Italian director Guido Contini is a moviemaking genius. And the world awaits his next cinematic masterpiece. That next movie, his ninth, is already in full production—the sets look great, the costumes sparkle.
There’s only one problem: Contini doesn’t have a clue what it will be about. There’s no script. No rough concept. Not a single idea.
The slick pro tries to keep everything under control. He dodges the press with jokes and sunglasses-clad style. He pats his producer on the back with nonchalant assurances. He flirts and seduces. But in private he writhes with an unexplained agony.
Drawing deeply on his cigarettes, he calls upon the long list of women who have always inspired him—his deceased Mamma among them, along with his passionate mistress, his demanding star, his ever-knowing costume designer, his patient, loyal wife.
And through dream-like moments and musical memories, the women share with him the failures, dalliances and betrayals that have made the self-absorbed director’s world revolve around him.
Contini slowly starts to realize that his distress isn’t over a failing movie, but a failed life.
Guido Contini eventually understands that he’s selfish to the core. That he’s made stupid choices that have hurt the ones he loves most and led him to empty exhaustion. At one point he runs from a lover and pleads for a new start with his wife (before, of course, messing up once again).
In a vision Contini tells his mother, "I destroyed everything, Mamma." When his mistress attempts suicide, he spends the night watching over her. And in doing so he’s again reminded of what he’s become and done as the woman’s doctor confronts him with, "I suppose you don’t consider yourself bound by morality."
[Spoiler Warning] After driving his wife away, bailing on the movie and living in seclusion for two years, Contini finally meets up again with his good friend Lilli. He tells her of his lonely struggles and she encourages him to reinvest in his true talents and make another movie. He retorts, "The only movie I could make now is about a man trying to win back his wife." "Sounds perfect!" Lilli exclaims.
Contini sings of his desire for fame and power: "I would like to be Christ, Muhammad, Buddha—but not have to believe in God." However, in the course of his emotional anguish he calls out, "Mother of God, give me a sign."
The director gains an audience with a local Catholic cardinal and asks, "Do you believe in God?" The cardinal responds in the affirmative, but instead of directly addressing Contini’s obvious spiritual longings, he proceeds to tell the director about all the things that are wrong with his movies. "You should encourage Italian women to be wives not whores," he says.
The director flashes back to another encounter with priests in his childhood: An angered priest whips the young Contini and says, "God will punish you for your sins, now and forever." A magazine writer praises the director for how his movies have pointed out the "death of religion." Contini counters, "I don’t think religion is dead."
Contini’s movies and life drip with amoral sexuality. And so, many of the musical numbers in Nine are populated with women slinking about in skimpy lingerie or highly sexualized, cleavage-revealing outfits. (Even his mother wears low-cut dresses.)
The director’s mistress, Carla, is one of the brasher characters in this respect. She sings a seductive, breast-cupping and backside-waving temptress song while clad in only a bustier and panties. The camera examines her closely. Dressed only in a towel that she opens (away from the camera), it’s implied that she and Contini have sex.
But she’s certainly not the only seductress prowling Contini’s sets. Another musical number features a 9-year-old Contini and a group of friends giving a prostitute a handful of coins to display herself. She obliges, pulling open her dress, cupping her (still somewhat covered) breasts and pinching her inner thigh. Her song expands to include other women in skimpy outfits.
Lilli, the costumer, sings about the Folies Bergère: Featured is a chorus of scantly clad feather dancers who have little more than glitter covering their breasts. The 9-year-old Contini romps around them. Writer Stephanie dances and sings a go-go number in hot pants and tassels. She strips to bra and panties when Contini comes up to her room.
One of the only female characters who shows much of any decorum, in fact, is Contini’s wife, Louisa. She’s usually classy and well-dressed. But even she ends up performing an angry song that turns into a striptease for a group of leering and lusting men. At song’s end she removes her top and the camera sees part of her breast from the side.
Sexuality even enters into Contini’s discussion with the cardinal as the director imagines a lounging bikini-clad woman caressing the cardinal’s shoulder. A musical number includes a nun in a habit—and cleavage-revealing dress. Contini draws a picture of a nude woman on a piece of paper.
Contini, as a child, is whipped with a thin rod for his sinful actions.
Crude or Profane Language
Several misuses of "Christ." "H‑‑‑" and "a‑‑" populate dialogue or song lyrics a handful of times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Since the musical is set in the 1960s, cast members smoke on numerous occasions—in screening rooms, hotel lobbies, press meetings, etc. Contini is a perpetual cigarette smoker. The film’s producer smokes cigars. Contini and Stephanie share glasses of vodka. Diners drink wine and other alcohol.
Carla tries to kill herself (offscreen) with an overdose of pills.
Based on a Tony Award-winning musical that was inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½, Nine can count among its accomplishments the idea of a creative man reaching for inspiration and finding the hard truth about himself.
That theme is positive and involving.
But the musical’s math when it comes to creativity often subtracts instead of multiplies. Marion Cotillard’s emotional portrayal of Contini’s wife through her plaintive song of longsuffering is underplayed but nothing short of brilliant. But aside for a few scenes such as that, the story, music and imagery don’t always blend well. The tale feels rather joyless. And there isn’t a single song you’ll be humming to yourself, or even much remember past the closing credits.
Far more significant than those failings, Fellini-esque, 1960s-style sexuality is poured on by the bucketful and leaves the pic awash in lusty visuals.
The cardinal’s assistant talks to Contini about his titillating movies, saying, "Publicly we condemn them. We must. But we all love them."
Um, no, that’s not quite the right attitude.
More studied are A.O. Scott’s comments in The New York Times. "Straining to capture artistic frenzy, [Nine] descends into vulgar chaos," he writes, "less a homage to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (its putative inspiration) than a travesty."
As Nine opens, Contini is talking about how difficult it is for a moviemaker to bring his dream to full cinematic fruition. He tells of all the bumps and potential potholes along the creative roadway—the screenplay, the actors, the edits—that can steal away a dream’s magic and leave it less than it was meant to be.
That speech, it turns out, is ironically apropos.