It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The conventional wisdom is that Federico Fellini went wrong when he abandoned realism for personal fantasy; that starting with "La Dolce Vita" (1959), his work ran wild through jungles of Freudian, Christian, sexual and autobiographical images. The precise observation in "La Strada" (1954) was the high point of his career, according to this view, and then he abandoned his neorealist roots. "La Dolce Vita" was bad enough, "8 1/2" (1963) was worse, and by the time he made "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965), he was completely off the rails. Then all is downhill, in a career that lasted until 1987, except for "Amarcord" (1974), with its memories of Fellini's childhood; that one is so charming that you have to cave in and enjoy it, regardless of theory.
This conventional view is completely wrong. What we think of as Felliniesque comes to full flower in "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2." His later films, except for "Amarcord," are not as good, and some are positively bad, but they are stamped with an unmistakable maker's mark. The earlier films, wonderful as they often are, have their Felliniesque charm weighted down by leftover obligations to neorealism.
The critic Alan Stone, writing in the Boston Review, deplores Fellini's "stylistic tendency to emphasize images over ideas." I celebrate it. A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes. Here is Stone on the complexity of "8 1/2": "Almost no one knew for sure what they had seen after one viewing." True enough. But true of all great films, while you know for sure what you've seen after one viewing of a shallow one.
"8 1/2" is the best film ever made about filmmaking. It is told from the director's point of view, and its hero, Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), is clearly intended to represent Fellini. It begins with a nightmare of asphyxiation, and a memorable image in which Guido floats off into the sky, only to be yanked back to earth by a rope pulled by his associates, who are hectoring him to organize his plans for his next movie. Much of the film takes place at a spa near Rome, and at the enormous set Guido has constructed nearby for his next film, a science fiction epic he has lost all interest in.