Originally written 29 April 2009 on The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.
The “late period” films of Federico Fellini are one of the major blind spots in my moviewatching history. I’ve seen nearly all of his earlier works, up to and including the “transitional” work 8 ½, which remains my favorite of his films. However, the only Fellini films I’ve seen after this are Amarcord (which I love) and Satyricon (which I don’t), but I was certainly familiar with these films’ critical reputations, which tend to echo the sentiments expressed by the loudmouthed intellectual in the movie line in Annie Hall.
Having just seen Juliet of the Spirits for the first time, I can’t argue with the opinion that it’s an “indulgent” film, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, since it reveals aspects of their maker that his more disciplined films could not. Supposedly, Fellini intended Juliet of the Spirits to be a tribute to his wife and frequent leading lady, Giulietta Masina. If this is the case, it’s a funny sort of tribute. Yes, Juliet (played by Masina) sticks to her principles when her husband cheats on her, and eventually finds escape from their marriage. But for most of the film, she is portrayed as a hapless victim, carried along by the whims of the film- and those of her husband.
Consider the way that she is portrayed visually. Juliet never seems to fit in no matter where she is. From the beginning of the film, when her husband (played by Mario Pisu) hosts an impromptu dinner party, the guests are garishly dressed and glamorous, while Juliet wears a simple dress and a matronly brown wig. This will be a trend throughout the film, as Juliet clashes with her more decadent surroundings. Likewise, throughout the film Fellini accentuates the Masina’s petiteness, often showing her amidst people (even her own mother) who tower over her. In other hands, Juliet’s inability to fit into the film’s world would be a defiant statement, but Fellini’s feelings about it seem to be more complicated than that. One can see that he feels affection for his wife, but he can’t resist being drawn toward the decadence that had become such an integral element of both his life and his work.
And what is one supposed to make of the way Juliet is treated by the film after discovering her husband’s infidelity? A more conventional film might have taken the husband to task for his cheating, but not Fellini, who kept mistresses throughout much of his adult life. Instead, one character after another tells Juliet that in order to win her husband back, she needs to embrace her sexual side- to be more like, say, her buxom, sexually liberated neighbor Suzy, played by Sandra Milo, who by her own admission put in time as one of Fellini’s mistresses. Needless to say, Juliet has some trouble with this advice, especially as it relates to her own Roman Catholic upbringing.
The worldview we see in Juliet of the Spirits is a decidedly pre-feminist one, and one that’s a little hard to stomach. But at the same time, one needs not agree with what a film is saying to appreciate the film itself, and Fellini uses the framework of this story to lay bare his own ideas about marriage, sexuality, and the female gender in general. Because these ideas run so contrary to more “enlightened” points of view that have found their way into most contemporary works of art, Juliet of the Spirits is more thought-provoking than a more politically correct film might have been.
And even if you’re not down with Fellini’s worldview in Juliet of the Spirits, it’s hard to argue with the sheer visual splendor of the film, Fellini’s first in color. Many of world cinema’s greatest filmmakers first made the transition to color during the 1960s- Bergman and Antonioni had already made the switch, with Buñuel and Kurosawa still to come. What these filmmakers had in common is that they didn’t simply make the change for commercial reasons, but treated color as another filmmaking tool to be used wisely.
In Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini uses color to create images that would not have had the same impact in black and white, as when he painted the walls red to create unease during a scene in which Juliet visits a mysterious healer. Also striking is the full spectrum of colors found in Suzy’s cavernous home (reminiscent of a fantasy version of a brothel), which contrasts with Juliet’s memories of her Catholic upbringing, which are full of solid shades of red and grey, with innocent white on the children and the almost impossibly dark violet (not black) of the nuns’ robes. Juliet of the Spirits is a feast for the eyes- and, with Nino Rota’s mindbending score, for the ears as well.
In doing research for this review- which must no doubt seem as rambling as the film itself- I came across the following quote from Fellini:
“We don't really know who woman is. She remains in that precise place within man where darkness begins. Talking about women means talking about the darkest part of ourselves, the undeveloped part, the true mystery within… [The] problem for man is to reunite himself with the other half of his being, to find the woman who is right for him-right be she is simply a projection, a mirror of himself. A man can't become whole or free until he has set woman free-his woman. It's his responsibility, not hers. He can't be complete, truly alive until he makes her his sexual companion, and not a slave of libidinous acts or a saint with a halo.”
Perhaps this quotation is the key to what Fellini was attempting with Juliet of the Spirits- not simply translating these ideas into cinematic form, but also struggling to reconcile them with his own weaknesses and deeply-ingrained ideas of what women meant to him in his life. Of course, it’s hard to say what Masina really thought of all this, but that’s part of what makes the movie so darn fascinating, isn’t it?