”What kind of film is this?” the protagonist asks himself about halfway through City of Women, and it’s a very pertinent question indeed. It is certainly not any kind of normal film, and in the end there can be only one answer: it is a Fellini film.
The main character, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is named Snàporaz. He is an affluent man around 50, who is very passionate about women. His approach to them, however, seems to be entirely pleasure-oriented; he wants their bodies and only gets confused when he has to deal with them on a personal and emotional level. He is on a train voyage with his wife, Elena, and the movie chronicles a dream/nightmare he has while he is snoozing on the train.
The dream begins with another woman in the train compartment with him, to whom he is very attracted. When the train suddenly stops and she gets off, Snàporaz follows her into the woods. They arrive, strangely, at a hotel (in the middle of the woods, yes) where a great feminism convention is taking place. Apparently, feminists have taken over this entirely rural country area, and even imposed new laws for the inhabitants. After a deeply strange trip through the convention, Snàporaz tries to get back to the train station, and is pursued by a number of angry women. He finds refuge at a big mansion, which is the only place in the area not yet overrun by the feminist police state. This is the home of one Dr. Katzone, a rich eccentric whose grand villa is a shrine to women and eroticism; he seems to me to represent the director himself. There is a big party going on at the mansion, when Dr. Katzone is getting engaged, or perhaps married, to a woman with certain tantric abilities. The mansion is invaded by the feminist police, who tells them to shut down the party. Undoubtedly a commentary on how Fellini’s feels that feminists perceive his work.
Strangely, Snàporaz’s wife, Elena, is also at this party, and he has a confrontation with her. After dark, Snàporaz takes a trip through his past, remembering the various women he met when he was growing up.
If the viewers have problems understanding what goes on in this movie, I don’t blame them. Being a dream sequence, it is not very linear, doesn’t have much of a plot, nor the kind of point that I would claim constitutes a well-rounded work of art. But the extra material on this new Blu-ray release helps explaining a few things. Mastroianni tells us, for instance, that it is about a man from his and Fellini’s generation – adapted to earlier times and earlier gender conventions – who has difficulties dealing with the sexual revolution and the “transfer of power” from men to women. Snàporaz does not understand what is going on with all these feminists, but his confusion is limited to just wanting to reject the whole thing and tiptoe past it, rather than try to understand it. He is an “old-school man”, not as sensitive to the plight of women as he should be, and the changing times are overtaking him.
However, the question of the exact gender-political stand-point of the movie and the director remains. Does Snàporaz and his views represent the views of the director? To an extent, it seems that they do. Why would Fellini make a movie that so strongly focuses on this kind of reaction in this man, if it wasn’t because he wanted to explore his own feelings about this subject? Interviews with cinema historians on the extra features inform us that the depiction of feminism in City of Women is a caricature, because Fellini felt that many of the issues dealt with by feminism were distorted and caricatured. So it seems to me that Fellini, like Snàporaz, also belongs to the bourgeois generation that stands amazed and confounded by the gender-political upheavals of the ‘70s, and tries only half-heartedly to deal with it; to understand it, but his real nostalgia remains the good old days of 8½ (1963) where modes of masculinity and femininity were more fixed. Therefore, the movie is in some sense the work of an old man who has given up changing with the times.
I may sound like I am offended that Fellini has the gall to be critical of feminism, but this is not the case. Some feminist issues are distorted and caricatured; it is frequently a problem to suss out how much of it is actually and moderately devoted to gender equality and emancipation and how much of is a sort of extremist “all men are just EVIL” lesbian utopianism. But the fact that there has been a serious repression of women in all advanced cultures throughout most of history (including the present) has to be accepted and dealt with; it cannot just be brushed aside.
Whether City of Women ever reaches any kind of real resolution is up for debate. My impression is that it does not. Aspects of Snàporaz’s dream seem to invade the real world by the end, but is this because Snàporaz embraces some of the social changes, or because he cherry-picks a few sexy elements to continue dreaming about? This is not clear, but I suppose it could be a bit of both.
Visually, City of Women is undoubtedly unique. It is full of crazy images and fanatical people, driven by intellectual passion if not by physical ditto. Fellini’s cinematic aesthetics is very distinctive and imaginative, but it is neither beautiful nor progressive enough for my enthusiasm to attain a powerful eruption. I become bored with the shallowness of the protagonist, and with the brightly colored and almost transsexual/fetishist glamour of the overdone make-up, costumes and the overall mise en scene. Fellini is ceretainly an artist, but he is not a very progressive one, and this is why I also think that the future, as society inevitably progresses, will become less and less interested in Fellini’s work, except as an example of outmoded sensibilities.
The Blu-ray release reviewed here (out in the UK today, February 25) is a great package. The quality of the movie itself is superb, and there is an hour-long Making of… documentary from 1980, and another hour of new interviews with pertinent people, including director Tinto Brass.
Director: Federico Fellini
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Prucnal, Bernice Stegers, Donatella Damiani, Ettore Manni and others.
Runtime: 140 min.