#8 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
With about thirty minutes left in Fellini’s City of Women, I was convinced that I was going to give this a much lower rating, that the collection of weird sights and sounds that Marcello Mastroianni weaved through, all involving women, was going to amount to little more than a slideshow of Felliniesque images that never amounted to anything. And then, I saw the portrait of Donald Sutherland as Casanova hanging in the background of a scene and the pieces began to come together for me. I do wonder how this movie would operate on a viewer not steeped in Fellini’s filmography because the ending, while it doesn’t wholly rely on his previous films, makes it obvious that Fellini’s previous work is at play here.
This is Fellini’s The Wizard of Oz where the main character gets whisked away to a fantasy world only to return back home seeing all of his primary fantastical visions there with him in different form. This is also Fellini’s self-reflection on his past, his treatment of his wife Giulietta Masina, his treatment of other women, and his work. There have been meta moments in Fellini’s films before, most prominently in 8 1/2 with the writer who critiques the movie he’s in, but this seems to be the first that, as a whole, critically evaluates Fellini’s entire body of work. It takes a while before that becomes obvious, though.
Up until then, we watch Mastroianni as Snaporaz, a business man on a train who pursues an attractive woman off and to a remote hotel that has been completely overrun by feminists in a convention. He weaves through the women, pursuing this woman and nodding in placid agreement to anything anyone says until she calls him out in front of an audience and he slinks away. Determined to find the train station again, he asks for help from those around him, getting caught in a roller rink with Donatella Damiani, on a motorcycle with the cleaning lady who ends up trying to rape him, in a car with some female teenage delinquents, and then finally in the house of the only other prominent male in the film, Dr. Katzone.
There’s a common thread of criticism about the movie that it’s Fellini’s reactive conception of contemporary feminism, and that’s part of the film, really the first thirty minutes or so. Once he’s out of the hotel, it stops being about that, and once he gets to Dr. Katzone’s house it changes into a more self-reflective film. Marcello sees in Dr. Katzone a certain ideal. He’s bedded 9,999 women, and he displays his conquests in a mausoleum of sorts that contain a picture of each of them along with a soundbite from the women. Marcello dances through it, reveling in this twisted temple of love, but then he sees his wife there. Everything up to this point has carried a sense of the surreal about it, but Marcello’s wife appearing in this house without any real explanation is a prominent note that Marcello isn’t in strict reality.
The introduction of the wife felt odd to me at the time. They immediately descend into a fight that felt like it was carried over from another point in the movie, but this was her introduction. It felt like a continuation of Guido and Luisa’s fight from 8 1/2 more than its own thing (one of the reasons I felt lukewarm on the movie until the ending). A celebration breaks out as Dr. Katzone brings in his 10,000th conquest, a woman who can magically attract items to her nethers, and he blows out all but one of the 10,000 candles on his cake. However, the police arrive, three women, including the cleaning woman who tried to rape Marcello, and they announce that Dr. Katzone must be arrested, though they never quite get around to it.
Donatella shows up again and dances in a bikini with Marcello and takes him to bed where she abandons him to his wife, but Marcello, who was excited at the prospect of taking the buxom Donatella to bed, refuses to even touch his wife who dances on him provocatively. It’s here that the movie abandons any pretense of reality as Marcello finds a portal in the wall that takes him on a slide that brings him through his memories on display like living dioramas. There’s the cooking woman from his childhood (another call back to 8 1/2) and a brothel that directly recalls the low class brothel in Roma. It was here where I felt that I was just seeing repeats of visual ideas with no real thought behind it, Fellini on auto-pilot with his favorite actor.
And then Marcello got to the bottom of the slide, and things began to change and to ripen. Marcello is brought to a tribunal of women along with other men waiting for their own sentencing, and the women list Marcello’s (Fellini’s) crimes. He denies none of them. He’s been inconsiderate, unfaithful, and cruel, but admitting it provides him relief. They let him go, but around the corner is the punishment he was destined to have, the ideal woman. There’s so much in this scene that recalls some of the basic critical vocabulary of Fellini’s work that it cannot be an accident. The woman reading the charges calls out the Madonna and the whore explicitly. The ideal woman is a common motif. Donald Sutherland’s aforementioned portrait as Casanova is in this scene as well. This is Fellini baring himself to the world. This is Fellini analyzing his own work and the critical reaction to it.
When Marcello climbs the ladder to the elevated platform to see the ideal woman and finds the old maid who helps him into a hot air balloon made to look like Donatella Damiani and the real Donatella appears on the ground below with a gun with which to shoot the balloon out of the sky, it’s Marcello learning that there is no ideal woman, that it’s a fantasy. This is Marcello repeating the ending of Fellini’s Casanova but with a return to earth instead of holding onto the fantasy. Then Marcello wakes up again in his train compartment with his wife across the way. In walks the woman on the train who started his adventure and then Donatella, the women passing knowing smiles to each other as Marcello tries to reconcile his dream with reality around him.
I’m really unsure of how this would work with an audience not wading through Fellini’s work. So much of the ending seems to hinge on knowing Fellini’s films rather well, and a lot of the joy I felt was watching these iconic images gain new meaning. I’m hopelessly biased on this film. I felt like the final thirty minutes pulled everything together that had come before really well to create a holistic and completely entertaining package that critically looked at Marcello as a character, but at the same time so much of it is built off of Fellini’s previous movies. I can imagine all day that this would work for the uninitiated, but I’d be lying. I think that this movie is an inside joke, to a certain extent, and being on the inside I really get it. It’s really funny and ties together nicely.