Commencing with the nightmarish traffic shot of silent, hemmed-in despair, and ever after that open to dream, suggestion and imagination, this is the culmination of a kind of cinema we’ll never see again. The era of Cinecitta, of oligarchic producers and fabulous set pieces and swirling arrays of extras, littered with personal recollection, wish fulfilments and fear. And total dubbing. And wholly personal, boyish, poetically inventive direction. I love that his critic-character, besides spouting an endless bilge of intellectual clichés (all of the time), states early on that his film is nothing more than a sequence of disconnected scenes — a film about filmmaking must employ self-criticism at some point, and when he talks about the failure of a scene with the dream-girl at the therapeutic springs, which we’ve just seen, well, it’s significant that it doesn’t deflate the narrative at all. And of course the critic hangs later on (how could he not see that coming).
The strong mover of the film is the sense of being carried by large events one’s complicit in creating, yet losing all willed responsibility for them; the alienating fear of losing the thread, to get off the moving train and admit to not knowing. The endless circus of faces asking for their parts or motivation, always a circular chaos of distractions crossing the line of sight or sweeping up from the corners. The continual demands. Fellini has a gift for controlling very large studio spaces, making them buzz and thrive with visual activity and eclectic peoples; contrasted of course with Guido’s unflappable calmness at the centre, the quiet heart of adriftness.
Along with childish masculinity, the distractions of feminine beauty, the injection of personal drama (the wife, the musical director, and of course the producer) and ceaseless directorial invention — this is a film that is ever erupting into dreamy fancy, or rather, which is more dream than real (hence honest about the illusions of cinema). The scenes in the steam baths, the profound nocturnality of the film contrasted with the washed out, over-exposed daylight scenes, the sheer improbable cohesiveness of it all… again, one has to resort to lists to distil the breadth of the scope, and avoid wanting to analyse everything (fear of women, fear of the Church) and just observe. The unspoken fear of failure, hungrily grasping at every (feminine) distraction. A great film about failure, in fact.
This is filmmaking on the genius side of Italian cinema: the Fellini method. Renown, production excess, cartoon humour, gorgeous dolls, a frenetic chaos externalised yet humanised by uncertainty and a search for clarity, or simple, useful and effective technique; and still to be able to say Yes, this is my (mad) method but there’s more to it than that… there are lies, begged indulgences, cover-ups and denials, tawdry lovers, common gossip, domestic despairs, staged resolutions and uneven or badly-paced ambiguities in life, and producers bearing gifts… So much personal free reign will never be given in a studio environment again; and such resultant chaotic artistry likewise.