City of Women begins as it will continue, with the voice of masculine authority and presumption undermined by the mockery of feminine voices. The blue field of opening credits announces Marcello Mastroianni’s name, to be answered with a woman’s teasing weariness at using him again, and Luis Bacalov’s nostalgic piano doesn’t begin until she orders “Music, Maestro”.
We begin with that almost parodically powerful image: the camera is a train rushing into a dark tunnel. As a passenger, Snaporaz (Mastroianni) begins to nod, signaling that the film is entering a dream-state, and the bottle on the table between him and a beautiful woman (Bernice Stegers) pokes its cheeky phallic pose into every shot until the man’s erotic fantasy leads him literally astray — off the train, into the woods and finally into a hotel hosting a feminist convention.
A variety of opinions, stances and tones mark this breathless section, not only dialectical but multivalent, as the male interloper (still hoping to get laid) expresses sympathy and bewilderment at the anger. When the woman from the train humiliates him with a blistering denunciation, warning her sisters that they’re being co-opted and betrayed as window dressing in another one of his egocentric circuses, we realize that Fellini has anticipated every criticism by including them all in a film not only self-analytical and self-mocking but self-condemning. Later two young women will chide Snaporaz as “a little boring” for always saying the same things about women.
After a number of encounters that flirt with danger, especially from the younger women, Snaporaz finds himself at the phallic castle of Katzone (played by Ettore Manni of Italian he-man roles), a parodic caricature of the macho seducer. There’s a party going on with Snaporaz’s estranged wife (Anna Prucnal) who bears a similarity to Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina that makes us wonder if this film is one long personal apology instead of merely an apologia pro vita sua. In this way, City of Women has returned to the territory of Fellini’s Casanova, a similarly subversive critique of the sexual male. During this sequence, Manni seems somewhat absent. Indeed, he would have starred in more scenes had he not died during production after accidentally shooting himself in the groin. If this had occurred within a Fellini film, it would have been called too much.
This unfortunate catastrophe required major improvisation to finish the film, so Fellini came up with a dream-within-a-dream involving a giant slide with tableau-flashbacks to buxom women from childhood, all played by the same actress. Yes, it ends with a circus and surreal imagery of death, and even the “happy” return to the train of life reminds us that its destination is still that dark tunnel, which has more than one symbolic meaning. It’s a tribute to Fellini’s mastery that a film with such a troubled production comes across as coherently as it does.
A man’s relationship to women is an important theme, and sometimes it’s all he has. Fellini repeats himself, as do so many artists, and comes across with glittering, delirious command as himself. One might call it masturbatory cinema, or rather maestro-batory (and that’s the difference), and he includes and celebrates even that critique in a scene with a giant bed populated by bouncing males absorbed by the glittering projection of iconic stars — again, played by the same woman.
The movie is a kind of force field, the opposite of a sensory deprivation tank: a sensory stimulation. It’s light, dark, surreal, phantasmagorical, vulgar, poetic, colorful, provocative, witty, nostalgic, and increasingly lost and sad — all those adjectives trotted out to describe this artist’s post-1960 explosions of therapeutic gut-spilling in cinematic form.
This gorgeously restored Blu-ray print comes with a making-of, an interview with inspired designer Dante Ferretti, and an inconsequential interview with fellow filmmaker Tinto Brass.