International Scene (Part 6 of 17)

One can never really analyze all of international film during a given decade given the enormous scope and the amount of films released worldwide in any 10-year period. Certain decades have cinematic movements within given cultures; the 1960s are perhaps the most notable with the nouvelle vague influencing all of Europe. However, the 1980s is the time when foreign films started to have staying power. The art houses would soon be cropping back up and Americans started to be more willing to watch foreign films than ever before, even in the 60s watching Fellini and Truffaut was a sect of counterculturalism that was not universal.

The Academy Awards have always been a promotional event. The press has added a great deal of importance to them and the public have followed it making it consistently one of the highest viewed television programs every year. Thus, when the Academy, whoever they are, starts nominating foreign films in categories usually reserved for American films one needs to take notice.

In 1983 Fanny and Alexander, what was said at the time to be Ingmar Bergman’s last film, received six Oscar nominations and walked home with four of them. Ironically, the categories in which Bergman should’ve been given the awards (Director and Screenplay) were the ones they didn’t win.

Later on La Historia oficial an Argentine film was nominated for best screenplay in 1985. In 1988 Marcello Mastroianni was nominated for Best Actor in Dark Eyes and the screenplay for Au Revoir les enfants and the director of My Life as a Dog, Lasse Hallström, were nominated while Babette’s Feast won Best Foreign Language Film. Also, amongst the nominees was a great piece of Norwegian folklore that has been handed down over the generations called Ofelas.

Max von Sydow received an academy award nomination for his performance in Pelle the Conqueror which was in 1989, for a 1987 release. This was a film which won the Palm d’Or in Cannes, and it is truly one of the best films to come out of any country during the 1980s. It takes place at the turn of the century when Lasse (Von Sydow) and Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) arrive in Denmark from Sweden to try and find work for themselves. We follow their trials and tribulations that make us as the audience feel more and more sympathy for the characters as the film progresses. Part tragedy and part triumph, this is a beautiful film that rightly put Bille August on the map.

Of course, we also get Giuseppe Tornatore who’s one of the most talented directors in the world right now coming out with his first hit Cinema Paradiso. In France there was the cinema du look but the emerging nation of the 1980s was Brazil. 

Pixote, A Lei dos Mais Fraco (1982, HB Films)

While the film industry was beleaguered when the government cut off all funding for the arts during an economic crisis there were two big films that set the stage for the international success Brazil would enjoy in the 90s and 00s with films like O Quatrilho, Central Station and O Que e Isso Companheiro? (English title: Four Days in September), A Partilha and Bicho de Sete Cabeças. First, there was Pixote a powerful film about juvenile delinquents from the favelas of São Paulo, of which none were professional actors. It’s a gut-wrenching dramatic experience and an amazing piece of simulacrum; in a sense the Brazilian neo-realist film. The film is told in two parts: first, we see the minors and their struggles in the juvenile camp. Second, there’s a break and they escape and we see their life on the street. Hector Babenco, a naturalized Brazilian, struck home by portraying poverty and crime as well as bureaucratic corruption as it was never seen before in Brazil. It ever landed on many American top 10 lists.

Meanwhile, Arnaldo Jabor’s Eu Sei Que Eu Vou te Amar is a direct victim of the government’s cutting artistic funding and they had to work on practically no budget. This film demonstrates not only the power of editing but also of fine acting. There are only two actors in this film and they are great so much so that Fernanda Torres won Best Actress at Cannes in 1986. We meet the two main characters and they have a discussion and an argument about their relationship why they got divorced. There are flashbacks and a video monitor with the actors on them represents their inner-monologue. The dialogue in this film is fantastical. There’s a stream of poetry that come out through these inner-monologues that is just perfect and the arguments are intelligent and not just bickering. The film is absolutely riveting and is as the blurb describes “a psychological playground” that only suffers from the hallucinogenic end.

International cinema finally made its presence felt for good in the nation that influences the world. Whether negatively or positively most cinematic movements around the world are reactions to Hollywood, and the constant presence and acceptance of international cinema is a necessity to the vitality of American cinema.

61 Days of Halloween: All the Colors of the Dark

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

All the Colors of the Dark

All the Colors of the Dark (Shriek Show)

This is the kind of film that proves an axiom that is even more true of the giallo subgenre than it is of the horror as a whole. While some may disagree on the percentage the premise is this: only 10% of horror films are good, honestly and truly good.

The giallo subgenre has many trappings which make this equation at times even harder. This film follows the basic rules: there is a female protagonist, a secret buried in the past that if unearthed may lead to the identity of the killer which is a mystery.

This one just fails to work in many instances. One reason is that the web of conspirators against our lead is far too large. While it is good that a seemingly innocuous plot point may have cleared things up you wonder why the caller was so arcane and why the lead wasn’t curious enough.

The set up does work well. There is even some disturbing dream imagery that throws you off the scent a bit too much. However, the whole film becomes far too concerned with blurring the line between dream and reality. It makes you wonder if Fellini ever secretly regretted opening 8 1/2 in a dream though he can’t be held accountable for this kind of hackneyed use of a dream beginning.

The cinematography at times gets quite clumsy even for the surrealistic effect that is sought.

While the involvement of a cult in this story is interesting it is typically a move that ends up being a trap. For every positive scene that is introduced due to this aspect there is another which is less desirable that can come in to play because its hard to swallow how any are in this particular cult.

This film not only has dreams but it would appear visions which eventually are so exploited that they lose all effectiveness.