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
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
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
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