A review on Fellini’s “8 ½” and “Juliet of The Spirits”
By: Masood Sabet
Milan Kundera in his most celebrated book, Immortality, writes: “There are certain paths in life which from the very beginning place a person face to face with great immortality […] Uncertain. It is true, even improbable, yet undeniably possible: They are the paths of artists and statesmen.” [i] Statesmanship and fame have a natural bond analogous to that of a system of cause and effect. No statesman will deny that what drives them through their daunting endeavors is what they articulate as “legacy”, what they leave behind. The bigger their legacy, the higher their place on the ladder of immortality, but there’s no denial that they’re all on the same ladder. But what about artists? Is this insatiable desire for immortality what motivates them for creation? Man’s longing for immortality is in fact no more than his fear of death. In all filmmakers, Woody Allen is the one who’s expressed his fear, anxiety and despair in the face of death, which goes all the way back to his early works, at an age when “you are young and life is long”, and death is hardly more than a literary tool in the hands of romanticists. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live in my apartment.”[ii]
In another view, the works of an artist could be construed as an attempt to seek or reveal the truth. This stance on art, however, has hitherto achieved little more than “art for ideology” and propaganda art. Besides, it wouldn’t be the product of a well-informed mind to take the artist’s perception of truth for truth itself. On this it is worth quoting Pablo Picasso: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that’s given to us. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”[iii] The very moment the artist picks up the pen (or brush for that matter), he’s set out to create a work any generation at any time could relate to. Defining a clear-cut methodology to achieve this immortality, just like any other form of subjective reality, is becoming ever more elusive. But observation and experience could provide us with a theoretical framework which guarantees the immortality of a work of cinema to a remarkable extent; a theme free of entanglement of time and location, relating to human aesthetics, and a significant form. None of these criteria has anything to do with the creator’s perception of truth. However, they do enable the artist to make his/her art relatable to collective human experience, regardless of their position on the axes of time and space. Carl G. Jung, by discovering the revolutionary concept of collective unconscious, has somehow illuminated the road to immortality for the artist. Jung by introducing the idea of “Archetypes” has placed the cornerstone for a thorough scrutiny into human mind. Fellini, in his two immortal pictures, 8 ½ and Juliet of the spirits, has consciously and masterfully taken advantage of archetypes to produce a cinematic rendition of the “inside world”. By a closer look into these two celebrated works of the Italian maestro, we can observe that what the artist gains in the end is much greater than what he had consciously set out for (truth or immortality) in the first place. The artist creates to redeem himself. He’s seeking salvation. Setting out for immortality is not what accounts for a successful artistic endeavor but seeking redemption is a significant driving force which propel the work towards immortality.
8 ½ is the story of a filmmaker who, midway of his new project, can’t remember what he’s making anymore. 8 ½ is Fellini’s self-reflection. Guido, Marcello Mastroianni, has a vague image in his mind of his protagonist: “He wants to grab everything and devour it. He can’t give up a single thing. He changes direction every day for fear of missing the right path. He’s slowly bleeding to death. This is how it starts. Then he meets this girl at the springs […] She’s beautiful, but young and ancient, a child, and yet already a woman, authentic and radiant. There’s no doubt that she’s his salvation.” Claudia (Cardinale), dressed in white, who Guido meets first at the springs is the materialization of this mystical and enigmatic woman, who evidently represents the Anima of the filmmaker. It’s Claudia, who in the end, by contributing to Guido’s growth, makes him able to finish his film. Is response to all Guido’s concerns, Claudia repeatedly says: “He doesn’t know how to love.” Guido, who has lost all hope to finish his film, desperate under the massive pressure of the producer’s demands and reporters’ difficult questions, decides to leave the film halfway through. But suddenly, in a moment of creative inspiration the page turns. Guido (Fellini?) lines up all the characters of the film (his life?) all in white: the father, the mother, the priest, the teacher, the wife, the mistress, … and himself as a young boy in a white cape, playing a flute, marching forward leading a group of clowns. All are forgiven on Guido’s judgment day. He is not a victim of other’s sins anymore. This is his great leap from entitlement to responsibility.
A strict catholic upbringing is presented as a primary culprit in development of all Guido’s inner conflicts and the illicit tendencies he has always tried to deny and suppress, or at least keep them concealed from others. The old Cardinal’s voice still rings in his eras: “Salvation is only possible through church.” A constant sense of guilt has been burdening him since he was only a boy, without him even knowing what sins he had committed. One of the first women in Guido’s life was his first encounter with this perplexing experience. La Saraghina, the half-crazy middle-aged woman, treats little Guido and his friends with a dance in exchange for some paltry contribution. The woman has long been ostracized by the society for her “sinful” past, but by church and its followers in the town, La Saraghina is not a mere sinner, but a materialization of sin itself. Sinfulness, symbolized in Guido’s black hat and cape, was bestowed to him not by La Saraghina, but by his parents and church’s associates. They punish little Guido by making him wear a paper cone hat and write on a piece of paper on his back: shame, a tremendous burden he carries like a cross, a dark cloud which has cast a shadow over his whole life. Guido’s forgiving of everybody is aimed eventually at forgiving himself. He accepts everyone for whoever they are and whatever they have done to him in the hope that his wife (Luisa) could find the same generosity in her heart to forgive Guido. He wants his wife to go back to him. Guido, on this precarious journey of his has another help: Jean Lumier, the movie critic, who represents the archetype of Wise Man, a character brought from the “outside” world to assist Guido with his critical insights; a job arguably well done.
Fellini’s life, personal and professional, is riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. For “La Dolce Vita”, Vatican firmly denounces him and the Pope himself calls Fellini “The Public Sinner”.[iv] It’s unrealistic to deny any association between Vatican’s renunciation and the film’s incredible success at The Oscars. Fellini lived in a time in which the majority of influential intellectuals and artistic circles overtly expressed their progressive ideas, most of which inherently opposing the values church represented and upheld. Fellini’s contemporaries in Italian cinema are no exception, so it might come as a surprise when we hear he had been a faithful voter to Christian Democratic party and had openly expressed his opposition to May 1968 movement in France. The Wise Man on the other hand, provides the filmmaker with a legitimate explanation: “Are you optimistic enough to believe that in this confused and chaotic world, some people’s ideas are clear enough that they belong exclusively to the Left or to the Right.” And again, in another scene he says to Guido: “You set out to denounce, but you end up an accomplice.” About the end of the film, when bombarded with hard questions about God, nuclear bomb, love, pornography and other highly complex issues, Guido refuses to answer and takes refuge under the table.
Fellini in 8 ½ bares himself naked with whatever he believes in and traits and tendencies he himself is not very proud of. Fellini’s ultimate objective with 8 ½ is self-revelation and its fruit: redemption. In fact, this is the conflict the film lacks in the beginning which almost brings it to its knees. The film critic in his first dialogue with Guido days: “On first reading it’s evident that the film lacks a central conflict, or philosophical premise.” In order to achieve this, Guido must bestow his most precious possession. In the end, the lost piece of puzzle falls into the place and a sharper image of the protagonist is developed before Guido’s eyes; he’s been standing in front of a mirror all along.
Fellini, after this revealing inward venture has yet another debt on his soul. He needs to seek the forgiveness of an earthly god of his: his wife. In the path to redemption from his sins, he is to create another cinematic redemption story, this time for his wife (Giulietta Masina). “Juliet of the Spirits” is born right after 8 ½. However, by seeing the film it transpires that the story of Juliet’s salvation is in fact another manifestation of Fellini’s inner conflicts. Juliet of the spirits with a similar theme (redemption) and a different protagonist is still exploring the dark recesses of Guido’s mind. Fellini’s unconscious has used the story of Juliet’s salvation as a vessel to seek his own. And tell me if it isn’t the essence of history of art.
Juliet at the peak of her midlife crisis suspects that his husband has been having an affair with a young model. The only sign of the mistress in the film is her name and her voice we once hear from the other end of the telephone line. Gabriella’s physical absence in the film is an effective strategy to keep the spotlight on Juliet and her inner world. She’s facing a decisive and horrendous dilemma: to persist on her ascetic way of life in accordance with her pious upbringing or succumb to the temptation of adopting a hedonistic lifestyle, following the suit of her newfound neighbour, Suzy. Conflicts of this kind are ubiquitous in the film. On the night of her wedding anniversary, Juliet and some of her guests hold a séance. Two presences are sensed by the participants: first Iris and then shortly after, Olaf. The former seems to be amiable, but the latter expresses massive animosity and aggression. These manifestations are portents of two antithetical worlds. Iris in Greek mythology is the name of the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the Olympian gods, and Olaf (originally in ancient Norse) means ancestral heritage. Iris advises Juliet to follow Suzy’s lead, whereas Olaf represents a strict catholic rearing, and constantly reminds Juliet of the flames of the Hell. The next day Juliet meets with her doctor on the beach, who condescendingly derides all these “supernatural” experiences: “Tell your husband to make love to you more often. There’s no better cure for evil spirits and toothache.” Subsequently, in the very same setting, she first meets Suzy.
An important archetype which frequently appears in Juliet’s story is The Horse. A pair of white ceramic horses can be seen in the background of most interior scenes in Juliet’s house. However, this symbolic use of horses is mainly reflected in her dreams. Horses frequently appear in Juliet’s dreams and each time in different forms and states. Horse in Jungian psychology is an archetype which represents suppressed basic instinctive desires. This archetype “has been closely linked with our instinctive, primal drives … could signify instincts out of control … evokes intense feelings and unbridled passion instead of cool, collected thought… the flesh and blood incarnation of powerful forces bottled up within us that we wish we had the guts to saddle and ride.”[v] This archetype first appears in Juliet’s dream in a very grim state. Two emaciated horses with another one dead and decaying. In the contrast, in one of her later dreams a beautiful and adorned horse with a majestic mane enters her room.
Animus is another archetype introduced through Jose, the bullfighter friend of Juliet’s husband’s. Jose is a man of romance and danger; the two things Juliet has been deprived of the most. “It’s not the sword that kills the bull, but our magic in evading him.” At this moment, Giorgio, imitating a bull, playfully attacks Juliet, and she amateurishly throws herself in Jose’s arms. She still has a long way to go to match the agility of a matador. Juliet’s childhood catholic school teacher, with his bearded face and piercing look, is another ever-present figure in Juliet’s dreams. In one of these recurring dreams, little Juliet is acting on stage for a school play. She’s playing a saint who refuses to deny the Christ and is set aflame alive as punishment. Juliet’s salvation is the moment she unties her own self as a child, who’s tightly bound to a blazing bed. After this redeeming dream, a cheerful Juliet goes outside, and we all know where she’s headed; wherever she wants!
Iris reminds Juliet of her grandfather’s young mistress, also played by Sandra Milo (Suzy). In Juliet’s childhood memories, her grandfather, yelling and ranting, storms in and interrupts the school play. Although shunned by church and his family, the grandfather gets on a primitive aeroplane and flies away with his young beautiful mistress by his side. In Juliet’s dream, her grandfather returns to accompany her in this pivotal journey of hers. “Let’s say goodbye to those boring people.” And then they wave goodbye to the massive crowd of ghosts and figures who have been wreaking havoc in Juliet’s mind; the clairvoyants and their crowds, her doctor and his companions, her pleasure-seeking neighbours, her friend Laura, who’s killed herself for love, Jose, the Spanish bullfighter, priests and their congregations, and others. It’s only her grandfather who stays with her in the end.
Sandra Milo, who plays Suzy and Iris, is the one who appears in 8 ½ as Guido’s mistress. The juxtaposition of Juliet and Suzy is highly reminiscent of that of Freud’s Madonna-Whore complex. And this is Fellini’s unconscious which casts a shadow over the theme of Juliet’s salvation. Madonna-Whore complex, which appears in more severity in people with strict religious upbringing, makes men put all women of their lives in two opposing categories: Saints and Whores. Freud writes: “Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.”[vi] Love for such a man is divided into heavenly and earthly. The former is glorious and innocent and the latter, burdened with one of the seven deadly sins: Lust. The image of “Mother” is man’s first contact with the concept of heavenly love. In one of Guido’s dreams, he sees his mother who approaches him for a motherly kiss. This innocent expression of love however, in a sudden twist, turns erotic. Guido attempts so hard to push the woman away, but what he sees in front him is not his mother anymore, it’s Luisa, his wife. Juliet doesn’t belong to any of these extremes anymore. She’s neither a Madonna (her old self-image) nor a Whore (her neighbour in Juliet’s perception). She’s now the woman Fellini has been seeking in his dreams. A woman who he could love and make love to.
[i] Kundera, Milan, (1991). Immortality, London, Faber and Faber Limited, page 55
[ii] Lax, Eric, (1975). On being Funny, Woody Allen and Comedy, New York, Charterhouse, page 232
[iii] H. Barr Jr. Alfred, (1980) Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, New York, Arno Press
[iv] Kezich, Tullio, (1987). Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, page 276
[v] Irwin, Chris, (2001). Horses Don’t Lie, New York, Ingram Publisher Services US
[vi] Freud, Sigmund, (1912). The most prevalent form of degradation in erotic life, Pp. 40-50