La città delle donne
“It’s the viewpoint of a man who has always looked at woman as a total mystery.… Through the ages, from the beginning of time, I’m certain man has covered woman’s face with masks. They are, however, his masks, not hers.”–Federico Fellini defending City of Women
DIRECTED BY: Federico Fellini
FEATURING: Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Prucnal, Ettore Manni, Bernice Stegers, Donatella Damiani
PLOT: Waking on a train across from a seductive woman, Snàporaz pursues her into the carriage’s wash-room. Abruptly, the train stops and the woman de-embarks, heading across a field with Snàporaz in close pursuit. During his long journey he explores an hotel teeming with Feminists, hitches a ride with a crew of drugged-out teenage motorists, and meets a doctor whose “manly” villa contravenes local law.
- A massive re-work of the story was required when the second male lead (Ettore Manni, who played “Dr. Katzone”) died from a fatal, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the groin.
- Before returning to his reliable proxy Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini offered the role to Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman declined, as he was concerned about the post-dubbing process being detrimental to his performance.
- Though it received largely positive reviews on its general release, it fared poorly at Cannes. Andrei Tarkovsky, in Rome at the time working on Nostalghia, dismissed City of Women in his diary, saying “…it’s true, his film is worthless.”
- Production designer Dante Ferretti was kept on his toes while making of the film, as Fellini would constantly request that new, elaborate sets be whipped up in a small amount of time. Farretti invariably obliged the director’s requests, and his success allowed him sole billing as “Production Designer,” a title usually nabbed by Fellini himself in the movie’s credits.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the brief introduction of the train ride turning into a romp across a field, virtually everything that follows in Fellini’s City of Women starts globbing on to the memory. From a long list of choices (addled Feminists fomenting in an hotel, drugged-out [?] minors driving the middle-aged protagonist to a haunting techno-pop tune, and an aged Lothario blowing out 10,000 candles among them), perhaps the best choice is the joy-filled sequence in the museum of women at Katzone’s villa. Snàporaz darts back and forth with an innocently lecherous glee as he flicks on the photographs’ illumination and hears a snippet from that woman’s sexual history. The visual and sonic overload goes up to eleven when Snàporaz’s ex-wife appears at the end of the corridor and turns on all of the displays. Women, women everywhere—in sound and vision.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hall of sexual conquests; memory lane slide; ideal woman escape balloon
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Traipsing along for two and one-half hours, City of Women somehow combines the sugary charm of a light-weight musical with the non-stop adventure of an epic film. Beginning with a tone bordering on the mundane (the tediousness of travel), Fellini quickly pushes things from believable, to somewhat believable (the feminist convention), then onwards and upwards to a literal and metaphorical peak of disbelief as our hero escapes an arena full of spectators by clinging to a hot-air balloon. Between the jostling in the train car and the flight into the unknown, it would be faster to answer the question, what isn’t weird about it?
Original Italian trailer for City of Women
COMMENTS: Obsession can be a dangerous thing, but it can also be a driving force for creativity. While I would be scared of Fellini as an ex-lover, I celebrate that in cinema he found an outlet for his singular obsession. In City of Women, Federico Fellini continues his mental exercises (and, perhaps, exorcises) concerning his favorite kind of person — the female kind of person. Summoning the aid of his attractive stand-in, Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini takes his viewers on a journey, starting in a very literal sense with the interrupted train ride. Leaving the confines of the noisy carriage, our protagonist Snàporaz (Mastroianni) guides us along an expedition that ably combines the socio-cultural with the whimsical. Meandering through an adventurous exploration of feminism, City of Women‘s tone darts back and forth between cartoonish intensity and quiet introspection.
City of Women‘s anchor and vessel is Snàporaz, a man with whom we never part company throughout the film. This charismatic and witty fellow is a bit of a lech, but he has a sort of honesty in that he hopes the women he encounters will share the same characteristic. He objectifies, indeed, in the hopes of being objectified himself. Stumbling off his train after not quite consummating a tryst with a lady stranger, our hero’s first encounter with his new and strange world brings him to the heart of a feminist retreat at a nearby hotel. Drifting through their gathering, he observes a world that, though familiar to him, he admits he cannot understand—at one point quipping, “Why do you have to be so angry?” When Snàporaz escapes, first by roller skates and then motorcycle, City of Women takes on a new tone of disillusioned youth and age-ism in addition to feminism. (His surreal [and crowded] ride with the drugged-up young women and girls almost made the “Indelible Image” cut.) After that, things accelerate; further plot description would do a disservice to the dream-logic progression that whirls the action along through the rest of the movie.
“Weird” continues to be a slippery-but-appropriate term, as City of Women is an understandable narrative and character study that is thoroughly riddled with bizarre encounters. From the visual non sequitur of the 50-year-old Snàporaz smiling and sometimes frolicking with the (generally) young and vibrant feminists at the convention, to his dismissive but civil treatment of the homosexual co-prisoners(?) at the end, every new segment brings something Weird to the table. A recurring jaunty jazz-tune appears everywhere, to greatest effect when Snàporaz and his ex-wife (Anna Prucnal) soft-shoe through the Corridor of Women, flanking Doctor Katzone (Ettore Manni) on their way to the evening’s party to celebrate the good doctor’s 10,000th conquest.
At times, City of Women borders on a Ken Russell-esque movie musical, as when our hero enjoys a literal slide down Memory Lane. Three men in a teacup-shaped spinning disc sing together against a backdrop of rollercoaster metal works as Snàporaz glides through showcased memories of earlier loves and conquests. One has to take a moment to remember that this movie was made in 1979 and not in Busby Berkeley‘s 1930s (or the Coen Brothers‘ 1990s, for that matter). Why the radical shift to full-bore fantasy after the doctor’s party? It may have had something to do with the (very weird) death of Ettore Manni, who died from a fatal (and possibly accidental) bullet to the penis. Top that.
City of Women acts as a capstone for Fellini’s “post-Realism” period. Anyone can see that this movie is an exploration of the subconscious rather than a depiction of anything remotely real. Yet despite its fantastical elements, a serious streak runs throughout. Having long before established Marcello Mastroianni as his proxy, it is apparent that Fellini intends Snàporaz’s journey to reflect his own psychological journey. The fact that nothing is made too clear in the movie suggests Fellini is still working out his feelings concerning women, the cultural changes of the time, and even his own personality. The protagonist is a readily sympathetic one, accepting verbal abuse with an “oops!” smile, until the bombardment over his masculinity goes so far that he’s practically forced to shout, “What is it you want? I’m male. There’s nothing I can do about that.” He never quite loses his cool, though, and his initial flippant civility evolves into something more akin to self-evaluation. His soliloquy near the end as he climbs the ladder towards “the Ideal Woman” shows personal growth coupled with humility. He is aware there is still a lot he doesn’t understand. Having wanted to conquer women, Snàporaz has to make do with merely grasping them. (Metaphorically).
G. Smalley adds: Although the weirdness starts slowly, by the midpoint, City of Women actually turns into one of Fellini’s most surreal efforts. It begins as an obvious and shrill parody of radical feminism, but that’s part of Fellini’s game here—he’s not chasing such a simplistic theme, but instead parodying both feminism, and masculinity’s panicked reaction to its more confrontational expressions. The film soon deepens into a more personal examination of Fellini’s personal love/guilt relationship with the opposite sex—basically becoming the feature-length version of 8 1/2‘s harem scene. Among other oddities, City of Women has an indescribable light-up wall mask with an extendable tongue, a woman vacuuming coins into her yoni, and literal Feminanzis—and these images are just the runners-up to the incredible erotosurreal carnival underneath Snàporaz’s bed. Weird stuff, indeed.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Though the film is overlong, even for a Fellini aficionado, it is spellbinding, a dazzling visual display that is part burlesque, part satire, part Folies-Bergeres and all cinema.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Federico Fellini covers his bets in this hallucinatory survey of the women’s movement—it isn’t reactionary enough to offend or progressive enough to matter.”–Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
“Federico Fellini’s psychedelic exploration of feminine mysteries is another visual tour de force in an elaborate dream framework, with a ponderous tone, typical of Fellini’s efforts in the latter stages of his career.”–TV Guide
IMDB LINK: City of Women (1980)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Fellini’s “City of Women” – James Guida’s informative 2016 piece for the New Yorker is so filled with background detail and context that it’s more essay than review
City of Women – Cohen Film Collection – Cohen’s page has a synopsis, their own re-release trailer, and a trio of stills
DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection Blu—Wait, what? No, not the crew at Criterion, but the fine people at the Rohauer Library (under the guidance of Charles S. Cohen) bring us a commendable Cohen Media Group release (buy DVD or Blu-ray) of Fellini’s late classic. Video, audio, menu—all are wonderful. The extras are thorough, with most of the weight pulled by a thirty-minute documentary about City’s production, with insights from a number of Fellini’s contemporaries and those who worked on the film. Dante Ferretti, the production designer, chimes in with his own twenty-minute interview piece. Rounding out the film’s background is an interview with Tinto Brass that, if nothing else, clearly shows how much both he and Fellini really loved the company of women. Oh yes, and there are two trailers included—the Italian one making a bit less sense than the French one.
Cohen has also made City of Women available for digital purchase or rental (rent or buy on-demand).