Book Reviews

The Difficult Film of Our Lives

eight and half

Even in his dreams, the film-maker Federico Fellini couldn’t have things the way he wanted them. Here Nico Mensinga reflects on one of Fellini’s greatest films, and what it can tell us about dissatisfaction

There’s a quote that I love, from Orson Welles – who somehow managed to direct what many claim is the best film ever made, aged just twenty-six: Citizen Kane. That’s the film he’s best remembered for, but he preferred a film of his called Chimes at Midnight. He said, ‘If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I’d offer up.’ So now I’d like to borrow from Mr. Welles, and say that if there were one film I’d play to represent my life, it would be Federico Fellini’s 8½.

I guess I should get the boring bit out of the way and tell you what the film is about – then I can tell you what I think it’s really about. The film tells the story of a celebrated film director called Guido Anselmi, who is supposed to be directing his next movie. He’s being harrassed by his producer, his writer, his leading actress, everyone involved, to just get on with it and start shooting the film. But he can’t. He’s blocked. Or disillusioned. Or he’s lost his confidence. It’s a film about a man who does everything he can to avoid making a film. He retreats to a spa town, avoids his wife, does weird things with his mistress, remembers his childhood, talks to priests, has lots of dreams…

Is this all a bit self-indulgent? A bare-bones summary can cetainly make it seem that way. And indeed, before his critics, Fellini stands accused. David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, says Fellini’s films are ‘slick, mechanical stories, feeding on superficial feelings and uncritical of sentimentality or grand effects.’ Thomson has a point, particularly about the grand effects bit – especially in his later films Fellini does go a bit bonkers. His films can be bawdy and chaotic and feel like the worst aspects of the circuses that inspired him so much. And yet, somehow, 8½ includes and transcends Fellini’s own limitations – by being big enough that it accepts, ponders and refutes the criticisms that could be levelled against it. Guido (the alter ego of Fellini) says at one point, ‘I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could bury forever those dead things we all carry within ourselves. Instead, I’m the one without the courage to bury anything at all. When did I go wrong?’

Now, I’m hoping that breaks your heart a little. He wants to make an honest film. He wants to bury those dead things we carry within us. And yet, he can’t make that film! And here is the magic. By being honest about his confusions, his doubts, his egotism, his desire to run away, to avoid it all, to escape, escape, escape (is this ringing any bells? Please don’t tell me it’s just me!) by being honest about how hard it is to be honest, this guy who says he can’t make the film he wants to make is actually making the film he wants to make.


Not even in his dream can he manage it, to make things be only how we wants them to be: static, unchanging, with all the uncomfortable bits taken out


I write films, and that’s something I’ve been working on for quite a few years now. And with varying success, but I’ve definitely committed a lot of energy to it. And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some days I sit down to start writing, and want nothing more in the world than to chuck it all in. I think that has something to do with this disparity between the perfect, shining film I have in my head, and how – try as I might to translate that on to the page – it never quite comes out as planned. Which can be dispiriting, if I don’t have a wider appreciation of what’s at work here.

And here’s where it starts to fit into my life as a Buddhist. The first Noble Truth of the Buddha is dukkha, which is sometimes translated as suffering, or unsatisfactoriness. He’s interested in why we suffer, why we can’t quite seem to get everything sorted in our life – why, as in Mick Jagger’s flawless analysis, we can’t seem to get no satisfaction (but we try).

In 8½, there’s this great scene, a fantasy in which Guido congregates all the women in his life into one house: all his past loves, his wife, his mistress. And in his fantasy they are there to love him and do everything he wants – but he can’t make the fantasy stay still! The women start to do things that he doesn’t want them to do, they start to rebel. Not even in his dream can he manage it, to make things be only how we wants them to be: static, unchanging, with all the uncomfortable bits taken out.

Because that’s the point: we can’t make the world stand still, fix it just the way we want it. And that will cause us to suffer if we can’t accept that. At the same time, it’s right that we keep trying, like Guido, to make honest films, honest lives, even when we don’t think we have the courage to do so. It’s also right that we, like Guido, are honest about our desire to procrastinate and avoid and not make the difficult film of our lives – and in so doing, to make the difficult film of our lives.

To paraphrase the Tantric saying, we may only have a dirty cloth (our mind), but we still have to clean the dirty window. ■

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