Friday, November 27, 2009


Fellini's Masterwork

I could have made this an Essential Cinema review but if I had it would have been pretty biased. I have often considered this one of my favorite films of all time. I don't want to talk about the film per sae, but what it taught me, and in so doing, why it is such a great film. I started recalling this film recently because there are advertisements circulating for the upcoming release of "9", which is the movie version of the Broadway play "9" which is a musical based on the original film "8 1/2' (Otto e Mezzo)

For those that have never seen or heard of this film, it is generally considered a classic of Italian Cinema and often times makes it onto the lists of most cinema snobs. It is the creation of the Italian Director Federico Fellini and is an autobiographical story about the director and his creative process. In essense, it is a film about making a film.

(For those that don't know the original significance of the title, Fellini considered this to be his 8 1/2 film. He had made 7 films previously and collaborated on one other.)

I first saw this film as a very young man. I was 18 years old and a freshmen at Oregon State University. College is a huge melting pot of ideas and experience. One of the perks of college life was the odd films the student union or some other college club would put on for students in the large auditoriums at night. One day I saw a flyer for this film and was curious to see it. I had heard that it was supposed to be such a good film, so I figured I owed it to myself to go check it out. I walked through the campus twilight to the auditorium and settled into a desk to be impressed by good, cultured cinema.

What I saw, in black and white, on the screen for the next 2 hours made absolutely no sense. As far as I could tell, the film had no plot and was just a bunch of strange random scenes thrown together. I left the auditorium that night feeling as though I had wasted an evening. This was good cinema? I thought not.

Flash forward four years.

I had lived a lot in those four years. Frustration, happiness, lots of college parties, lettered in sports, taken some great vacations, and my time in academia was coming to a close. I was a 'seasoned' student and I knew the ropes of college life.

One evening I was hanging out with some of my college buddies on a Friday night, when we decided to check out a local video store and rent some movies. Video tapes were pretty new things back in the early 1980s and it was like going to your first video arcade or driving in your first convertible. WE could chose what was going to be on TV. Since there were three of us, we decided that we could each rent one film. We browsed the isles looking for what we wanted to watch. My friends chose some action adventure films that I can't recall. But me, I came across a copy of 'Otto e Mezzo' on VHS and paused. I wanted to give it one more shot. I must have missed something the first time around. My companions were not impressed. They looked at my selection and in no uncertain terms indicated that we would be watching my movie 'last'.

We went back to our large, turn of the century, college house and parked ourselves in front of a small black & white television and vegged out on video for the next 4 hours. By the time the first two films were over, it was 11:30pm and my two compatriots headed off to bed. So I was left alone in a dark house with the glow of the small television and my black and white foreign film with English subtitles. I went to the kitchen, got out a gallon bottle of Gallo 'Red' wine and a block of cheese. I returned to the television room and slipped the video tape into the machine.

As I sat there in the dark, I sipped my wine and watched Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinal and Anok Aimee go through their paces once more. But this time it was different. Gradually, as I watched, the film made sense. Not only did it make sense, it made perfect sense. The directors surreal visions in dealing with his cast, his producer, his writers, his critics and his women were all perfect. I was able to understand exactly what he was feeling and in so doing I was able to learn that others saw the world and felt the same way that I did. It was a revelation. By 2am in the morning, half a gallon of wine was gone and I didn't want the film to end.

I walked back to my apartment in the pre-dawn twilight with visions of the film still running through my mind. The interplay of emotions, visions and memories are in all of us. Fellini found a way to put them all on film so that we can all know that we think and fell the same things. It was genius.

I have watched the film several times since. Most folks I have met that have seen it still don't understand it or don't care for this film. The difference from the first time I saw it and the second time was that I wasn't the same person anymore. When I first saw it, I was still thinking in the rigid terms that I had grown up with as a child. I had been raised to think 'inside' the box. I hadn't experienced that much yet. By the time I watched it again, four years later, my view of the world had changed and my experiences had changed me as well.

A young child can't really appreciate the works of Vincent Van Gogh. They seem like rudimentary finger paintings at first. It is only after you understand the torment of Van Gogh's life and what he went through, that their true meaning comes through. This film is the same way. It takes all the frustrations and experiences in our lives and paints them on a canvas that is both whimsical, beautiful and profound. And in so doing, makes everyone that watches it realize that their lives can be just as beautiful and profound. It is all in our perception.

It is cinema like this that makes me seek out other films that show me the same thing. The most recent example that I can think of are 'American Beauty', 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'Snow Falling on Cedars'. Works that show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be much more than just moving pictures on a screen.

(P.S. Bonus points for anyone that has seen the film or is interested enough to give it a shot. What do the words "Asa Nisi Masa" mean, and after watching the film.....what do they mean to you?)

I will be astounded if anyone actually answeres this question.


  1. I cheated. I looked it up since I've never seen a Fellini film

    '"Asa Nisi Masa" is a quote from the Fellini movie "8 1/2" in which the director retreats to an imaginary world to escape the pressure he is under. We saw a parallel with our desire to depart from our own respective musical traditions and to create something different, something new, a sound that springs from our imagination rather than from our education"

    So your friends didn't like your movie choice? Most of my friends don't like my film selections either.

  2. Well, actually Princess, you cheated badly. The term is a nonsense word that brings back a flood of memories for Guido (the main character) relating to his perception of woman, and how they have affected his life. Now what those perceptions are, you will have to figure out for yourself. Here is a hint, you can find the clip referencing the scene on You-Tube.

  3. I googled "Asa Nisi Masa" and that is the answer I received. Blame Google. I'll check out the scene on you tube.

  4. one of these days i will watch this...

    i've heard so much about it, both bad and good, over the years, that i really need to check it out for myself..

  5. I thought it was what Rosella said to him one night when he was a child. After pretending to be asleep she told Guido not to go to sleep because the person in the painting will bring them the treasure if they repeat Asi-Nisi-Masa.

  6. ajoboul: Correct, that is where the phrase originates, but it is a flashback scene in which the mind reader is telling him to think of something, and she does not know that the phrase means. In essence, it is the memory of Guido, in which he first learns that women can be deceitful and are willing to lie to him and play tricks on him. It is the first time in his life that he sees women as less than angelic mother-figures.