Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Juliet of the Spirits

(Giulietta degli spiriti, Italy/France, 1965)

Federico Fellini has never been among my very favorites directors, though one of his films, Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria) is one my Top 25 of All Time list. He started off as a neo-realist, and then started shifting into his own unique brand of fantastic imagery. La Dolce Vita began the process, he jumped into it with both feet in his masterpiece, , then added a riot of color and pumped the whole thing up to hitherto unseen levels in this movie. I can’t say I ever really liked any of them after that, though he was always interesting to look at.

The world he shows here is peopled entirely by pompous or silly, sad or maniacally happy, but always, always by fashionable, pretentious, useless social parasites who create nothing but a sad aura about themselves. They spout either stupid philosophy or meaningless prattle, often at the same time. They have the money to indulge their every hedonistic whim, are continually searching for “answers” among the dregs of pre-New Age gurus and grotesques and coming up empty … which they never seem to notice. These people are much less interesting than they will ever know, and would not be interesting at all except that Fellini clothes them in the most outlandish, colorful, and impractical clothing the fashionably pretentious designers of Italy ever came up with. The budget for hats alone—some of them the size of the mainsails of a Spanish galleon—would probably bankrupt a studio today.

Through this maelstrom of swirling color and witlessness stumbles poor little dowdy Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and the star of my favorite of his films, see above. Her husband is cheating on her, and she begins to see ghosts and spirits from her past, as well as her present. She is always the shortest person in a scene, completely dominated by everyone else there, and she is always the least flashily dressed. Her face is sweet, but homely, unlike every other woman there, who could all walk right off the set and onto the cover of any fashion magazine. Hopelessly outclassed in every department. Masina has the difficult challenge of having very little to say, mostly just showing her reactions to the others around her, and she does a great job of it.

There is not really any plot, as such. We know he’s cheating before the smarmy private detective confirms it. The mistress doesn’t even care enough about her to have a fight with her. She seems in danger of disappearing entirely. But in the end, she seems to find some internal strength, banishes the spirits, and walks off. A literal viewing would lead you to think she was going crazy, but this is Fellini, and you know nothing is literal here. It’s all symbolic, and too damn deep for me.

Part of my problem with Federico is that his symbolism is not my symbolism. He was fascinated with the Catholic Church and with circuses. I like circuses well enough, but could care less about Papists and their rigmarole. That doesn’t mean, however, that much of his imagery doesn’t work for me. He is very surrealist here, and many scenes or individual frames remind me of Salvador Dali. He can conjure up the most appalling freaks, as in the individual I’m assuming was a hermaphrodite, telling her future. Creepy, disturbing, sickening. But fascinating. I can’t say I like this movie, would not recommend it to anyone except to say that this is one of those very few movies that might be worth your time just for the production design, which is stunningly good. A visual feast, and one whose images will probably haunt you.