City Of Women

Tuesday May 31, 2016

City Of Women

Federico Fellini's surrealistic "City of Women" might be the last word on issues of patriarchy, sexism, the objectification of women, and sexual shame; in this Freudian trawl through lust, desire, and self-mockery, women are the focus of male need and puerile misconduct, but also the origin of those things -- devils and bedevilment all in one.

The film runs about two and quarter hours, and breaks down into roughly three sections. It's no surprise when, in an interview included in the extras, we learn that Fellini had wanted to make a "triple bill with Kurosawa," based on the Christian ideas of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; seen through this lens, the madcap, fumbling misadventures of a horndog named Snporaz (Marcello Mastroianni) make perfect sense, though they still retain their absurdist and dreamlike character. (In another interview -- with designer Dante Ferretti, we learn that Fellini used to quiz Ferretti about his dreams and Ferretti, who never remembered them, would simply make things up to tell the director -- only to see some of his fabrications folded into the finished film!)

Snporaz pursues a woman he saw on a train (Bernice Stegers), so anxious to bed her that he hops off the train in mid-journey and follows her into a forest. He might as well be following a rabbit down a hole and into a feminine Wonderland; he makes his way to a hotel where women have taken over for a conference, giving talks and putting on shows that parody gender-assigned tasks like housekeeping.

Some women look at him with disgust, some with rage, and a few with rapaciousness; Snporaz escapes the hotel, only to wander further into a strange fantasy that presents an absurdly exaggerated picture of masculinity in the person of Dr. Xavier Katzone (Ettore Manni), who is on the verge of being chased from his (almost literal) castle (a place filled to the brim with phallic representations and outfitted with a gallery dedicated to his numerous conquests) by feminists of an authoritarian, man-hating stripe. (Rush Limbaugh would call them "Feminazis," and had Fellini had any idea of Limbaugh, he could well have been making fun of America's talk radio blowhard in chief.)

But things get stranger still: Snporaz finds his own wife in attendance at Dr. Katzone's party (celebrating his 10,000th conquest: Why, he's halfway to Wilt Chamberlain's famously boasted-of tally!) That doesn't stop him from tumbling into bed with some other femme fatales, even as a storm rages outside, after which Snporaz discovers a hold under the bed that leads to a fun park, where his own erotic memories provide the thrills and excitement.

What's the point of all this? What is Snporaz chasing? Like Goldmund in the Hesse novel, he's driven, instinctually and forever, toward some idealization of Woman, some spiritual absolute of the feminine eidos. But is Woman like God? Can a man look into Her face and survive the experience?

Fellini upends the narrative of an ordinary person who has stumbled, or tumbled, into a surreal other-world. Usually, the hero of such a story is a young girl, like Alice in the Lewis Carroll stories, or Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" (or, of that matter, Sarah in "Labyrinth" or Helena in "Mirrormask"). Here, it's a middle-aged man, not a pubescent or adolescent girl, and the topsy-turvy world he's trying to make sense of is his own inner landscape. Sexual awakenings are one thing, after all -- but a sexual nightmare? Only Fellini could have pulled it off.

This Cohen Media Blu-ray includes several special features. In one, various colleagues recall the film, its origins and production dramas (including an all-too-apt, though still tragic, death that caused a mid-production re-write), and working with Fellini. In another, Dante Ferretti tells the tale of how he and Fellini first began to work together, and how Fellini gave him screen credit for his contribution (unlike his other production designers, evidently); in the third, and shortest, special feature, filmmaker and Fellini friend Tinto Brass talks about Fellini's love of women and, not incidentally, himself.

This restored, 4K edition gives the film a glorious treatment. It really is like falling into a dream.

"City of Women"