#10 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
This was born from a place of pain, but not Federico Fellini’s pain. Made as a present to his wife, Giulietta Masina, Juliet of the Spirits is the Technicolor parade of the grotesque dramatization of Giulietta’s life dealing with the perennially unfaithful Italian director. You see, she loved Federico, loved him dearly, but his infidelity hurt her. And it’s obvious. There are events in this movie based on their relationship, and, according to what I’ve read, it was all very difficult for Giulietta to get through the filming experience, causing further strain on their relationship.
The film Giulietta is the doting housewife to a successful businessman who never seems to be at home. As the movie begins, she’s eagerly preparing for a quiet evening celebration of their fifteenth wedding anniversary, but he comes home with a cadre of friends, openly admitting that he’s forgotten their anniversary, and proceeds to let the people run rampant through the house, eventually turning it into a séance. It’s here that we get our first hearing of a spirit, calling itself Iris, who talks to Giulietta intermittently throughout the story.
The story is that Giulietta’s husband says another woman’s name in his sleep, and Giulietta can’t let it go because it suddenly makes much of his past behavior, like constantly working late, just make sense. Everyone tells her this or that, but everyone has their own agenda and no one seems willing to actually take Giulietta and what she wants into consideration. Her family dismisses her. The weird hermaphroditic guru tells her to become a sex object. The attractive neighbor woman tries to turn Giulietta into a prostitute in all but name. They’re all pushing her away from her husband, but Giulietta never wanted to lose her husband, she wanted him to be who she fell in love with.
She hires a private investigator (something that the real Giulietta did to Federico) to follow her husband around where she discovers that the whispered “Gabriella” is, in fact, a real woman, a model that Giorgio met in his work and now professes he loves in private. The investigators keeps saying that all will be well, that everything can be fixed and made right, but Giulietta barely acknowledges their assurances, knowing the break has occurred.
In many ways, this feels like a prequel to 8 1/2. It’s not, mind you, but the characters of Giulietta and Giorgio are very similar to the characters of Luisa and Guido in the earlier film, but earlier in time. The pain for Giulietta is new while for Luisa it was old and malignant. Giorgio still lies about his affairs where Guido is open about his infidelities. Still, Giorgio is no film director. However, the follow up of Juliet of the Spirits from 8 1/2, both stories of infidelity, the first centered on the guilty male and the second on the innocent female, cannot be by accident. The incredibly prevalent use of fantasy and memory, often intertwined with no indication of where one begins and the other ends, is present in both, and the second feels like an extension of the first. It’s not just that Fellini was continuing with a new style of storytelling for his films, it’s that the one feels like the flip side of the other.
In both, the fantasies represent that which either draw or repel the respective characters. Guido was trying to create his harem in his head, but it fell apart. For Giulietta, though, her fantasies are nightmares. The final ten minutes do a similar thing to the harem scene in 8 1/2 where everything that has been consuming her comes to a single place, but it’s tied into actual physical actions on her part. Giorgio has gone to vacation with Gabriella in Milan, unapologetically but still with a lie, and Giulietta tries to simply go to bed, but the visions of the decrepit bodies leftover from orgies, dead horses, her grandfather who ran away with a young dancer when he was an old man, the distinctive basket that Giulietta’s neighbor set up to go into a pleasure treehouse in her unique getup, and Giulietta’s younger self all begin filling the empty spaces of her house around her. As she calmly moves through the images, she gains control of what she wants, her younger self as she was in a school production of a martyr’s martyrdom where she was burned alive on a rack. Giulietta frees her younger self from the rack and walks away.
Now, Masina and Fellini disagreed with the ending of the film. Fellini saw it as a happy and hopeful ending because Giulietta walking away from the house meant that she was free of the chains that had bound her, but Masina saw it from a much sadder point of view where Giulietta had lost everything and had nothing. Her friends were vapid and unhelpful. The grotesqueries of the other life her neighbor had tried to push her into were distasteful to her. Her husband was gone, and all she had was herself. Her whole life had been a waste. She has no children to take from it. She’s been cast out with nothing at all. I think the truth of the ending contains both elements. Giulietta is free from the unloving relationship with her husband, but she also no longer has any support. All that she had believed in failed her, so yes, she can go out and start anew, but she’s in her 40s and has been a housewife for fifteen years. Her prospects are probably not great, and on top of that, she doesn’t even have a moral base on which to operate because everything she thought was right has been thrown into turmoil.
As Fellini’s first foray into feature length color filmmaking, the movie is a joy to look at from beginning to end. He uses colors extensively and specifically all at once. In particular, the color of Giulietta’s clothes indicate what he’s trying to do in every scene. She often wears white in the beginning, indicating her purity and innocence. When she visits the guru, she wears a green coat that covers a red dress, indicating a safe exterior with a wild interior waiting to come out. When she visits her neighbor’s fiancé, a rich Arab, during a party, she wears a bright red dress as though she’s ready to partake in the grotesqueries. At the end, she wears a white nightgown indicating that she’s rejecting it all and has nothing. However, the colors go beyond that. Her neighbor is often associated with yellow, which is a corrupted form of white and indicates impurity, for instance. The colors are there, they are wonderful to look at, and they all help imbue the proceedings with further meaning.
The movie is rich and dense, firmly fitting into Fellini’s new moves stylistically. Embracing color, fantasy, memory, and affectation, Fellini paints a painful portrait of his wife’s pain that he doesn’t quite seem to understand but is compelling nonetheless. This may not be one of his greatest films, but it does show that his Felliniesque later films can contain worth anyway.