Grade: BCity of Women (1980)

Director: Federico Fellini

Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Prucnal, Bernice Stegers

Release Company: New Yorker Films

MPAA Rating: R

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Fellini: City of Women


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"Though I have always been interested in dreams, of all my films only City of Women was almost entirely a dream. Everything in the picture has a hidden subjective meaning, as in a dream, except the beginning and end, in which Snaporaz is awake in the railway coach. It's the nightmare aspect of Guido's dream in 8 ½."
Dreams play a major role in Fellini's films, especially during the so-called "surrealistic" phase of his filmmaking that begins with Juliet of the Spirits. The lead character of City of Women (Cittą delle donne, La), played once again by Fellini alter ego Marcello Mastriani, dreams of bringing together all the women in his life—past, present, and future—to live in harmony. It’s his fantasy that each of these women (representing different stages of his life) love him so much that they'd be willing to share him--but they would rather tear him apart than allow another woman to get him.

It took Fellini several years before he developed this fantasy into a film. He actually got the idea one night while walking the streets of Rome with Igmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. Both directors are well known for their understanding of women and creating dynamic parts for them, and Fellini and Bergman even discussed the possibility of doing the project jointly. Each would do his own story with some type of link, but the two legendary directors could not agree on the geography. Naturally, Fellini wanted to set the film in Rome whereas Bergman wanted to locate the film in Sweden. So the idea went unfulfilled--except that the seed sprouted ten years later for Fellini in City of Women.

The film begins as a homage to Hitchcock's North by Northwest with a train entering a tunnel. (No need for deep Freudian analysis to figure out the visual symbolism here) Snaporaz awakens and finds himself seated directly across from a beautiful woman (Bernice Stegers) while a small gathering of pre-pubescent girls enthusiastically gaze at the pair from outside their berth. The woman subtly flirts and Snaporaz becomes like putty, desperately following her to the train's restroom, but she declares that she must depart even though the train has stopped in the middle of a meadow with no civilization in sight. The smitten Snaporaz continues to track the woman through the woods until arriving at a hotel that is hosting a surrealistic feminist convention.

Snaporaz ogles the variety of women that surround him, and they represent virtually all viewpoints of feminist issues--from the angry men haters to whores to supportive motherly types. Initially Snaporaz feels like he's arrived at some type of paradise or that he's in the middle of a dream. The most famous sequence from the film incorporates a typical male fantasy--a large number of men of different ages lie face up beneath undulating sheets in a stylized masturbation ritual as Mae West is projected on a screen. Men are generally very visual and have more success with fantasized women than they do with real life ones. As Fellini states:
"It's the viewpoint of a man who has always looked at woman as a total mystery, not only as the object of his fantasies, but as mother, wife, lady in the drawing room, whore in the bedroom, Dante's Beatrice, his own personal muse, brothel entice--and more. He projects onto her all of his own fantasies."
In truth, Snaporaz is hardly the master of his own fate and proves to be a weak and easily manipulated figure, as he searches for the ideal woman at the hotel. In the process Snaporaz sees all the women that have ever had an impact on him throughout his life--even from his childhood days when he would crawl under the table attempting to peek up his mother's dress (an incident directly taken from Fellini's own experience).

Upon the release of City of Women Fellini was accused of being anti-feminist--rather ironic since it is difficult to think of another director who has portrayed as many strong women in film. It's closer to the truth that Fellini worships women. In a March 29, 1980 interview for La Stampa Fellini told Lietta Tornabuoni:
"Women are everything. I even see the cinema itself as a woman, with its alternation of light and darkness, of appearing and disappearing images. Going to the cinema is like returning to the womb, you sit there still and meditative in the darkness, waiting for life to appear on the screen. One should go to the cinema with the innocence of a fetus."
Even though Fellini admits that he was unfamiliar with feminist political ideology until making this film, the accusation seems ludicrous in that City of Women really portrays a womanizer's worst nightmare. Snaporaz may be surrounded by women, but he clearly becomes a weakling and behaves very much like a puppet in the hands of the various women. There's a striking scene with his wife, who prowls catlike in pursuit of the exhausted Snaporaz and animalistically "rapes" him during a wild bedroom sequence. Throughout the film the women are clearly in total control, and note the "knowing" looks that the three women give each other in the final sequence on the train and how Snaporaz symbolically returns to the womb by going back to sleep in near fetal position. What is the mysterious secret that these women share?

To make sure that he covered feminism accurately Fellini conducted research by listening to feminist speeches, songs, and testimonies and met with a number of feminist writers, some of whom even wrote pages of script for the director. So Fellini did his homework when it comes to feminist issues in City of Women. If some perceive that he pokes fun of feminism, they should keep in mind that Fellini pokes fun of everything that can be made light of--just ask the Catholic Church. If others accuse Fellini of not understanding feminist issues because he approaches the subject as a man, so be it. Fellini is a man who does his best to understand the female viewpoint, but admits that women are a mystery--it's one of the themes of the film. As he perceptively describes in I, Fellini:
"Through the ages, from the beginning of time, I'm certain man has covered woman's face with masks. They are, however, his masks, not hers. They are the masks of the viewer, not of the woman, and what they hide is not what they seem to cover. The masks come from the man's own subconscious and they represent that unknown part of himself."
Besides the direct film references that demonstrate Fellini's sense for feminist issues, his personal life gives further concrete indications of his deep respect for women. Although it was widely rumored that Fellini was a womanizer, he was totally devoted to his wife, often foregoing his own preferences for hers. In Masina Fellini actually found the ideal woman for himself, once stating that "as a man with a woman, I feel sometimes like putty in her hands. In our home, Giulietta can easily direct me. She is almost as unpredictable and mysterious for me as she was the day I met her." If Fellini is so "anti-feminist," why does he consistently create such strong female characters in his films?

In his personal life Fellini is most comfortable talking with women. The intimate biography I, Fellini is told to a woman--Charlotte Chandler--and no way would the noted director discuss many items in this book with another man. In describing how he works on a movie set, Fellini states that:
"Having women around on the set brings out the best in my work. They are great admirers and encouragers. I am stimulated by them and perhaps, showing off for them, I do my best work. I am like the foolish, preening male peacock who must get up his tail for the female. I could never be happy making a picture about soldiers or cowboys without women."
Largely underrated, City of Women is an inspired Fellini film that retains the cinematic look of his more highly acclaimed surrealistic Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord. Playful, inventive, and lively--a number of humorous scenes along with Fellini's creative camera movement keeps the viewer involved (even when unsure what the images mean). That’s why it’s a film that requires multiple viewings to gain more insights into the symbols and archetypes that Fellini uses. Even though Fellini deals with some very earthy topics, the film inevitably takes on additional layers when viewed subsequent times.

Marcello Mastriani again puts in a wondrously underplayed performance as Fellini's alter ego, searching the maze of women to find his ideal. It's a universal search--the idea of seeking the mysterious and unknowable. Like a wandering Siddhartha seeking enlightenment, Mastriani pursues his ultimate dream through a vision that can only be created by Fellini. There is no better guide via celluloid.
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