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Flesh and Fantasy: ‘Nine’ Spurs a Look Back

Girls, girls, girls! Judging from the amount of female pulchritude on display, admired, lusted after, idolized by Nine’s obsessed director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), feminism never happened.

One can only hope Nine’s audience never saw the cinematic classic this onetime Broadway musical hit is based on -- Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterwork, 8 1/2 -- because memories of the original will completely ruin their experience of this pale pretender.

8 1/2 was Fellini’s brilliantly retina-scorching ode to the joys and tortures of the creative process, a glorious yet self-flagellating semi-autobiographical memoir, carved out of light and shadow, which found its genius maker discovering the visually audacious corollaries to his outrageous emotional machinations. Deep in the throes of creative constipation and looking for any way out or any inspiration from the many women in his life, Fellini’s protagonist -- a director played with the utmost sympathy by Marcello Mastroianni and clearly modeled by the maestro himself -- was callous but caring user of his muses. His method of expression was loving and lacerating, venerating yet cruel, steeped in memory, fantasy and dreams, goddesses and grotesques, even while the rough so-called realities of movie-making intruded.



The beautiful juggling act that enthralls in 8 1/2 never quite finds its footing in Nine, which one assumes from the numbering choice once presumed to take the entire affair a step beyond. Director Rob Marshall gets all the help in the world in his stab at putting Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s musical on celluloid.

The late moviemaker Anthony Minghella and filmmaker Michael Tolkin wrote the screenplay, and Marshall is aided and abetted by a stunning cast, which ranges from Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman to Sophia Loren and Judi Dench to recent Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz. The latter two shine the most brightly in Nine, giving nuance to characters -- wife and mistress, respectively -- that threaten to become tired cliches. The two are also armed with decent musical numbers: Cotillard, in particular, has the best, and most moving, song in Nine, “My Husband Makes Movies,” while Cruz gets to crawl around the sound stage of Guido’s mind like a sex kitten in a corset in the show-stopper, “A Call From the Vatican.” And one finds oneself longing to catch another glimpse of Sophia Loren, Guido’s mother as well as the symbolic matriarch of Italian cinema.

Yet the fact that there is only one memorable song in the entire musical -- though Fergie tries her darnedest to kick up some sand as the prostitute Saraghina and Kate Hudson shimmies as hard as possible in the glittering but empty “Cinema Italiano” -- says something about how flimsy Nine’s foundation is. The original musical appeared to use the 8 1/2 conceit as an excuse to insert beautiful women into flashy production numbers, but it all comes across as nothing but sound and fury when you have no evidence of the conflicted genius with “director’s block” at its center. (One can imagine the original theater-goers still recalled the original 1963 film when the musical first landed on Broadway in 1982, but I’m guessing few young moviegoers will have ever seen the movie, unless they are film studies majors.) The proof of filmmaking brilliance was all over the original 8 1/2 -- and despite Rob Marshall’s valiant, all-too-respectful efforts and all the glitz and noise about "Cinema Italiano" (the mostly international cast only highlights the lack of connection to the very Italian source and context of Fellini’s work), the Nine suffers in the original’s shadow and simply spurs the viewer check out 8 1/2 once more.