Federico Fellini is not widely known for offering criticisms of Catholicism in his films. He may raise questions, but most critics and analysts seem to agree that there is no direct criticism. No direct criticism maybe, but indirectly, there does appear to be some.
The symbols begin in La Dolce Vita (1960) and continue in 8 ½ (1963). In 8 ½ they are more subtle, often taking place in dream sequences.
Fellini being Italian, he was raised with a certain Catholic background. It’s something he did not entirely abandon, but certainly later in his life, he seems to struggle with the Catholic ideals and teachings he was taught. Fellini was known for having many affairs, openly with other women throughout his life, despite being married. Cheating, or adultery, is one of the most potent of the deadly sins taught in the Catholic tradition. Under no uncertain circumstances is adultery allowed, and it is vehemently condemned even to this day in some places.
If we take this into account, then the main character of 8 ½, Guido, can be read as a kind of somewhat exaggerated caricature of Fellini himself. This caricature (Guido) lives through a variation of the chaos that Fellini likely experienced on a regular basis in being both a filmmaker and someone who struggles with relationships with women.
One 8 ½ scene which demonstrates this, is when Guido first sees the actress Claudia. He is surrounded by all these people asking him questions, upon questions about what he wants to do for his film, and what it means. He is distracted by her angelic presence as she comes down a set of stairs. Because of this, he can barely speak to one person before being interrupted by someone else. The camera is constantly following the direction Guido is looking in, and it’s disorienting and puts you in this headspace of having nearly no direction. Indeed, Guido seems to acknowledge several times that the film really has no clear direction, just that he’s making it. The idea that he’s making the film simply for no other reason than to make it for the beauty of his enjoyment or vision. This is something that Catholicism denounced. The Catholic doctrine says in basic terms that, beauty can only be true beauty if it is found in the divine–in God. Whether Fellini is actively, or unconsciously challenging this is unclear in a specific sense, but in applying this reading one can see that there could be an attempt to say beauty can be found in more than the divine–simply by something existing it can be beautiful, or even equal to something that is considered divine.
Fellini’s Catholic upbringing undoubtedly stressed the idea that being a good person, and finding beauty in life was inseparably synonymous with the divine. Fellini struggled with this in his life as I stated–and in so doing, seemed to find some value in the religious doctrines he was taught. However, even having that knowledge did not stop him from committing (as in the Catholic tradition) sins.
The scene in 8 ½ where Guido is sitting outdoors at a table with his wife and Claudia shows up and sits farther away from them. His wife knows he is cheating with Claudia, and Guido, although lying to her, says he would never do such a thing. Guido is no doubt selfish, but he also seems to acknowledge some value in a monogamous marriage. If he did not, one would expect Guido to look his wife in the eye and confirm his unfaithfulness to her. But, he is content to lie. He then leans back in his chair and softly says to himself, “and yet.” Then a fantasy sequence begins where his wife and Claudia are getting along swimmingly with each other and they both seem to think the world of Guido and have no problems sharing him between the two of them.
All at once, Fellini seems to be saying that he understands the value of a marriage, but also that he has this desire to cheat–or further, to cheat and have both women be okay with it. In doing this, Fellini seems to be grappling with a desire for adultery to be acceptable behavior because he takes the fantasy sequence to an even bigger extreme in the next scene. In the next part of the fantasy, Guido has every woman in his life in the same house, waiting on him hand and foot, and they all seem completely okay with the scenario. There is even a moment where one of the girls breaks the fourth wall and comments on what a “darling” Guido is. The choreography of the scene is very fluid. The women move with grace and appear angelic in some ways. Even the “devil woman” from his childhood is worthy of being in the same company as Claudia. Their movements also mirror the aforementioned scene–Guido’s attention is constantly being tossed from one woman to another, where he hardly has time enough to speak to one before another requires his fleeting focus.
Fellini wants to visualize a world–a scenario in which he takes cheating on his spouse to this extreme and has there be no consequences for it. He seems to want the divine, and the profane and perverted, to exist on a level equal to each other to perhaps justify his own behavior in life. There is no doubt that the fantasy sequence is a callback to an earlier flashback he has to his childhood and a wine bath. He likes to be surrounded by multiple women who take care of him, and they all have specific roles. Some are sexual partners, some are maternal figures, and some are housewives who cook and clean for him.
It would simply seem that if Fellini finds value in the traditional Catholic ideas of marriage and monogamy, then he must be, maybe subconsciously, challenging those ideas. If he wasn’t, then why choose to include fantasy sequences like this where his avatar character is surrounded by women of all kinds, but is married and seems to grapple with whether or not his films coincide with Catholic ideas. In the film itself, there are Catholic priests who seem to not approve of his work. They believe he is straying too far from the Church’s values. Yet, he seems to not care and goes on making his film his way anyhow.
Fellini just appears to be searching for a way to satisfy his carnal desires, and still remain faithful. The film often comments on the idea that Guido doesn’t know how to love. It is unclear how accurate this is because all of Guido’s fantasies seem to revolve around an unspoken and unseen sexual tension between him and his female companions. So is it that he doesn’t know how to love? Or is it that he simply doesn’t know what love is, to begin with? Is he perhaps, confusing love and sex? But yet, relationships can exist which have both, or one or the other. Those are some of the questions that Fellini may be grappling with.