8 1/2: Plot Breakdown

Hopefully this will help make the internet's expansive cinematic archive more comprehensive.

For the pre-production of a short film I'm working on, I needed a plot breakdown for Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 because its narrative and themes inspired my short film. I looked everywhere online, and could not find anything close to good enough. The following is the measly plot summary given on Wikipedia: Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a famous Italian film director, is suffering from "director's block". Stalled on his new science fiction film that includes veiled autobiographical references, he has lost interest amid artistic and marital difficulties. As Guido struggles half-heartedly to work on the film, a series of flashbacks and dreams delve into his memories and fantasies; they are frequently interwoven with reality. Because of this, I decided to create my own, and because of the lack of resources on the internet, I'm putting my breakdown online for anyone like me who would need it. The film is long and complex, so this post only covers the film up to 44:17. All quotes are in English, not the original Italian.

1. Beginning dream sequence

  • Guido is stuck in traffic; his car begins to fill with smoke so he climbs out the car window; he gets on the roof of his car and glides out of the traffic
  • Guido flies in the sky
  • faded into the clouds for around five seconds is an image of the spaceship set piece that comes into play later in the film
  • a man pulls Guido down by a rope; Guido resists coming down as he tries to get the rope untied from his leg; next to the man who pulls him down is another man on a horse with a strange medallion on his forehead
  • Guido wakes up with his hand clenching the air
  • a doctor walks in and examines Guido; Guido is sick but the doctor’s recommendation is just to drink water
  • a critic, Carini Daumier, walks in and asks to talk to speak to Guido; he sees that Guido is sick so Carini say s he’ll talk to him later
  • we get the our first close-up of Guido when he enters the bathroom

J-cut (live classical music)

2. Orchestra

  • day dream of Claudia (who we meet near the end of the film); film is completely silent when Guido spots her  
  • Guido meets with Carini about his screenplay
  • Guido encounters an old friend, Mario Mezzabotta, who has a hot date, Gloria Morin

J-cut (critic comments on Guido’s film through a letter that Guido reads on the out shot)

3. Guido meets his mistress, Carla, as she gets off a train

  • she’s excited; he’s not so much; we don’t know Guido has a wife yet 


4. Guido and Carla go to a hotel

  • Carla walks in, washes up, eats; everything flows together, consolidating time; while eating, she talks about her husband and his need for a better job; she also tells Guido about a dream she had of her husband killing the two of them 

Hard cut

5. Guido and Carla mess around in the bedroom

Fade to later in time

6. Carla reads in bed as Guido sleeps

  • an out of place woman is washing the wall 

Hard cut 

7. Dream of father and mother at mysterious wall

  • Guido talks to his mother and father separately; he helps his father into a grave; he kisses his mother who hard cut becomes his wife (who we haven’t met yet)
  • Guido’s wife asks him if he recognizes her
  • ends with a lonely shot of wife 

Hard cut

8. Guido gets in an elevator with religious people

  • weird *huuuuuu*ing sound; may be non-diegetic, may be sound of elevator

Hard cut

9. In the lobby, a range of people confront Guido

  • he talks to a man (who appears to be the man who had the medallion on his head in the opening scene) who complains about him not deciding a part for Claudia and giving him nothing for him to appease her 
  • Guido talks to an actress named Madeleine who wonders why he hasn’t given her a part yet
  • a casting direction brings Guido a group of older men (67-70 yrs. old) for a part, but Guido says that they are not old enough
  • someone mentions that Carla left the hotel because she thought the hotel was horrible
  • Guido’s producer visits and Guido calls him “Commendatore;” the producer gives him a watch as a gift; he brought two young woman with him

Short fade

10. Most of the characters in the film go to an outdoor club with music and dancing

  • Mezzabotta and Morin dance 
  • Carla sits a table by herself
  • it is evident that Guido has not thought about the film at all or he at least has director’s block; “How many scenes?” “Five.” “Only five?” “Maybe six or seven;” the producer seems to think this is normal
  • Guido tells Madeleine that she looks like escargot because of the strange thing she has on her head 
  • Mezzabotta discusses his relationship with the much younger Morin with Guido
  • a man and a woman put on a show where they read people’s minds; they go up to read Morin’s, but she freaks out; when they read Guido’s mind, the woman can not say it out loud: she writes the phrase “Asa Nisi Masa” on a chalk board.

Hard cut

11. Flashback to Guido as a toddler

  • a woman makes Guido take a bath in a communal tub after chasing him down; it seems all lighthearted 
  • Guido is a very rambunctious child
  • quiet music plays; one female voice with slow playing piano
  • a group of put the kids to sleep; notable quote: “Did you say your prayers?” He doesn’t respond
  • the lights are all out and everyone is supposed to be asleep, but a girl springs up in her bed and calls out to Guido to not close his eyes because the painting in the room will come alive that night; she says to say the spell: “Asa Nisi Masa”'
  • a few shots serving as establishing shots after the fact and also showing the adults going to bed 
  • scene is marked by its calmness; the music is a dramatic shift from the jazzer music in the previous scene to the music mentioned above
  • dolly shot of fire 


Copyright notice: I do not own the rights to any of the images included in this post. I use the images under protection of fair use specifically the right to critique. Proof of critique is here.