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La citta delle donne

Review by: 
Black Gloves
The City of Women
Release Date: 
World Cinema
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Federico Fellini
Marcello Mastroianni
Anna Prucnal
Bernice Stegers
Donatella Damiani
Ettore Manni
Bottom Line: 
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The later works of Federico Fellini, one of the most influential film directors of the modern age, are rarely discussed in the same hushed tones of reverence usually reserved for his more widely acknowledged masterpieces such as “Nights of Cabiria” (1957) “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and “Amarcord” (1973), yet 1980’s “La citta delle donne” (“City of Women”) is as glorious and outrageous a spectacle of cinematic imagination as could ever have been conceived elsewhere. The film was an Italian-French co-production -- part financed by Gaumont -- which reunited the sixty-year-old Fellini once more with key members of his regular Italian crew, such as cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and editor Ruggero Mastroianni.  An extravagantly excessive fantasy of the absurd and the baroque, it was scripted by Fellini himself in conjunction with his regular collaborator Brunello Rondi, but also featured major contributions from Bernardino Zapponi, who had co-scripted most of Fellini’s subsequent works after first adapting the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” for the director’s portion of the Poe anthology movie “Spirits of the Dead” in 1968 (Zapponi, as every good Euro Horror fan knows, also co-scripted Dario Argento’s “Profondo Rosso”). Very much a partner piece to the surrealistic meditations of the director’s classic 1963 film “8 ½”, La citta delle donne”  once again places Fellini’s stylishly cool alter ego of “la Dolce Vita” and “8 ½” respectively, Marcello Mastroianni, at the centre of a dreamlike Buñuelian odyssey that plays very much like a  picaresque jaunt through the subconscious of its middle-aged hero’s inner being; exploring, in a phantasmagorical series of sometimes comic, sometimes surreal and occasionally even grotesque fantasy sequences, his relationships and attitudes towards Women and the feminine in abstract terms and also in the particulars of his distorted memories of past encounters and obsessions. .

Running at two hours and twenty minutes “la citta delle donne” represents something of a lengthy ‘greatest hits’ tour that charts some familiar cinematic contours in the geography of Fellini-land. It divided critics sharply at the 1980 Cannes Festival: on the one hand it’s a lush, relentlessly stimulating visual and audio experience for any viewer – so rich in detail, colour and imaginative action that it engenders almost a sensory overload as one struggles to take in the full embroidered tapestry of oneiric archetypes, symbols and comic caricatures it renders in the individualistic language that Fellini had assiduously been developing for his cinema ever since the sixties. It’s a pageantry of the vaudevillian, the carnival and the burlesque, presented in one of the auteur’s most visually attractive palettes on superbly decorous sets and soundstages at Cinecittá, completely basking in the illusory nature of cinema and often resorting to very old-school trickery (although performed on an industrial scale here) to achieve its wondrous effects .

On the other hand, one could say that the film brings nothing new to the presentation of the director’s long-standing interests and obsessions: the concern with Jungian analysis and with dream archetypes, and Fellini’s own habit of noting down his dreams to sometimes recreate them on screen, as well as an abiding interest in the paranormal: all surface once more in the imagery and concerns of a work that never really attempts to present itself as anything other than a freewheeling fantasy which delves into its author’s memories and imaginative ruminations for carnivalesque fantasies that amount to an oneiric meditation that never reaches outside itself, asking the viewer merely to accept it on its own inscrutable terms. The problem that many viewers might have had with this approach at the time (but which might not be so much of a hindrance to an appreciation of it today, now that the film has become a period piece that evokes the times it was made in but is no longer necessarily required to accurately represent them) boils down to the fact that a large part of the subject matter of Fellini’s cinematic delirium in this case was directed towards his addressing the then ‘modern’ phenomenon of feminism, from the perspective of the attempts of this sixty-year-old Italian director (who claims to ‘love women’) to understand all this bewildering women’s liberation malarkey that had blown up recently.

 To many modern women (and men) watching it at the time, circa 1980, the film must understandably have seemed like the most absurd, anachronistic, chauvinistic  irrelevance, full of flagrant stereotypes and often dealing in crude satirical mockery of the more extreme feminist critiques of the ‘phallocentrism of patriarchy’, etc. It also veers into the sort of vulgar comic territory all too often lazily populated with matronly sex mad battle axes, prick-teasing girlish coquettes with massive breasts and nagging, unreasonable, pinched-faced wives -- who always seem to be out to spoil one’s fun. In an extensive one hour behind-the-scenes documentary made in 1980 (and included with this Blu-ray release from Master of Cinema) some of the extras who make up the all-female audience in the stadium scene from near the end of the film are startlingly frank about what they think of Fellini’s attempt to portray womanhood, locating the film as the work of yet another powerful man trying to dictate terms and to tell them what they should be feeling and thinking.

In the end though, this film is not really about women, or even about feminism as such … it’s only ever about Fellini: a free form self-exploration, accomplished through the visualisation of the Marcello Mastroianni alter ego and his relationships with the archetypal females he encounters during the course of the film. But what also seems clear viewing it now, is that the work was never trying to be anything else but a document of its author’s subconscious drives and obsessions, rendered in a distorted dream logic form of fantasy. And despite the often parodiac nature of its representations of feminism and femininity, it’s the traditional Italian form of machismo that comes in for the most sustained assault in the end. The film inherently recognises and acknowledges its own redundancy as a method of ‘understanding’ woman, but for Fellini cinema itself is a womb-like refuge -- and creativity, associated as it is with the three muses, is also inherently an activity to be viewed as something that relates to the feminine side of one’s own nature.

This particular ‘feminine’ fantasy beings, though, with the crudest of all Freudian references to the sex act – a train entering a tunnel – and proceeds with a visual gag involving Mastroianni’s character Snàporaz: a middle-aged variant on the protagonist the actor portrayed for “8 ½”, but now possessing greying though still luxuriant hair, and with his former ‘cool dude’ shades replaced by large spectacles with thick black frames. He’s introduced dozing in a train compartment while seated in front of a voluptuous, enigmatic woman (Bernice Stegers from Lamberto Bava’s “Macabre”) who smiles a Mona Lisa smile behind mirrored shades, dressed in a pinstriped suit. The joke is that the jolting movement of the train carriage causes the slumbering Snàporaz to jerk up and down in his seat as though he were furiously masturbating in his sleep – Fellini having strategically positioned a bottle of mineral water on the table just in front of him so that its neck mimics a stiffed phallus!

This crude visual innuendo also functions as something of a summation of the entirety of the rest of the film’s content: a long fitful slumber full of sexualised anxieties and longings, during the course of which the protagonist’s secret lusts (and his attempts to conceal them behind a cultivated air of civilised decorum) are laid bare for all to see. In the corridor outside the carriage, a gaggle of little girls makes an impromptu audience for this embarrassing spectacle, mocking and pulling faces until Snàporaz slips into wakefulness, notices the attractive woman seated opposite him and ends up following her to the ladies’, where a cramped sexual fumble is interrupted by the train pulling noisily into a small station stop. Now uncontrollably aroused, Snàporaz exits the train in pursuit of his potential conquest but notices that she has alighted on the wrong side of the train, opposite the station -- and is now striding purposefully through an open field amid an expansive wilderness of Italian countryside. In following her, Snàporaz again finds his lustful overtures (‘you’re a hot bitch!”) being first toyed with and then openly mocked -- until he stumbles into the reception area of an incongruously placed ‘Grand Hotel’ that’s playing host to a feminist convention. Here, a harried looking all-male staff wait on a bustling multitude of women’s discussion groups, yoga classes, lectures and feminist theatre workshops ( one of which includes the performance of a Chaplinesque comic parody of a housewife’s lot). For the Duration of these events, furniture has been rejected for being ‘too rigid’ and therefore too masculine, and so everybody either stands or sits on the floor.

Snàporaz affects the persona of an interested journalist, sympathetic to the feminist cause, watching with bemused indulgence, for example, as an elderly woman who has practiced polyandry throughout her life introduces her six husbands onto the stage to a round of rapturous applause from the hundreds of women, young and old, who are attending a lecture being given in her honour! But the woman from the train, whom Snàporaz has in reality been been pursuing the whole time, ends up being the one who exposes and accuses him, in front of the collective eyes of this congress of womanhood, of being ‘a spy’ who has come here merely to ridicule them. The scene becomes a humiliating castration anxiety dream in which the complacent male is ripped to shreds in front of the entire female assembly, his accuser even turning out to have secretly taken photographs throughout their previous encounter, which are now projected onto a screen to illustrate to the sisterhood his ridiculousness and his hypocrisy as the lecture now suddenly becomes entirely devoted to exposing Snàporaz’s own many personal inadequacies.

Fellini supposedly consulted with feminist academics of the day such as Germaine Greer before shooting the movie and although the scene is played for comedic exaggeration, with Snàporaz fleeing through the increasingly Kafka-esque hotel’s strange, diverse and unconnected interiors as he attempts to escape the chanting feminist hordes, one can’t help feeling more than a degree of identification with some of the words put into the mouth of his chief denouncer: ‘he wants to laugh about things we’ve never even been allowed to cry about!’ is one choice bon mot directed at the ‘hero’ and, more particularly pertinent still (given some of the criticisms of the film itself) is her observation that: ‘the eyes of this man are the eyes of the male we’ve always known. They distort everything they see in a mirror of derision and mockery.’

The pain of Snàporaz is the public shaming of someone who always thought he was a pretty right on kind of guy, now suddenly being confronted with the realisation that he’s actually just a relic of another age in the eyes of the ‘new’ woman, who views him simply as an absurd patriarchal hate figure. There is underneath Fellini’s caricature of feminism and the modern woman circa 1980, then, more than a little of the male mid-life crisis involved -- but the old maestro is self-aware enough to be perfectly willing to accept this as a self-criticism and  to embrace it.  As a result, he allows the film to become more and more shamelessly an indulgent baroque fantasy of the comic-absurd and the exaggerated until it is entirely self-centred and oneiric.

 Central to this strategy is the luminous cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno of course, but underpinning it even more so is the quite phenomenal production designs of Dante Ferretti (a frequent collaborator on the films of Martin Scorsese since 2002): he proffers a real tour-de-force of his art in “La citta delle donne” and it’s fair to say that a large part of what makes the film so compelling to watch is  the huge and varied selection of environments Fellini has Ferretti design as the lurid backdrops to his ever more flamboyant flights of fancy. From the metallic lift interior in which Snàporaz first encounters what becomes the recurring figure of the coquette Donatella (Donatella Damiani), to the bunker-like ice rink/gymnasium she drags him to (where young women are trained in the art of kicking men in the bollocks with the aid of a special mannequin designed for the purpose), Ferretti makes each setting appear odd, unsettling, displaced and uncanny. One environment invariably acts as a portal to another one that seems to belong in an entirely different world somehow to the space it’s ostensibly connected to: a side-door in the ice rink leads down a flight of steps that descend into a fairy tale-like grotto of a furnace room, presided over by a troglodyte washerwoman who takes Snàporaz on a madcap jaunt through the Italian countryside at dusk and then attempts to have her way with him in a field of maize, before being caught in the act by her outraged mother (played by what is clearly a little old man in drag!)

Snàporaz’s pantomimic misadventures here stray into the realm of traditional British farce, with its propensity to indulge drag act harridan mother-in-laws and timid hen-pecked hubbies, etc., but this section of the film also contains the one sequence that most emphatically grounds the film in its post punk late-seventies/early-eighties milieu while emphasising its creator’s complete alienation and distance from the cultural backdrop of the period. When Snàporaz encounters some druggy, trend-setting girl teens hanging out beneath a giant advertising hording (designed by Ferretti to mimic the colourful contemporary style of a “Mimmo" Rotella décollage) while listening to early-eighties New Wave European electro-pop, he’s disturbed and freaked out by their dissolute amorality and completely perplexed by their peculiar, tranced-out dance moves and offbeat harmonising, which in fact bear no relation whatsoever to any dance moves or singing you’ve ever likely seen before … The viewer soon comes to understand, though, that this is merely what early eighties euro pop must have looked and sounded like to a sixty-year-old man who had lived through the war and grew up on Fred Astaire!

These girls are a scary, voracious, alien new species to this middle-aged Italian male, who cannot come to terms with the idea that he is no longer a potential love interest for any of them. The constant and unexplained reappearance of Donatella throughout the film in a variety of contexts is a reminder of the confusion this causes him since she repeatedly flirts with him by referring to him as ‘daddy’. Later, a very Italian form of male machismo finds bizarre expression in perhaps the film’s most sustained and visually impressive middle section, set in the baroque lair of a phallus worshiping misogynist. Ferretti’s skills are again called upon to create a whole new context for his appearance, which takes the form of a woodland setting created on a Cinecittá soundstage, in which swirling mists conjure the atmosphere of a Mario Bava gothic classic.

 Snàporaz encounters a flamboyant yet rugged individual here, who goes by the name of Dr. Xavier Katzone, and who was played by an actor called Ettore Manni more usually cast in Italian Peplum movies. The actor by all accounts maintained a similarly macho image off screen but actually died during production in a bizarre shooting accident, which resulted in him (appropriately enough) shooting off his own penis! Cast as an echo of his real-life persona, Manni’s character name in Italian translates as something along the lines of ‘big cock’ and he appears dressed in velvet smoking jacket while sporting gold chains & medallions and a red-trim satin cape as he presides over and guards a vast phallic shaped villa which the all-female authorities are constantly trying to have demolished.

Inside his expressionistically designed home (which looks like the art deco themed foyer of the hotel from the start of “Suspiria”, with a Bauhaus style staircase curving up towards an upper balcony) Katzone lives with his two large Dalmatian dogs, surrounded by phallic shaped ornaments and furnishings from all over the world. This is also where he idolises a classical Greek bust of his dead mother set in an alcove as though it were a religious icon erected in memory of a goddess. He is about to host a party to celebrate his ten thousandth sexual conquest, and one of the party turns he’s arranged to entertain the guests invited to the event with is a woman dressed as Marilyn Monroe who has a ‘magnetic’ vagina which radiates an attractive force field that can draw gold coins and pearls across the floor towards it! In the film’s most memorable set-piece, though, Snàporaz stumbles upon a large marble room designed like a mausoleum but full of different styles of portraiture representing each one of Katzone’s legion of sexual conquests in a strange mixture of funeral rites, art and advertising. When a switch next to each portrait is flipped, its image lights up and the sound each woman makes during orgasm plays over a speaker system! The switches can be flipped in different combinations and at the same time to create a discordant, cacophonous symphony of orgasmic moans!

After Snàporaz finds his own wife Elena (Anna Prucnal) is also a guest of Dr Katzone, the film soon plunges into fantastical reconstructions of the protagonist’s past encounters with other women, as Snàporaz attempts to escape his neurotic wife’s nagging and unwanted drunken demands for sex. He finds a portal under the bed in the couple’s room (another symbolic vaginal opening) after they’re both induced to stay the night as Katzone’s guests to escape a howling storm that’s blown up outside. It leads down a fairground helter-skelter toboggan ride into scenes culled from past memories of the women Snàporaz  has been sexually attracted to during his life ever since early childhood: a memory of peeping on a woman in a beach hut as a boy (Ferretti creates an entire beach and glittering seascape on a soundstage, in a beautifully rendered large-scale illusion where the sea is in reality merely made out of an undulating rubber surface, with incoming tides created by an army of stagehands pulling plastic sheeting across it) leads to recollections of being tended to by a buxom nurse as an adolescent; then on to his first visit to a bordello (‘an arse lover’s paradise!’), which is rendered as a delirious red tinted fantasy carnival attraction.

This strand of fantasy culminates in a childhood visualisation of the cinema as both enveloping womb-like escape from the world and the ultimate in a voyeurs’ paradise, when a darkened, smoky auditorium projecting images of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo becomes a vast bedroom full of young boys pleasuring themselves beneath the room-wide duvet! This wild pell-mell descent into the most indulgent, grotesque form of surrealism ends with Snàporaz being imprisoned … trapped in a cage by his feminist ‘foes’ at the very bottom of the slide. The film becomes a symbolic battle between Snàporaz’s desire for retreat into an idealised fantasy of womanhood and a feminist desire to reclaim female identity, conveyed in dazzling Wizard of Oz-like images of Snàporaz suspended in a hot air balloon basket, dangling on a thin cord held in the fingertips of a huge, levitating statue of Donatella, while the woman herself aims a machine gun at the spectacle from below …

“La citta delle donne” is an undeniable triumph of imagination and of technical skill, and looks suitably terrific in this marvellous HD restored transfer created by Gaumont. The Masters of Cinema UK Blu-ray disc comes with an excellent selection of extras too. “A Dream of Women” is a documentary by Dominique Maillet in which one of the film’s producers, Renzo Rossellini, discusses the background to the making of the picture, along with historians of cinema Aldo Tassone and Carlo Lizzani; while Dominique Delouche, assistant to Fellini from 1955-1960, talks about the director’s method of working. Fellini’s relationship with Marcello Mastroianni is examined, and also discussed is how the film had to be hurriedly re-written during production after the sudden self-inflicted death of Ettore Manni.

“Notes on City of Women” is an extremely valuable one hour, Italian-made behind-the -scenes documentary shot in 1980, which showcases the extensive access the documentary team had to Fellini’s film-making process in this instance. There are on-set interviews with cast, crew and extras, and the ingenuity involved in the construction of the sets and special effects comes across more vividly than ever here. This is a particularly excellent addition to the disc, which Fellini fans will delight in.

“Dante Ferretti: A Builder of Dreams” is a fine 22 minute interview with the production designer, who talks eloquently about his relationship with Fellini and the inspiration for numerous aspects of his work on “La citta delle donne”.

“Tinto Brass: Women, Women” is a twelve minute interview with the greatest ‘arse man’ in world cinema, who talks glowingly about his friendship with Fellini and, um … their shared love of the female form!

Two trailers round off the disc contents, but as ever with Masters of Cinema releases there is much more to be relished here in the form of a forty-five page ‘book’, crammed with insightful interviews with Fellini conducted at the time of the film’s release in 1980.

This is a strange, beguiling, even madding film which was viewed very much as an archaic irrelevance by many when it first premiered at Cannes (Andrey Tarkovskiy famously dismissed it as ‘worthless’); yet it is completely impossible to ignore, and feels as much a landmark of cinematic extravagance today as it was then. It stands proud as yet another majestic release for the Masters of Cinema series.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night

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