It’s a sign of the times that Federico Fellini’s 1963 classic 8½—widely considered the best film ever made about filmmaking—has been remade in such a way that its famous story of one man’s artistic and spiritual crisis no longer resembles itself. The newly released Nine, a movie-musical update of 8½, flattens personal moral struggle into a singing-and-dancing extravaganza.
This coarsening follows a trajectory that started with the 1982 Broadway show that took a slender thread of Fellini’s narrative (in which Italian filmmaker Guido Contini—Fellini’s alter ego—retreats to a spa to escape his hectic life while plotting out his next movie) and wove it into a narcissistic showbiz tapestry. It became a playboy’s revue displaying the comical, demanding women who populate Guido’s life more than a personal, remorseful confession.
Broadway emphasized the heaving breasts and leggy contortions of Guido’s harem, and the movie repeats the same grind-house choreography with its cast of current minor celebrities: Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie (the film’s only true singer, from the pop group Black Eyed Peas), and a ghastly waxwork legend, Sophia Loren. Few of them really sing or dance, and none are box-office stars; their presence merely flashes the distractions of sex. It’s a big-screen striptease, while Fellini’s original went into the complexities of eroticism and how sexuality revealed Guido’s convoluted psyche—from mother-fixated boy to compulsive womanizer.
Yet Fellini’s masterpiece, one of the seminal movies of the second half of the twentieth century, explored the primary moral predicaments of the age. Right after his 1961 international sensation La Dolce Vita identified the modern decadent elite (giving the world the word paparazzi), Fellini ventured into a more personal assessment through 8½’s introspective concept. This furthered the consideration of malaise after the Second World War—a subject that preoccupied the era’s art films: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, and Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.
Guido, memorably embodied by Marcello Mastroianni, became the conduit for that period’s assorted peccadilloes and insecurities. Fellini, a former newspaper caricaturist and Catholic manqué, combined satire with a brooding, serious undercurrent. This distinguished his vision from those other high-art, left-leaning critiques. But Nine makes light of Guido’s private agonies about faith, inspiration, guilt, and domestic fidelity. Day-Lewis dons Fellini’s iconic fedora and Marcello’s rakish shades, but Nine only goes through the motions. Nine traipses through Guido’s turmoil with a blithe disregard for the protagonist’s natural, recognizable misgivings and ambivalence. Its brazenness and superficiality manifest a changed—trivialized—social mood.
8½ reflected the moral disorientation that loomed over the world’s conscience after Hiroshima; Nine’s concept derives from the sexual revolution that occurred after Fellini’s film premiered—including the subsequent women’s movement, which is perversely acknowledged in Nine’s beauty-pageant format. (Fellini had anticipated women’s lib with his next feature, Juliet of the Spirits.)
The central dilemma, in which Guido (Day-Lewis) must hide his mistress (Cruz) from his visiting wife (Cotillard), lacks bomb-era gravity. Fellini’s film respected the sanctity of marriage but realistically faced mankind’s weaknesses, looking candidly at how a man and his wife’s mutual loyalty are beset by temptation and confusion. In Nine, fidelity is old hat, an impediment to a man’s erotic license and restricting to a woman’s autonomy. By depicting women as satellite ecdysiasts to Guido’s ego, Nine panders to the Catholic-manqué feminism of the Madonna era—a further coarsening of Fellini’s original insights about spiritual anxiety.
To vogue about sexual freedom in the face of personal responsibility misrepresents the worldliness that Guido feels compelled to scrutinize to make sense of his creative urge as more than just an extension of his libido. What’s still profoundly impressive about 8½ is that its extraordinary visual design—sensationally high-contrast, black-and-white photography by the great Gianni Di Venanzo and fantasy/realist sequences that are accomplished with musically rhythmed editing—draws a viewer ever deeper into the labyrinth of Guido’s conscience. (See the ravishing Criterion DVD.) His outer world is reflected in his tormented inner world. His autobiographical reconsideration of life’s desires and mistakes conforms to the road-to-Damascus Christian parallel that Fellini had explored previously in such films as The Miracle, La Strada, and Nights of Cabiria—and especially in La Dolce Vita, with its famous opening gambit: a Second Coming joke in which a statue of Christ flies over the supine bodies of lazy sunbathers on the Mediterranean.
That gag was paralleled in 8½’s often quoted opening scene, in which Guido, stuck in a traffic jam, feels he’s suffocating until he rises out of the sunroof of his limousine and floats above the throng, delivered from his troubles in a burst of both cinematic rapture and Freudian portent.
That primal symbol of the desire to escape has received dutiful homage in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, and even REM’s music video “Everybody Hurts.” Screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who directed the eschatological melodrama The Rapture (and wrote Robert Altman’s Hollywood moral-murder mystery The Player), supplies Nine’s most Felliniesque—and ironic—moment when Guido is told “your imagination has no moral training; the imagination is God’s garden.” But now Guido’s fixations feel immediately less serious because the widely shared, ecumenical sense of predicament and resolution that derives from the common bond of Judeo-Christian morality is not central to the contemporary, nonintellectual fashion that Nine patronizes.
This diminishment is not just thematic, it is also aesthetic. 8½ was made during the period cinema scholars call “high modernism,”—when a pop artist like Fellini could dare title a movie the way a painter titled an art project. ( 8½ refers to the internationally celebrated director’s total output at the time—atop six features and three shorts. It also ingeniously indicates that Fellini himself was admittedly “a work in progress—God’s not finished with me yet.”)
Like modernist artworks that reveal their construction as part of their narrative, 8½ exposes behind-the-scenes film production to disclose its process and analyze its spiritual origins. Almost fifty years later, Nine renders Guido’s memories and fantasies banal through assorted literal-minded scenes—on a soundstage, in the streets, on a proscenium. Flashy montage adds tritely modern style that mirrors the hectic, gaudy surfaces of today’s entertainment-crazed, media-mad culture. 8½ had no “story” in the conventional sense, but Fellini’s montage reproduced Guido’s movement of mind just as Resnais’ Marienbad used montage to replicate the electric synapses of thought and memory.
In Nine, those artistic breakthroughs have been re-conjugated from innovative spiritual exploration into oversimplified showbiz extravaganzas. Rob Marshall, a television director and former choreographer who broke through to the Hollywood mainstream with his 2002 film Chicago, has a pedestrian, television-oriented technique. He keeps reverting to the stage-show format from which Fellini liberated cinema—as did the great movie-musical directors Minnelli, Kelly, Donen, Clair, Ophuls, and Fosse, all of whom eradicated proscenium perspective. Putting women on display on stage as Marshall does actually denies mental, cultural, religious, erotic obsession. Fact is, 8½ wasn’t about women but about life’s complexity, the elusiveness of certainty, and the difficulty of human fidelity. Even Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz—a bitterly secular adaptation of 8½’s style and themes—maintained a larger view than that of its self-pitying egocentric protagonist.
Because Marshall’s filmmaking lacks musicality, Nine gets close to 8½’s profundity only in the brief grotto scene in which a priest asks, “Are you Catholic?” Guido answers, “I’m trying.” The priest responds, “Try harder.” While Fellini pondered the possibilities of sin and redemption, Nine’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-laughing remake proffers a mindless celebration of capital S (as in silly) sin. In every way, it removes the significance of man’s self-questioning moral consciousness and substitutes in its place ephemeral, conventional showbiz. For Fellini, Guido’s search for meaning didn’t celebrate show business; it contemplated the soul.
Armond White, film critic of the New York Press , is chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.