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Savant Review:

Criterion 140
1963 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 138 (145)m. /
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Barbara Steele
Cinematography Gianni Di Venanzo
Production Designer Piero Gherardi
Art Direction Vito Anzalone, Piero Gherardi
Film Editor Leo Cattozzo
Original Music Nino Rota
Writing credits Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi
Produced by Angelo Rizzoli
Directed by Federico Fellini

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

With a reader response from Gregory Nicoll (see bottom of page).

is one of those acknowledged masterpieces that's so established, so well known, that it really matters not what a DVD reviewer like Savant has to say about it. It makes most of the top ten lists of the best pictures of all time, even the Vatican's.

However, being a mainline Art film from one of the world's most recognizable Art film directors, is not an easy row to hoe for the casual filmgoer, or anyone so young not to remember when Art films by Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni were regarded as untouchably perfect. Not just because it's in Italian, and you have to read the subtitles. Nobody wants to admit it, but the majority of filmgoers out there won't see foreign films because their idea of a good time is watching a movie, not reading one.

Savant was shown in film school, where the only acceptable response to it was unquestioning worship. That was my brainwashing on certain films (Citizen Kane, etc.) and as a result I really have to admit that I simply don't have any strong opinions on them that are going to go head-to-head with the established wisdom. The best I can hope to do with Fellini's opus, is to pitch my analysis at someone who's never seen it, and isn't interested in making blind faith the first step toward appreciating it.

It's a fun picture, honest.


Celebrated filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is surrounded, attended, patronized, seduced, and in general overwhelmed by endless armies of assistants, producers, writers, agents, and prospective actressess, all of whom want to know about his new picture and what's in it for them. On good terms with this wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), Guido clearly is at odds about everything to do with both his movie and his life; and he keeps ruminating over childhood scenes and various fantasies involving his family and the women he's known. Outside Rome, a gigantic set representing a futuristic rocketship launching pad is being erected for him to film, but Guido doesn't have the slightest idea of what to do with it, a fact that might drive him crazy, if he had the time.

First off, it's important to know that Art films like weren't delivered by Angels from Heaven - Fellini is a gifted filmmaker from outside the crass Hollywood system, yes, but he worked in a very structured Italian system, where money and the bottom line were every bit as important as they are here. By Hollywood standards, these pictures were made relatively cheaply - European stars gained great fame, but didn't command lofty salaries. That's why so many defected to Hollywood, the first chance they got. More often than not, production value was provided by the skill of the camera and direction alone; most of is filmed on found locations. There are impressive sets, but even the huge construction for the finale is mostly a Tinkertoy framework of scaffolding.

Fellini knows that human bodies and faces make the most interesting scenery. His visual style places his star Mastroianni in a human landscape, where long and fluid camera moves become Guido's point of view, constantly being bombarded with people trying to get his attention. These shots, often imitated by perfume commercials or parodied by Woody Allen, are what immediately identify the Fellini look. For over ten years (and 8 and ½ films, hence the title) he'd been making superior dramas, that didn't always look so distinctively similar.  1  In La Dolce Vita, Fellini broke through to a storytelling style that verged on the fantastic, with strange visions (like giant Madonna statues flying through the air) easily blending the already exotic reality of modern Rome with personal inner visions. Here in 8 1/2 , the fantasy world dominates. The 'literal' narrative is simply an endless succession of distractions and aggravations while Guido tries to figure out how to express himself in his next film; but the fantasy narrative takes us through Guido's entire unconscious dream life. Some of it is nightmarish, as with the opening traffic horror, where he's trapped in a smoking car, but most of the fantasies are autobiographical memories of a magical childhood, lost relatives, and occasional visions of dream women.

Because Guido is a film director, he's engulfed by beautiful, exotic people on all sides, constantly. He's the center of attention for dozens of hopefuls who use any and all means to try to become important in his creative life. In this free-flowing circus of faces, we see their frustration and their tricks. His wife Luisa is patient but considers him too immature to handle all this adulation, particularly the attentions of the obviously available Gloria (Barbara Steele) and Carla (Sandra Milo). Claudia (Claudia Cardinale)'s beaming, non-assertive innocence may be just another female trap to snare his attention - but she's so much like one of his inner fantasies, Guido can hardly tell the difference. Trapped between pimp-like agents, molly-coddling producers, and straight-talking writers, Guido's just too fragmented and dizzy to come up with a coherent movie about anything.

So is essentially Fellini's self-portrait, a circus-like fantasy that expresses the unique weirdness of being a celebrated genius that the whole world seems to want a part of. Fellini doesn't seem to be complaining about his state of affairs, but rather, honestly acknowledging that this is just how it is for, 'sigh', such a wonderboy as himself. An egocentric person tries to pretend that everyone they know, is a bit player in a movie where they are the star. Fellini's fame makes everyone he comes in contact with act like bit players, depending on him to behave the star, so naturally there's a strong tendency to become egocentric! Take the Fellini test: do you imagine everyone you know dancing to your tune in long lines, as if Life were a big party convened to celebrate You? I wish.

is interesting because Guido (like Fellini) is fighting the riptide towards egomania as strongly as he can. He's helped by the honesty of his plain-speaking wife, his candidly critical writer, and his own conscience in the form of truths speaking in his fantasies. When Guido just gives up and turns the visit to his rocketship set into a big-top parade, the film does come together as an abstract of Fellini's professional, spiritual, and mental condition - it is a big cinematic self-portrait.

Auteurist-leaning film critics of the '60s, the kind for whom the artistic development of the cinema was of the utmost importantance, naturally ate up this ode to self-absorbtion with whipped cream and a cherry on top. In a philosophy that stated that the director's true mission was to express his visionary inner soul, Fellini became the pinnacle of achievement. Auteurism followed the notion that real directors simply remade the same story over and over again, searching for the perfect expression of their unique vision, like reincarnated souls reliving Life, hoping to eventually get it right.

This narrow and elitist view of what moviemaking is about, has since been fairly thoroughly trounced. It has a certain grandeur to it that further hypes the adulation heaped on great directors. Obviously, the majority of film directors around the world never begin to achieve the kind of control to allow them to express their inner selves - they're just trying to tell a story and stay employed. When a big Hollywood director was perceived as having developed a certain style, or as repeating the same themes, Auteurist critics lauded them with praise the directors couldn't understand. When people like Hawks and Walsh and Ford were analyzed as artistes, struggling to reach Nirvana, they just scratched their heads and laughed.

Besides elevating the likes of Jerry Lewis to sainthood, this attention can be said to have had a negative effect on the movies by the older greats. Alfred Hitchcock became acutely aware of his perceived 'genius', and absorbed himself with Art-film games. It's great that The Birds works on the level of a shaggy-dog thriller, because at its base, it is an Antonioni-style meditation on complacency and alienation, with the Birds serving as a manifestation of the unpredictable and unexplainable forces that bring chaos into our lives. A great thesis paper maybe, but eventually it gets a bit thick.

After those 8 .5 earlier films that made him famous, Fellini seems to be admitting in this picture that he has nowhere to go, that he's run out of ideas. Critics of Hollywood periodically decry the commercial barriers that keep ordinary directors from making anything but junk. The later career of Fellini is a graceful, yet repetitive series of films, all using the style and format of : a magical, almost dreamlike or romanticized world, where inner visions and fantasies have merged with mundane reality. Juliet of the Spirits is like an acid trip, Toby Dammit a nightmare, and Amarcord a wistful memory. But none probed new stylistic expressions beyond . The question is whether Fellini did indeed find the form of expression that best suited him, or if he instead hit a creative wall, and simply continued working in a benign variation of the commercial rut in which Hollywood directors toiled.

It's getting to be that reviewing another top-end Criterion disc is a monotonous exercise in praise. In their lavish DVD of , you simply can't get a better introduction to Fellini or his masterpiece. The 16:9 image has been digitally scrubbed, and looks luminous and free of anything remotely resembling a ding or dirt. The mono sound is fresh and clear, and the subtitles have been reworked from the theatrical originals. The feature transfer on disc One of this set includes a commentary by Gideon Bachmann, a film critic, and Antonio Monda, a NYU film professor. Terry Gilliam introduces the picture in an interview-like essay that is polished and entertaining. It contains so many key clips from the film that it shouldn't be seen before the movie and would be better titled, 'Spoiler Introduction'. The 1963 trailer rounds out disc one, which sits in the case alongside a 22 page booklet with writings by Fellini, critic Tulio Kezich, and film teacher and writer Alexander Sesonske.

Disc two has two lengthy documentaries: Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert, and Fellini: A Director's Notebook, directed by Fellini himself. Interviews are taken with Sandra Milo, Lina Wertmuller, and Vittorio Storaro. There are also two galleries of rare photos and production stills.

In the end, is enjoyable for the same reason all pictures are - the people are interesting and glamorous, and Italian films of this era seem to be populated by the most beautiful women ever to walk the Earth. There's also a constantly changing musical feeling to the picture, that goes well with Gianni de Venzano's sleek camerawork - the picture has a surface you can enjoy without understanding a bit of what's happening, which, admittedly, is how Savant related to for a long, long time.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Heaps. See above.
Packaging: Two discs in double keep case
Reviewed: December, 2001


1. Although most certainly sound distinctive: one bar of Nino Rota music and you can be pretty sure you're watching a Fellini picture.

Reader response from Gregory Nicoll, 12/13/01:

Glenn, Loved your piece on. Like you, I grew up with film school professors to whom this and Citizen Kane were unimpeachable masterpieces, and I feel vaguely uncomfortable trying to justify this to today's kids who hold no such opinion and don't "get" those films. One thing worth mentioning: All my film school teachers (at three different colleges) maintained that the movie's title represented Fellini's hat size, and thus symbolized "what was going on inside his head." I'd never heard the "eight-and-a-half previous films" till I red your piece. Cheers! -- Gregory Nicoll (Hat size 7-and-a-half)

Savant note: Uh oh. Is my 8.5 films info (the half-a-film film being The Temptation of Dr. Antonio segment of Boccaccio '70) bogus? Help will be appreciated here!

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