Fellini's Inferno

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

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.

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.  


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.

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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