Surprisingly, though, there’s lots in this musical version, itself an adaptation of a 1980s Broadway show, that relates to the sombre heart of Fellini’s original. We still get Guido’s formative childhood memory of watching a prostitute perform on the beach (although this time it is Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas brilliantly belting out the film’s foot-tapping anthem ‘Be Italian’). We also get the lingering ghost of his mother (Sophia Loren!), the pain of his adultery and the madness of his creative impasse. Also, Fellini’s meshing of dream and reality is oddly suited to the unreal tendencies of a musical, although it’s anybody’s guess what the director would have made of Penélope Cruz throwing herself around in stockings and suspenders and upping the sex factor beyond anything Claudia Cardinale offered in the original.
The biggest difference, though, is that almost 50 years later, director Rob Marshall (‘Chicago’) is able to play the story of ‘8 1/2’ as a nostalgia piece. He fetishises the look and feel of 1960s Italy and especially Rome so that the film’s mood of artistic melancholia is expressed on a canvas that comes dangerously close to looking like an ad for Italian coffee. Marshall and his writers, including the late Anthony Minghella, also stress the humour of Guido’s philandering, often preferring that his inner turmoil goes no further than chain-smoking. To give Day-Lewis his due, the actor grounds the film’s sillier tendencies in a charming performance of mercurial despair. He’s well supported by Marion Cotillard, who conveys the sadness of being Guido’s wife, although both Nicole Kidman as his leading lady and Kate Hudson as an admiring journalist are little more than window-dressing.