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Italian film director Guido Anselmi collapses from nervous exhaustion and takes refuge at a luxurious spa. Even at the spa, however, he is badgered by the producer for whom he is committed to make a lavish science fiction film, and by actors, actresses, production personnel, and a disapproving intellectual writer. Apathetic and filled with doubts about the type of film he wants to make, Guido fantasizes about his dead parents, his early Catholic education, his schoolboy adventure watching an obese, grotesque prostitute dance on a beach and his subsequent humiliation in front of his parents and classmates, and his imaginary sexual prowess with a harem of the women he has known, whom, in his fantasy, he controls with a whip. His life is further complicated by the arrival of his giddy mistress, Carla, and his embittered wife, Luisa. One day he meets Claudia, a young actress who is the physical embodiment of the dream woman of his fantasies. When she turns out to be vain and stupid, the disillusioned Guido becomes even more paralyzed by apathy. At a press conference held on the vastly expensive rocket site constructed for his yet unformulated film, he is besieged with impossible questions and decides to abandon the film entirely; but after a final fantasy in which he commits suicide, he feels free of his doubts. A circus band of clowns arrives led by the schoolboy Guido playing a flute. They are followed by all the people Guido has known in his life; and everyone joins hands in a circle.