Freedom, at least to Guido, is explained eloquently in the middle of a lavish fantasy sequence in which Guido returns to his home amongst all the women he has ever laid or loved. He says “happiness is being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone.” Happiness and freedom go hand in hand in 8 ½. Of course the two are also implicitly linked to his melancholy. As Guido sheds off his relations with the people in his life (from cheating on his wife to constantly avoiding an overly demanding and entirely disconnected French actress, as well refusing to respond to any questions regarding his upcoming film), he encounters a compounded contradictory feeling: happiness at avoiding all the obstacles presented in his life and sadness at losing his relation to the world. These emotions are of course subtle in the film's "real" world but in the world of Guido's mind, which includes dreams and fantasies, they are illustrated poignantly: escape as Guido flying upwards only to be pulled down by studio executives; guilt as consultations with his dead father; innocence as bizarre ritualistic scenes of sexuality from his youth. Guido desperately wants to create something original and honest. He can no longer force himself into the mold his producers wish for him. His film's unfinished spaceship stands as an aching metaphor for all the vulgar attempts to consciously create a beauty that exists only in the mind's untouchable regions. In 8 ½, beauty is grotesque and cruel, perfection is rejected and what remains is truth.
What is so true about 8 ½ is not cinematic, nor is intellectual. Cinematically Fellini utilizes interpretive surrealism to communicate Guido's devastating emotions. As for the film's scholarly side, the character of Guido's friend the film critic, who functions as our interpreter, synthesizes the film's artistic and intellectual efforts. He demands a high level of academic thought process to be rendered as something honest, original and triumphant. His philosophy is summed up perfectly when he tells Guido “it is better to destroy than to create something useless,” after Guido aborts his sci-fi project, a moving scene rendered as Guido's suicide. The film critic also draws direct attention toward the film's recursive nature and self-reflexivity. Given that 8 ½ is a largely autobiographical, using Fellini's own mounting artistic crisis as a template, it further takes on emotional gravity. All this is to say nothing of its pioneering use of film as a means of documenting the artistic process of film making, or metafilm, which would inspire a league of filmmakers from Francois Truffaut to David Lynch.
The biggest achievement in the film is Fellini's expansion of cinema's ability to communicate. Fellini, more so than any director of his time, engorged the possibilities of cinema, and 8 ½ is the culmination of all that came before and would come after. Everything, from his contemplative and creative camera use, to his mix of surrealist and symbolic elements, to his unflinching condemnation of his actions via the film's painfully honest narrative, Fellini opened the door to film's new consciousness. His freedom which traces, shades and textures his masterpiece, is the ability to step through doors as they appear. It is the desire to see what comes next and the humble awareness of what has come before. Freedom is not a void. It is the process by which we all come to discover the truth about who we really are. It is the beauty and grandeur of everything. It is sublime. It is pure celestial bliss. It is beyond words.