And that's such a superficial impression to harbor because I imagine I'm supposed to be enamored by this movie: It's a seductive dream for straight dudes, but that's about it. Fellini, whose "La Dolce Vita" and "8 ½" screen at the Senator Theatre Feb. 10 and Feb. 17, respectively, is one of the 20th century's most revered directors, his films key talking points in heady discussions among intellectual American cineastes since the 1960s. And by the time I encountered his movies—through home video, with "Vita's" nearly three-hour running time spread over two VHS tapes—the intellectual patina of his films had hardened into protective dogma. "Vita" and "8 ½" aren't merely festival and critically feted films, they're cornerstone bricks in what art-house cinema looks like in my mind: subtitled and in black and white, sexually permissive but spiritually concerned and morally hungover, confusing yet seductive. But there's a superficiality to all of Fellini's baroque sumptuousness, as if the visual bluster is there to mask a lack of reflective depth.
Those are gaping holes at the center of these two films, as they're ostensibly explorations of a man's mental and physical worth in this world. That emptiness isn't the emotional anguish of Michelangelo Antonioni, a Fellini peer who was also fond of wrapping visual splendor around male characters at the center of his films' universes. But where Antonioni at his best leaves you waiting for the void to stare back, Fellini's obsessions run far more mundane: male insecurity that expresses itself as ordinary sexism, operatic emotions, and a navel-gazing nostalgia. And for decades now it's been a cocktail that critics and directors can't resist. When Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute's film magazine, put together its most recent decennial poll of directors' and critics' best films of all time in 2012, both placed in the top 50—with "8 ½" in the top 10, where it's consistently placed since 1972.
Should it? "8 ½" is Fellini's film about filmmaking, in which Mastroianni plays a director who hasn't a single, solitary clue about what movie to make next. So he revisits his past and wanders through dreams, retreats to both his wife and mistress, anything to avoid working. Watching it at 22, I was impressed by the movie's visual panache and the effortless way it dances from reality to reverie and back again. In my mid-40s a movie about a man who prefers to live in memory because he's failing to do what he decided to spend his life doing feels like an insulting kick to the teeth: This is what one of cinema's titans has to say? That man at midlife is a nostalgic daydreamer with a mirror in one hand and his penis in the other?