8½ • Film About Film

Greenscreening Series #29

April 14, 2023

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This Time on Greenscreening

(1963) directed by Federico Fellini



One of the greatest films about film ever made, Federico Fellini’s marks the moment when the director’s always-personal approach to filmmaking fully embraced self-reflexivity, pioneering a stream-of-consciousness style that darts exuberantly among flashbacks, dream sequences, and carnivalesque reality, and turning one man’s artistic crisis into a grand epic of the cinema. Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a director whose new project is collapsing around him, along with his life, as he struggles against creative block and helplessly juggles the women in his life—including Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, and Claudia Cardinale. An early working title for was The Beautiful Confusion, and Fellini’s masterpiece is exactly that: a shimmering dream, a circus, and a magic act. -Criterion

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Why ?

Recall from our last edition that in 1960, the French New Wave took the film world by storm, with a new emphasis on personal filmmaking. This no doubt influenced Federico Fellini's decision to make .

By 1962, Fellini had directed six feature films and three shorts, or roughly 7.5 films. He considered his next film to be his 8th and a half film (hence the title).

Fellini started his career as a screenwriter for Italian Neorealist filmmakers, contributing to the script of the iconic Rome Open City (1945). As he graduated to directing films in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fellini broke away from Neorealism to create a more personal and expressive form of cinema. He made several classics in the 1950s, including La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957) two absolutely terrific films that are worth your time. By the time he released one of his biggest hits, La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini was considered one of the top directors in the world, and certainly the best Italian director.

But he hit a creative block, unable to figure out what to film next. This block extended even into the first day on set, when he gave a warm-up speech to the crew. As he later recalled:

“I was in a no exit situation. I was a director who wanted to make a film he no longer remembers. And lo and behold, at that very moment everything fell into place. I got straight to the heart of the film. I would narrate everything that had been happening to me. I would make a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make.” - Federico Fellini, 1988

Fellini launched head-first into making a film about making a film. He turned his star, Marcello Mastroianni, into a stand-in for himself. He poured his creative frustrations, challenges, and inspirations into the film's story. And the film at the center of 's story is ultimately the film that we, the audience, are watching.


Recall at the very start of this series, we began with a film about filmmaking: Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. is a great companion piece to that film, as here we have Guido aspiring to make an ambitious, sweeping film that touches on the human experience, only to lose his way in the process and resign himself to a subject he knows better. But Fellini and Sturges are tackling similar themes in completely different ways.

’s greatness is not merely that it’s autobiographical and self-reflexive. Fellini also experimented with how to depict the various planes of consciousness: present, memory, and dreams or fantasy.

Filmmakers had done this before. Back in the 1920s, two of the key figures of Surrealism, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, co-directed the films Un Chien Andalou (1927) and L’Age d’Or (1931). These films were revolutionary, rejecting all of the established rules for realist narrative, instead seeking to shock and provoke the audience with audacious images, like a razor cutting an eye, or ants crawling out of a human hand. They’re brilliant films, but they’re also difficult to watch, and almost nonsensical to the median viewer.

*Un Chien Andalou*

Fellini’s film is much less abstract and obtuse. He used established film techniques in fresh and vibrant ways. It’s fairly clear which state you’re in - a fantasy, memory, or free association - even though they often intrude upon one another. The flashbacks and dream sequences are fairly seamlessly blended into the narrative, drawing you into a character’s inner thoughts, emotions, and imagination, rather than simply provoking a visceral response. Fellini was searching for a deeper way of representing the human experience, and in this way, he was stretching the possibilities of the medium, not unlike the great modernist writers James Joyce, Virginia Woolf had done with the novel in the early 20th Century.

Look no further than the opening sequence of , a dream sequence in which Guido is stuck in a traffic jam. The cars surrounding him have symbolic importance, echoing his fame and his struggle with his relationships: the faceless audience in the bus, and the lustful couple, among others. Guido’s car begins to flood with exhaust, and he escapes just in time and floats away, only to be lassoed in by a colleague. The dream sequence captures Guido’s emotional state: he’s trapped by everything in his life, beginning to suffocate, and though he’s trying to escape, his bound by his obligations.


In the years immediately following its release, Fellini's helped launch the New Italian Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, influencing a generation of filmmakers who were looking for new ways to explore the changing social and cultural landscape of Italy. Fellini’s use of surreal imagery, non-linear narrative structure, and rich symbolism inspired a new wave of filmmakers who sought to break away from the conventions of neorealism and create a more personal and experimental form of cinema. The hallmark films of the New Italian Cinema, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968) were all influenced by Fellini’s innovative style and thematic concerns.

also inspired countless directors around the world, including Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, who have all cited it as a major influence on their work. Its legacy can be seen in the numerous films that have paid homage to it or borrowed from its style, and in the continuing fascination with its themes and imagery.

To this day, continues to thrill critics and filmmakers alike, tying for 31st in Sight and Sound’s 2022 Critics Poll.


What to Watch For

Much like Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, is an incredibly rich film that rewards multiple viewings and close study - too much for this newsletter.

You'll probably notice the dubbing in the film is frequently awful. First of all, overdubbing was common in Italian films at the time. Fellini leveraged this to interesting effect here, as he had his actors improvise their lines on set and then overdubbed dialogue later that often contradicted what was said on set. What does this do? One interpretation is that this implies that his characters (and the audience) might be mishearing what others are saying, or that what people mean to say isn't always what they communicate, both of which are certainly true to life.


Also pay close attention to what Fellini does with:

  • The women surrounding Guido. Who are they, what do they represent? What other images accompany the women in the story?
  • The circus. This was one of Fellini's favorite images throughout his career. Life is a circus, a filmmaker is a ringmaster
  • The set being built in the background of many shots. I'm including a piece below where a set designer discusses the meaning of this structure.



Further Viewing

  • La Strada (1954), directed by Federico Fellini
  • Nights of Cabiria (1957) directed by Federico Fellini
  • La Aventurra (1960) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
  • All That Jazz (1979) directed by Bob Fosse

Learn More About The French New Wave

There are some excellent essays in the Criterion edition of the film:

Norman Holland on

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