Every scene in 8½ represents Guido’s reaction to the world around him. The effect is subtle in the reality sequences, typical in the dream and fantasy sequences (one’s dreams, of course, have no objective viewer), and most telling in the memory sequences. There are two memory sequences in the film. The first is set in Guido’s grandmother’s farmhouse, when Guido is about four or five years old. In the sequence, Guido’s aunts make him take a bath and his grandmother puts him to bed. The interior of the farmhouse looks odd: its cavernous rooms are sparsely decorated, and the furniture is too large. Other elements seem exaggerated as well, such as the number of children bathing at once and the intensity of their chants. Did Guido grow up in an abnormally large house, abnormally furnished, with an abnormally large number of similarly aged cousins? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that Fellini chose these abnormalities in order to portray the memory as Guido would experience it, distortions and all. Guido knew the farmhouse as a little boy, and any house seems gigantic to a person that small. Many shots in this sequence are filmed from a low point of view, so we see the world at about table-level, as a child would. In the same way, it is likely that the rooms appear bare only because the decorations in them were inessential to the memory. Splashing around with his cousins in the bath is a happy memory for Guido, and, since it is natural to romanticize happy memories, Guido doesn’t recall negative details such as soap and scrubbing.
Just as Guido erases negative elements from his happy memory, he alters the facts of a guilt-inducing memory in order to feel innocent. This second childhood sequence shows an adolescent Guido as his school priests catch him watching the gypsy woman, Saraghina. The scene’s spatial elements seem less exaggerated than those of the farmhouse episode, as Guido’s memory of his preteen years is clearer than those of his early childhood. While its scale seems normal, there is evidence that the content of the sequence is manipulated. We learned from the first memory sequence that Guido is a bright and naughty child who runs away from his aunts and kicks his legs wildly in bed. In this memory, however, Guido is a passive boy who gets into trouble only because his friends are bad influences. His friends beg him to come along to the beach to see Saraghina, and as they arrive Guido keeps hesitating until his friends encourage him to continue. Right before Saraghina begins to dance, Guido remains separated from the other boys, and as they clap and cheer, he remains immobile. Then, it seems as if Saraghina chooses to dance with Guido only because his friends push him into her arms. Again, it is possible that Guido did indeed have an angelic period between the ages of ten and twelve, but it is more likely that Guido was in fact enthusiastic about the trip to see Saraghina and that he remembers it differently only because the result of the episode, the severe punishment given by the priests, was so painful. Rather than remember the trip as a bout of bad behavior, Guido prefers to recall it as a great injustice. Just as Guido’s immediate attitude alters his reality, so does his unconscious mind mold his memories to suit his desires.