The film begins with director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) in a car on a ferry, not unlike the Staten Island Ferry. He is sitting in the car like all the others in the cars and buses around him. A gas of some kind begins to come into the car through the vents and he finds himself unable to open the windows. He is stuck inside his own car, his situation, and cannot escape, while everyone around him looks on indifferently. It is his life and his nightmare. Through great effort he manages to crack the window open and somehow climbs out, only to float up into the air.
What a great opening. We know right off it is no ordinary film. The casting, the lighting, the meticulously shot camera work all reveal a masterful attention to detail. The dream sequence also lets audiences know that the story will map internal as well as external events in the life of its main character, a director undergoing a serious life crisis.
Stories like this give writers an opportunity to produce lines, thoughts and impressions that you just can't always easily work into a straight story. In this film there are just so many such lines.
Late in the film Guido laments, "I thought my ideas were so clear. 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 help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves. Instead, I'm the one without the courage to bury anything at all. When did I go wrong? I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same."
And in another place, "All the confusion of my life... has been a reflection of myself! Myself as I am, not as I'd like to be."
The story itself is about a director who is now famous because of a previous great film. He is attempting to live up to the expectation that he can do it again and the pressure is on. His life is very public, and crowded.
The film is also about his relationships with women. And the wife who endures his philandering, his bad behavior, to whom he has not been faithful. Guido is no saint. Nor is he happy, and at one point he confesses as such to the Cardinal.
Guido: “Your Eminence, I am not happy.”
The Cardinal: "Why should you be happy? That is not your task. Who told you we come into this world to be happy?"
Ultimately 8 1/2 is a work of art. Every shot, black and white, could be a movie poster. The scenes flow into one another like life itself. In the end, the engaged viewer takes something away with each new encounter.