Sauna in Cinema, Asi Nisi Masa! The truth of bathing in Federico Fellini's 8½
Poor Guido Anselmi. He’s having a crisis, a midlife crisis, something akin to a nervous breakdown. He, the main character as played by Marcello Mastroianni, is in the midst of a new film project. He's forced to take an emergency hiatus to attend to his stress. He checks into a hot springs health spa, an old-school European variety. Mineral water and sweat bathing are his therapy and they are a reoccurring theme throughout Federico Fellini’s film: 8½.
One of the best bathing scenes is where the patients slowly walk down a set of stairs into Hades-like vapor baths, woman on the left, men on the right. Does anyone know if this was a real place? Some actual European health spa or just a set?
On to the movie:
The opening is a dream sequence where Guido is having a claustrophobic panic attack. He's trapped in a traffic jam, he floats away from it all, soaring through the sky. Abruptly he is pulled back to earth by people who must see him. He crashes into the ocean and wakes from the dream in the dark room of his resort hotel.
Immediately he is assaulted by outside influences. His intellectual friend finds him and begins to pick apart his movie. Likewise, a doctor and nurse enter to fuss over him. The doctor dictates his daily regimen to one of the nurses: “Breathe. Your system is a bit worn out. You may get dressed now…This treatment will do you good. You’ll see. Nurse: 300 ml of holy water, 3 doses to be taken at 15 minute intervals, on an empty stomach. Mud bath every other day. After the mud bath, ten minutes in the mineral water as prescribed.” Will the treatment do him good? Yes and no. It was close but not exactly what he needed.
Later Guido makes it out into the sun to take his water. As part of his spa cure he waits in line with others, mostly old people, to drink mineral water from the spring’s fountains.
Here he has a vision of female essence in the form of actress, Claudia Cardinali. She comes walking out of the woods, an embodiment of feminine grace, serenity and beauty. He is distracted by this hallucination momentarily when he notices that he's at the front of the line.
He reaches out to take his glass of water--and there she is again--serving him with a smile. He looks again and it is a different woman. The vision has past.
This is his cure. It’s a symbolically loaded scene. All of the people waiting in line, geriatrics and clergy are dead to the world. They underscore the banality of the spa. The process is a farce. Yet his vision of femininity and water, and later bathing, represent his lost deepest truth.
Notice the placement of hands on Claudia. She runs through the woods toward Guido like this. It’s weird. But, none the less, we see it again here in a fantasy dream sequence where Guido is bathed by all of the woman in his life: former girl friends, wife and mistresses. His hands are in the same position. Could it be that Guido is seeking a union with his lost Jungian anima? This is why he is not whole.
Clearly Felini is saying something here. There was a previous bathing sequence, a flashback memory of Guido as a young boy. It’s bed time and the children are bathed and tucked in for bed. Tuck, tuck, tuck. He’s safe and cozy, in a state of singularity with life. This is a mental state Guido has lost in his life, the stress of his job, and the incessant intrusion by others has wiped this away.
The memory was triggered when he overheard some old childhood words, "Asi Nisi Masa." I read elsewhere that the first syllable of each word combined creates the word "anima."
Does the movie have a resolution? Does Guido find his peace? Hard to say. In the end, Guido takes a gun from a potential rival for his wife and, during a press conference, climbs under a table and shots himself in the head. The death is a release and he awakens to a world where everyone is dressed in white. The clowns are in charge now. All of the people in his life are as equals, free of judgement and joyful. All join hands in a circle and dance as Nina Rota's wonderful carnival music plays.
Maybe he just needed a good bath?