FILM APRIL 4, 1981
All through City of Women I kept wondering what had been going through Federico Fellini's mind while he was making it. That's an unorthodox way to view a film--Intentional Fallacy is only one of the canonical errors--but a few directors are so close to me that I feel personally involved in their new films. Some of their past works are so tightly knitted into my experience and fantasy that I can't escape a proprietary, even nervous feeling when a new film by one of them comes along. Bergman and Antonioni and Kurosawa are three such: Fellini, too, though his record is much less consistently high than the others. Still, the man who made I, Vitteloni, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, 8 1/2, and Amarcord belongs to me, and I can't help worrying about him, in intrusive, noncritical ways.
So with this latest film I couldn't help puzzling how he had made choices from day today, hour to hour. 'City of Women' is quite poor--at least as poor as 'Orchestra Rehearsal' and without even the tiny asset of the last film's symbolism--an attempt at the harmony of music that ended in chaos. But it's not the inferiority of City that distressed me most: what good artist has always worked well? (Look at later Picasso.) Besides, quality is not always best judged by the maker; many an artist has preferred works of his that the world ranks otherwise. No, what baffled me was, not why Fellini didn't see that the film wasn't very good but that he didn't recognize its familiarity, didn't know how much he was repeating himself.
Before some details on that point, a word on the structure. City of Women is schizoid. Part One is set in a huge luxe country hotel full of women--feminists, mostly young, variously caricatured--into which the tail-chasing Marcello Mastroianni stumbles. Well, not exactly stumbles: he gets off a train at Fregene(where Fellini has a house, by the way) to follow a Junoesque woman into the woods, and she leads him to the hotel. After a lot of humiliating tricks played by the women on the middle-aged, ludicrouslylecherous Mastroianni, the film shifts gears. He wanders into the fantastically palatial home-and-harem of a middle-aged stud called, in the subtitles, Dr. Zuberkock. (His name in Italian is Cazzone, which translates, without equivocation, as supercock.) After some more adventures in that house, whose atmosphere is the reverse of the hotel, Mastroianni moves into a melange of personal memories.
The film ends where it began, in Mastroianni's railway compartment. The whole picture has been--I canhardly bear to write this--a dream. And Fellini tries for a last quasi-metaphysical twist by having three women of the dream come into the compartment after Mastroianni wakes.
The first part, the luxe hive full of nothing but queen bees, has an odd reverse-flow stylistic effect. It kept reminding me of Lina Wertmuller (also the stud's palace), and WertmiJller began her career as assistant to Fellini. More: the brutal, aggressive, castration-implying behavior of some of the women has suggestions of Bertrand Blier's Femmes Fatales. Through these early sections could Fellini not have known all this? Could he have been unaware of echoes re-echoed?
Concede that possibility, and the last long section is still a very different matter. It's less a stroll down Mastroianni's Memory Lane, as presented, than down Fellini's. Some items: a beach, with a view of the sea; on the beach, some boys peeping at the body of a woman; Mastroianni's use of expletives from comicstrip balloons; a sexual advance by a homely woman who exposes her gargantuan bosom at him; his cool wife visiting him in the midst of madness; fragments of vaudeville; a mass of people out of Mastroianni's past coming down a flight of steps at him; a shot looking directly down on him,floating high in the air; escape from women by ascent into the sky. You could list those items on an exam in Fellini, and ask the student to match them up with 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, or Amarcord. How, Ikept wondering, could Fellini not know he was duplicating and that, by duplicating, he was diminishing?
There's an additional burr. Analysis of Fellini films in Jungian or Freudian terms is plentiful, and a bit of it has even been helpful. Fellini seems to have read some of it and has taken it on himself toput in Jungian/Freudian clues instead of concentrating on the work and leaving the inferences to others. He uses a lot of long dark corridors with light at the end, he repeats often the device of Mastroiannion a winding children's playground slide, he opens and closes the film with his camera on the front of a locomotive heading for a tunnel. (Hitchcockians will spy a reference here.)
In some of Fellini's post-Dolce Vita fumbles, he has at least partially compensated with unique visual invention and spectacle, with staggering/witty costume and design and composition and color. Very little of that in City of Women. Dante Ferretti, the designer, is not as striking as Danilo Donati, whowas not in the same class as the late great Piero Gherardi. And the music by Luis Bacaiov is stratospheres below what the late Nino Rota used to supply for Fellini. I'll remember only a few bits from this film: the photograph gallery of women in Zuberkock's home, with a switch under each picture that turns onthe voice of the woman in sexual moments; or the pitch-black screen out of which the lights of a huge amusement park suddenly snap. Slim pickings for a 138-minute film.
I thought I had a rule of thumb about Fellini: that, after in Dolce Vita, the good films were those about memory--8 1/2, Amarcord, much of The Clowns; but that thumb is now fractured along with its rule. City of Women is filled with reworkings and leftovers of memory, in a context of self-mockery that is itself histrionic and insincere, nothing like Guido's in 8 1/2. Is it really possible that, in all the months of preparation of this film, Fellini could not have known that he was rehashing?
Recently I went to see Attila, an early opera by one of my heroes in art, Giuseppe Verdi. I thought Attila very weak, with little hint in it of the Verdi to come, which was surprising because even earlier Verdi, Nabucco, and Ernani seem stronger and more prophetic of the giant en route.
Recently I went to see The Lady without Camellias, an early film by Michelangelo Antonioni. I thought Lady very weak, with little hint in it of the Antonioni to come, which was surprising because even earlier Antonioni, Story of a Love, (TNR, April 19, 1975), seemed stranger and more prophetic of the giant en route.
I had seen Lady once before, at the 1965 New York Film Festival, and thought it feeble, (It's Antonioni's third film, made in 1953. Story was made in 1951; then he made a three-episode film, I, Vinti, which I've never seen). Lady has just now been given its American theatrical premiere by Film at the Public, a branch of the Papp complex. And now it looks feebler than it did in 1965, not because of Antonioni's masterpieces, which are some of the paramount artworks of our age, but because I've since seen the first film. Lady is a trite script about a salesgirl who becomes a film star, gets notions of grandeur, makes an ambitious flop, then sinks back into sleazy pictures. Connected with this action are the stories of a marriage that she ruins and a lover who deserts her.
The script is flat as tinware, the acting bearably routine except for the star Lucia Bose, who is unbearably routine. It's said that Antonioni wanted Gina Loliobrigida or Sophia Loren for the role, either of whom would at least have given the picture some personal sparkle, which now it has not. I don't understand the title: the heroine is not a modern courtesan, simply a lucky nonentity who takes some time to realize the extent of her luck. The big disappointment is the visual barrenness of the picture; Antonioni himself said that the camerawork was "more orthodox" than in his first film. One moment only is out of the ordinary; the first shot. From above we see Bose walking idly back and forth on the curb of a street at night. She does this under the credits; with the last credit, she suddenly turns and goes into the film theater in front of which she has been waiting, goes in to see the last minute of the film in which she is starring ... an angle and an action that interest us, that lead to a point, and that launch the story- But it's not much of a story.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann