Two Visions of the Filmmaker: Federico Fellini's "8 ½" and Jose Mojica Marins' "O Despertar da Besta"

by Sten Johnson

In Fellini's 1963 film "8 ½", Marcello Mastroianni, playing director Guido Anselmi, confronts the skeletal set of a rocket, a transparent metaphor for his confused and unfinished film. A continent away from Fellini's lush cinema nuovo, Brazilian director Jose Mojia Marins muses in his 1969 "O Despertar da Besta" ("Awakening of the Beast") that filmmaking in his native country is as challenging as "sending a rocket to the moon." Marins' observation was prescient. While Fellini's work garnered international acclaim, his film was unseen theatrically until 1986, banned by Brazil's military government for its "encoded political messages." Unlikely peers, both films beg rediscovery, Fellini's for its lasting influence and indelible status as an icon of its era and Marins' as a remarkable artifact of the same period. United by flamboyantly illusive visual styles and original commentaries on the art of filmmaking, these films are the subjects of excellent restored widescreen DVD editions from the Criterion Collection and Fantoma.

James Joyce, who would have appreciated Fellini's dirty reminiscences of Catholic boyhood and hallucinatory fantasies of feminine indulgence, once wrote that "genius makes no mistakes." What he meant, I think, is that an accomplished artist's overripe tendencies sometimes work in his favor; what appear to be undisciplined dead ends often provide their own perverse interest. Today, Fellini's film seems shamelessly over-determined and self-referential. Visually, it adopts the Empyrean hues of a vintage Italian postcard, filled with improbably glamorous women and landscapes that appear to be sculpted out of light gray blancmange. Yet, without its unique pretensions and willful obscurity, it would lack the overweening gravitas that makes it a masterpiece of ’60s cinema.

The film opens with a quintessentially modern fantasy of suffocation. Mastroianni's Guido finds himself trapped in a car during rush hour. As the vehicle fills with smoke, he pulls himself out of the sunroof. Transformed into a kite, he soars above a beach, only to be violently pulled to earth. He wakes up to his current crisis. An acclaimed director, he's mired in a project with a fragmented script and an uncompleted set. Sent to a health spa to recuperate, he's subjected to continual distractions from his writer and producer, whose critical observations degenerate into a monotonal drone. His pampered mistress (Sandra Milo) arrives, followed by his estranged wife (Anouk Aimee), but Guido's human interactions are stiff and disingenuous. His real dialogue is with his conflicted conscience.

For all of its reputation as a quintessential film about filmmaking, "8 ½" offers little technical or procedural insight into the director's real professional responsibilities. Guido's reflections are the stuff of purely romantic malaise, the reflections of an artist disconnected from the quotidian. In the film's notorious centerpiece, Guido imagines himself at the center of a seraglio occupied by all of the women in his life, an arrangement that begins as an image of casual tolerance and subservience but ends in rebellion. Guido cracks a whip, but he is unable to contain his harem's increasing restlessness. The segments ends with a tenuous sense of order, as Guido offers what he admits is a prepared speech: "Darlings, happiness is being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone's feelings." That happiness, and its required compromises, immediately fails to arrive. At several points in the film, Claudia Cardinale appears as an angelic harbinger of tranquility and order, but she finally expresses disappointment in Guido's empty promises and vanishes. The film's conclusion revels in the carnivalesque imagery that is now invariably recognized as "Felliniesque." Guido is surrounded by the "players" in his life, finally embracing an artistic vision that accommodates the confusion and indeterminacy of his personal life.

The narrative obscurity of "8 ½" naturally tempts analysis, but what method is most germane to the spirit of the work? On its release, Pauline Kael dismissed Fellini's intellectual pretensions and "display of self-imprisonment," recoiling at the director's self-conscious dismissal of his viewers: "[he] lets the audience sort it out for themselves." But where Kael met a willful impasse, others have offered four decades of overripe theory. Religious imagery, stygian vapors and shifting tableaux conveniently suggest a Dantean vision. Likewise, the therapeutic arc of Fellini's story, coupled with its frequent evocations of associative imagery, feints towards Jungian theory. It is a tribute to "8 ½" that it invites exegesis. But ultimately, Fellini's devices are those of the artist, not the analyst. The pursuit of any explanation at all suggests that there is a logical system of meaning to be unearthed. "8 ½" is best appreciated, rather, as a concatenation of uniquely cinematic effects, a series of contiguous impressions that capture the ineffable, purely emotional, experiences of longing and artistic frustration.


Filmed six yeas later in Brazil, Jose Mojica Marins' "O Despertar da Besta" explores the independent filmmaker's practical challenges, the response of an audience to the artifice of film, and the role of the filmmaker as social influence. Marins' filmmaker contrasts sharply with Fellini's Olympian artist—Unlike Mastrioanni's Anselmi, who works in effete insularity, he relies on the complicity of a suggestible audience to project its anxieties and personal impressions onto his work. Filled with vivid imagery and a series of apparently dissonant themes, "Awakening of the Beast" is a work of social protest that explores, and ironically absolves the filmmaker of, moral and aesthetic culpability.

Marins' first major works as a director are two inventive, low budget horror films in which he stars as Zé do Caixão ("Coffin Joe"), an undertaker who terrorizes an isolated community in his search for a perfect bride: "À Meia-Noite Levarei sua Alma" ("At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul"), released in 1963, and "Esta Noite Encarnarei no teu Cadáver" ("This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse"), released in 1966. Although it retains Coffin Joe in a supporting role and relies on visual and sonic devices familiar to the genre, "Awakening of the Beast" departs the horror milieu for more polemic, experimental territory. In the spirit of the two earlier films, which are frequently marked by Coffin Joe's boldly Nietzschean pronouncements, Marins provides a spoken introduction in the guise of his alter ego: "My world is strange indeed…but no one is stranger than you!" That cryptic remark resonates through each of the apparently unrelated scenarios that follow: A series of surreal vignettes denouncing drug abuse; a panel discussion on filmmaking in which Marins, appearing as himself, defends his work; and in the film's most technically audacious segment, a simulated experiment with psychedelics. Improbably, the film's final revelations reconcile these disparate thematic strains, forming a powerful, if obscure, commentary on the filmmaker's relationship with his audience.

In an interview included in Fantoma's DVD release, Marins admits that he knew nothing about drug use when he filmed "Awakening of the Beast", a notion reflected in his anti-drug material's relatively unsubversive, dated aura of naiveté. Typically, the scenes play like the gentle popular psychedelia of their time rather than a true evocation of social ills. Marins frequently makes a simple equation between drug use and general license, as in a scene where a director interviews a would-be starlet. Sniffing an undefined substance, he says "Ah, the magic powder. Today must be my lucky day." An awkward attempt at seduction follows, in which the aspiring actress variously sees the older man as a pig and a horse while he consumes an enormous plate of spaghetti. In another bizarre sequence, a wealthy woman seeks (suggested) solace with a pony after ingesting an unidentified narcotic. In between segments, a panel denounces the activities. Marins, morally neutral, smokes nonchalantly and says, "I don't know why I'm here."

Marins' fictional persona returns in the film's penultimate segment, an experiment in which four subjects from different social backgrounds are given doses of LSD while gazing upon a poster of Marins in full Zé do Caixão regalia. As the film changes from black and white to color, the participants are subjected to a series of surreal, rapidly edited scenarios as they view Marins' character according to their preconceptions. One, a declared misogynist, hears Coffin Joe voicing his own ideas: "From the beginning to the end of the centuries, man is the ruler of everything". A woman with polar views witnesses him declaring the opposite, while another admiringly lionizes the sinister undertaker as "poetry in the macabre." Technically, Marins repurposes the vocabulary of the horror film to strikingly surrealistic ends: Punctuated by a dissonant soundtrack of howling voices and percussive effects, the viewer is assaulted by images of coffins, bubbling vials and, in one segment, a phalanx of painted human bottoms menacingly approaching rearward en masse.

As the film returns to black and white and the musique concrete soundtrack fades, the administering doctor reveals that his subjects were not injected with LSD at all, but distilled water. Their visions are self-created, the simple products of autosuggestion. Coffin Joe is merely an iconic image of evil and disreputability, a fictive provocateur who gains authority only with the complicity of a suggestible audience. Pilloried for his negative influence earlier in the film, Marins is relieved of his social responsibilities; he is merely a neutral catalyst for his audience's nightmares. Unfortunately, it is difficult to reconcile these ideas with the apparent sincerity of the film's earlier anti-drug vignettes, where Marins genuinely appears to attempt a meaningful social agenda. In the end, however, those scenes must be regarded as a filmmaker's private reflections, images whose societal impact is ultimately dependent on his audience's engagement. Marins' vision is ultimately that of the uncommitted aesthete.

The film returns in the form of a televised talk show. As the program ends and the various participants leave the studio, Marins is asked to reveal the source of his ideas. An acute observer, he produces a piece of paper upon which he has been writing during the length of the program, the origins of the current film's script. Walking out into the brightly lit streets of São Paulo, he turns to the camera and says "Cut", concluding the film. Always the auteur, he has the final word.

© 2002 by Sten Johnson. All rights reserved.