Fellini's Inferno

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

 

In his own account of the production, Fellini gives Masina a peculiarly backhanded compliment: "Giulietta's resistance to the makeup, clothing, hairdo, earrings, her firm stand that other times seemed to me crimes against the character, intolerable interventions of femininity--this time they were functional." According to stories, Fellini intended Juliet as a gift to Masina during a particularly tumultuous period in their marriage. But he couldn't give it without leaving the strings attached; Masina was his marionette. Watching the film now, you can see the tension created by Fellini's demands on his wife's dignity. Masina plays Juliet as a sort of holy fool, wearing the same inert expression--a beatific little crinkle of a smile, as though she was laughing at a cosmic joke--throughout. Masina certainly wasn't a bad actress: Playing wistful romantics in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, she gave Fellini's cinema of cruelty a warm human center. By the time Juliet of the Spirits rolled along, though, it seems that Mrs. Fellini simply didn't want to play her husband's head games anymore. The style of her performance might best be described as passive resistance.

What Fellini was interested in was, of course, himself. In a telling dream sequence, Masina is tasked with dragging a chain out of the ocean. Fellini, a devotee of Jung, often used the sea to symbolize his mind. (Recall the monstrous fish that washes ashore at the end of La Dolce Vita, a symbol of Mastroianni/Fellini's awakening.) In Juliet, Masina is literally enlisted in the dredging of her husband's subconscious. Andrew Sarris compared the film's undertones to those of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, which also uses a filmmaker's wife to mirror an artist's insecurity (a rare case of Contempt breeding familiarity). But only Fellini would have the audacity to put his real-life wife on the psychoanalyst's couch, then talk about his own problems for two hours. Fellini called Juliet his least autobiographical film, and, indeed, he's not an overt presence in it. If, in 8-1/2, Fellini was like Prospero, directing the tempest on the enchanted island of a movie set, here he's more like Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, causing mischief behind the scenes and then clucking, "Lord, what fools these mortals be." But he's pulling the strings in either case, and you can feel his influence upon every frame. If one were to attempt a working definition of "Felliniesque," Juliet of the Spirits would be Exhibit A.

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

Fellini was always a surer fabulist than he was a moralist, and that might be Juliet's saving grace. Unlike the hellfire and brimstone of Bergman, Fellini's conception of sin was never more sophisticated than a weird-looking guy sticking his tongue out at the camera. Indeed, Fellini often seems to have adopted a Catholic schoolboy's imagination without any of the usual hang-ups. In Juliet, for instance, he sends Masina to see a frail, creepily androgynous swami who chants obscure passages from the Kama Sutra. The scene is meant to be demonic, foreboding; instead, it's funny as hell. Later, in the film's hallucinatory climax, we flash back to the root of Juliet's neurosis, a church pageant in which the poor girl, playing a martyred saint, is lashed to a cage and burned in effigy by a chorus of faceless, cowled nuns. (Fellini's rather unchivalrous message to his wife being, apparently, Come down off your cross.) For all its portent, Fellini can't resist piling on the ecclesiastical camp: The angelic young Juliet, nearly lost in a writhing sea of red paper flames, floats above the hushed crowd like the statue of Christ hovering over Rome at the beginning of La Dolce Vita. Even when he's throwing a black mass, Fellini turns it into a masque. It's worth noting that, as a child, Fellini ran off to join the carnival, not the priesthood. Eventually, even the church became another ring in his circus.

In the 1974 book Fellini on Fellini--the title of which rather neatly describes his entire filmmaking career--the director explained his fondness for excess thus: "I feel that decadence is indispensable to rebirth. I have already said that I love shipwrecks. So I am happy to be living at a time when everything is capsizing." Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini's own lavish shipwreck, demonstrates where his true sympathies lay: For all his apocalyptic rumbling about moral degeneracy, Fellini was happier among pagans than among saints. And that hedonism enlivens Juliet's camp decadence; watching it now, you can sense the wicked fun he's having piloting this ship of fools onto the rocks. William Blake once wrote of Milton: "He was a true poet, and of the devil's party without knowing it." Fellini, too, was of the devil's party. But he knew it; indeed, he wanted to be the host.

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