- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

This season’s Broadway musical transplant is “Nine,” derived from the Tony Award-winner of 1982 and directed by Rob Marshall, who has a short but impressive track record for such endeavors. He made his feature debut in 2002 with the crackerjack movie version of Bob Fosse’s “Chicago.” Coincidentally, it took 27 years to reach the screen. If the new movie proves a success (it opens the day before Thanksgiving), Mr. Marshall may be justified in thinking of 27 as a lucky number.

“Nine” appeared almost 20 years after its movie-based inspiration, “Federico Fellini’s 8½,” which became one of the most esteemed foreign-language imports of the decade after opening in the summer of 1963. The clamor over “La Dolce Vita” three years earlier had created a tide of curiosity and even adoration that swelled beyond the art-house public and press.

The oddly titled “8½” did little to deflect this surge. Always receptive to the earlier Fellini films in the foreign-language category, Hollywood ramped up its enthusiasm with five Academy Award nominations. These included Fellini himself as director and co-screenwriter. He had to settle for another foreign-language film Oscar. His production and costume designer, Piero Gherardi, won a costuming award.

The elevated status of Fellini was written in the title itself: his name was not only above the title but inside it. This proprietary privilege lingered in subsequent Fellini pictures. At the time of “8½,” the pretense that he had invited spectators inside his creative subconscious, to witness Marcello Mastroianni as an obvious alter ego, Guido Anselmi, brood about a work in progress that was indistinguishable from the finished picture, accentuated the vogue for many admirers.

When more was learned about the production history of “8½,” the title — supposedly shorthand for the number of pictures Fellini had directed, including “8½” — acquired a lackluster connotation. It transpired that Fellini had abandoned an amusing title suggested by one of his co-writers: “Beautiful Confusion.” It would have been even wittier to exploit a scene in which Anselmi declares himself “utterly confused.” Movie posterity might have been enriched by “Federico Fellini’s Utterly Confused.”

The director’s count seemed arbitrary. He calculated his first feature, “Variety Lights,” as half a credit, since he co-directed with Alberto Lattuada. Both a 20-minute episode in “Love in the City” and a 60-minute episode in “Boccaccio ‘70” rated halfsies in his mind. He gave himself full credit for “The White Sheik,” “I Vitelloni,” “La Strada,” “Nights of Cabiria,” “Il Bidone,” “La Dolce Vita” and “8½.”

The collaborators on “Nine,” writer Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston, jumped playfully on another aspect of the scenario: the age of Guido as an adorable little scamp in memory sequences. Their protagonist, originally played by Raul Julia and now entrusted to Daniel Day-Lewis, alludes to himself as “40 going on 10.” In other words, a fanciful disinclination to mature links Mama’s boyhood darling with the glamorous and enviably stymied filmmaker, surrounded by fetching, smitten and forgiving womenfolk.

Lest we forget, the extended harem fantasy was the first sequence spoofed in another movie: Clive Donner’s sex farce “What’s New, Pussycat?,” written by Woody Allen. Refusing to quit while ahead, Mr. Allen later remade “8½” itself as “Stardust Memories.” Bob Fosse beat him to the lamentable punch a year earlier (1979) with “All That Jazz.” One can’t argue that Fellini failed to cast an insidious spell on American directors. Paul Mazursky succumbed almost a decade earlier, with the long-forgotten “Alex in Wonderland,” which recruited Fellini himself for a walk-on.

Curiously, “8½” seemed to anticipate something of Woody Allen’s comic persona in the figure of Guido’s pontificating co-writer, Daumier, played by a non-pro, French critic Jean Rougeul, who resembled a 60-something forecast of Our Guy. Daumier’s nonstop prattling remains one of the best running gags in the movie. The writers seem to have anticipated all possible reservations about “8½” and lavished them on Daumier.

The sense of Guido being waylaid by supplicants and dependents while seeking a respite from professional obligations is humorously contradicted in one of the “extras” prepared for a Criterion Collection edition in 2001: an interview with actress Sandra Milo, cast as the hero’s bimbo mistress Carla. She recalls how Fellini and his crew arrived on her doorstep to insist she relent and shoot a screen test. Guido’s passivity is a largely a pose.

Discouraged by a recent flop, Miss Milo had prematurely announced her retirement from the screen. The proactive visit changed her mind. She also fondly recalls a 17-year tenure as Fellini’s mistress, or one of them. She regrets having declined an offer to run off with the director at a later stage of the relationship.

Guido is forgiven his philandering just in time for the final promenade. This dispensation probably came harder in reality. Fellini’s status inflated with “La Dolce Vita,” but this full-blown encounter with wealth and celebrity also found him hanging out with a less sympathetic collection of characters.

Perhaps the most evocative aspect of “8½” is Gianni Di Venanzo’s versatile black-and-white cinematography, which flaunts shadings that range from borderline overexposure to borderline shadowland. Stunning contrasts between illuminated and shadowy subjects are unveiled in every depth of field. The virtuoso composition also flatters Pasquale de Santis’ skill as an operator — perhaps the fleetest and steadiest before a Steadicam rig was even invented. Their finesse probably depended on exceptional grades of stock that became obsolete a few years later, when black-and-white movies gave up the ghost.

TITLE: “Federico Fellini’s 8½”
RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1963, a few years before the advent of the film rating system; occasional profanity and sensuality)
CREDITS: Directed by Federico Fellini. Screenplay by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi. Cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo. Camera operator: Pasquale de Santis. Production and costume design by Piero Gherardi. Special effects by Otello Fava. Film editing by Leo Catozzo. Music by Nino Rota. In Italian with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes, plus supplementary material
DVD EDITION: Criterion Collection
WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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