Fellini's Inferno

With Juliet of the Spirits, the devilish director of 8-1/2 welcomed his audience to hell--but grandly

If the critics are to be believed, Juliet of the Spirits, released in 1965 and rereleased this year in a restored and re-subtitled print, marked the beginning of Federico Fellini's long, sad slide into self-parody. Writing in Esquire, Dwight Macdonald compared Fellini to an orator who shouts to cover gaping holes in his argument. Pauline Kael--who otherwise disagreed with just about everything Macdonald ever wrote--seconded the motion: "Few seem to have noticed that by the time of Juliet of the Spirits [Fellini] had turned into a professional party-giver." The consensus view was that, with this "big trashy phantasmagoria" (Kael's biting summation), Fellini had let his imagination elope with his senses--a harbinger of later rococo orgies like Fellini Satyricon. Juliet was all dressed up, with nowhere to go except camp.

Fortunately, the critics are not to be believed. It isn't that Juliet has aged especially well: With its psychedelic gilding and mucky Age of Aquarius spirituality, the film seems a bit overripe for contemporary taste. Nor is it a particularly sophisticated film: The story tells of a cuckolded wife (played by Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina) who suffers a benign haunting after she discovers that her husband, a professional party thrower (Fellini, in other words), is carrying on an affair. What stands up after all these years is the film's visual brio--in their first departure from black-and-white, Fellini and his longtime cinematographer Gianni De Venanzo get reelingly drunk on color--and its deeply felt sense of the absurd. The latter seems especially central to Fellini's purpose: Like that other Roman satirist, Horace, Fellini was determined to speak the truth while laughing. Reviewers primed to pigeonhole him as a maker of modern morality plays--"the official greeter of the apocalypse," in Kael's memorable phrase--might have missed some of the maestro's wink-and-nod humor. Of course the modern world is going to hell, he seems to say. But isn't the trip grand?

Juliet, though smaller in scale than Fellini's La Dolce Vita or 8-1/2, also wickedly satirizes the lifestyles of the rich and semi-famous. Here, the director plants Masina in a tidy seaside home that looks like an enlarged dollhouse. Her life, too, is an exaggerated version of bourgeois placidity: Surrounded by bustling servants at the film's opening, Masina's Juliet prepares for a lavish anniversary party. Her husband forgets, of course, arriving instead with a coterie of hangers-on, including a darkly handsome toreador who quotes Garcia Lorca; a desiccated sculptor and her oily boy toy; and an effeminate mystic who insists on performing a séance. Fellini stages the ensuing party as a swirl of sound and shadow; his camera, accompanied by Nina Rota's unsettlingly chirpy jazz score, flits around these slightly ghoulish figures, alighting only momentarily on their painted faces. It's as though the crowd of grotesques from La Dolce Vita has invaded Juliet's head and begun to multiply.

Nine and a half: Giulietta Masina in Juliet of the Spirits
Nine and a half: Giulietta Masina in Juliet of the Spirits

In this respect, at least, Kael was spot on: Fellini knows how to throw a party. He packs so much baroque weirdness into these early scenes that the screen sometimes resembles a Hieronymus Bosch canvas. In one virtuoso sequence, Juliet pays a visit to her neighbor, Suzy, a vampish sexpot played by Sandra Milo (who, in an impossible-to-miss parallel, played the mistress of Fellini's alter ego in 8-1/2). Suzy's sprawling mansion is like the harem dream in La Dolce Vita, stocked with beautiful, wild-eyed women dressed like art-nouveau peacocks who stage an elaborate bordello pageant. And Suzy herself is like Juliet's uninhibited alter ego: She maintains her own harem of chiseled men; a chute from her bedroom to a swimming pool below, for quick postcoital access; and a liquor-stocked tree house for trysting. Recall that in 8-1/2, Marcello Mastroianni's Guido tried to convince his mistress to play a prostitute in the bedroom; Milo's Carla, voluptuous and dumb, kept interrupting the fantasy by talking about her digestion. Here Fellini has finally got Milo where he wants her, and he makes her into the kind of woman who could commit seven deadly sins before breakfast. (Like Guido in 8-1/2, Fellini somehow manages to keep both his slutty fantasy girl and his chaste wife.) He's clearly more interested in this eroticized kabuki than he is in Juliet's situation; for a few minutes, the diminutive Masina is almost lost in the flutter.

In fact, given that Juliet is considered by some to be the feminist counterpoint to 8-1/2 (inaccurately, I think), it's remarkable how little interest Fellini shows in Juliet/Masina's problems. One could argue, of course, that Fellini never treated his wife particularly well: In La Strada he let Anthony Quinn toss her around like a rag doll; in the first reel of Nights of Cabiria, he had her thrown into a sewage ditch, dumped by her lover, and prostituted to a famous actor. Fellini didn't use Masina as Antonioni did Monica Vitta--as a pretty face to foreground the filmmaker's immaculate compositions. Masina was both Fellini's muse and his mule. Especially in Juliet, though, the director's treatment of his wife borders on spousal abuse: Fellini, who designed Masina's couture for the film, dresses her like a nun, managing to render her unattractive and uninteresting. In the midst of all this decadent abandon (everyone around her is decorated like a Christmas tree), Masina ends up seeming like Julie Andrews plopped onto the planet of the apes.

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