! Critic Judy Stone
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City of Women

Federico Fellini's "City of Women" is a Fourth of July pinwheel, sending out cascades of dazzling light, jokes, Broadway melodies, a razzmatazz dream and nightmare as light as a dessert souffle and not to be skewered on a psychoanalytic couch.

It is Fellini and his alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni, in search of women, past, present and future, and therefore, as Fellini sees it, man in search of himself. But not too seriously.

The first clue to Fellini's mixed motives comes when Mastroianni is being chased down a foggy road by leather - jacketed,punk-rocking female hot-rodders. Menacing sounds fill the air. Shots ring out. Mastroianni falls, looks up and asks in polite puzzlement: "What film is this?" It's the continuation and culmination of all the Fellini flicks that have gone before. He's the ringleader of the Roman circus our times.

Fellini, the Merry Prankster, takes Mastroianni on a miraculous pilgrimage through fantastic byways of the eternal war between men and women, with dead ends, detours, twists and turns at every juncture. At 138 minutes long, the journey - like most travels without a fixed destination - is wearying at times, but you wouldn't have wanted to miss those wild eruptions of creative energy along the way. The problem is that Fellini gets carried away by each comic notion until it reaches a point of diminishing returns.

Mastroianni's adventure starts out, normally enough, with a frustrated seduction attempt on a train. Well, normally enough, for the male animal who will carry a pursuit even into the cramped quarters of a lavatory. His Diana of the hunt has something else on her mind, as Mastroianni discovers when he follows her to an isolated hotel where a feminist convention is going full speed ahead. A bursting bazaar of sideshows gives the ladies every opportunity to vent their grievances (a funny skit of the Italian housewife, bambini in every corner of the kitchen and a male monster at her rear ) or suggest a different way of life (a wife with six husbands at her beck and call.)

As the sole male witness, Mastroianni 's behavior is impeccable. He observes the uninhibited expression of all this female dissatisfaction with benevolence, an earnest desire to comprehend, curiosity and only the merest soupcon of a smile. Until the sisters carry things too far. Which they do. Inevitably.

Taken in hand by a kind-hearted chick who treats him like a grandfather, Mastroianni has a whirlwind spin around a spendidly designed roller-skating rink. This flings him from the frying pan into the fire where a buxom boiler-tender carries our Gulliver farther and farther on his travels.

Eventually, he finds himself in the domain of Dr. Zubercock, the Last Real Man. In the operatic manner, Ettore Manni makes no bones about his passion for guns, women and horses. He is determined to hold his fortress against destruction by a new order of female cops. Zubercock's mansion has a collection of erotic esoterica that would make Dr. Alfred Kinsey turn over in his grave with envy.

The piece de resistance is a memorial gallery paneled with portraits of seductive women. A flick of their sound switches produces the sighs and groans of women in the (satisfied) throes of passion. Mastroianni — or Snaporaz, as the character is called — is enchanted. Smic, smac, says he, at a loss for more eloquent words.

In this unlikely place, Snaporaz comes face to face with his wife. Fellini suddenly sobers up. The dialogue between Snaporaz and his long-suffering wife (Anna Prucnal) seems far too serious for all that has gone before. It is uncomfortably like eavesdropping on a very personal conversation, even though it may be duplicated in thousands of households in the Western world.

Then, fleet-footed Fellini is off and away to another flight of fancy: a stunning , red-carpeted, boldly- lit roller -coaster ride through his past. It's a joyously mesmerizing merger of his homage to the sirens of the silver screen and the real-life maids and voluptuous fishmongers who inflamed his boyhood dreams. Mastroianni doing a Fred Astaire number of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is delightful.

Fellini outdoes himself with magical images and syncopated sounds. If in the end, you don't know what he has really been saying, it has nonetheless been a glorious, if not totally successful, triumph of form over natter.

San Francisco Chronicle April 22, 1981