Federico Fellini was one of the best filmmakers in the world – particularly due to his ability to make purely cinematic films without plots and many of the other things that lesser film directors might fall back on. Fellini was not a storyteller but he was a filmmaker. Juliet of the Spirits and Fellini Satyricon are prime examples of films that succeed on visual and tonal inventiveness alone. Neither have stories. City of Women was one of his later films and while it does show a certain unevenness, it has enough of the old Fellini touches to make it entirely worthwhile.
Plot is a pointless word to use but as far as it goes City of Women is about a businessman, Snàporaz (Marcello Mastroianni, often used as Fellini’s filmic alter ego in his best work, including La Dolce Vita and 8½), who steps off a train and ends up caught up in a feminist convention. As Snàporaz wonders through this world dominated by women, his own relationship with women is interrogated and criticized. He is also frequently humiliated. Eventually, he will escape to the apparent idyll of Dr. Xavier Zuberkock (Ettore Manni), who is celebrating his ten thousandth conquest, until the feminists arrive and stop the party.
As with a lot of Fellini’s work, one has to look for meaning in the subtext rather than in the actual onscreen action. City of Women may reflect Fellini’s own ambivalence and bewilderment about the feminist movement that was gaining influence at the time. In the feminist convention sequence, the film is certainly mocking the women. They are hopelessly disorganised and discussions are likely to descend into a cacophony of propagandist sloganeering. Similarly, the sheer range of arguments lead to a slew of contradictions and in-fighting, all hilariously captured by Fellini’s freewheeling camera weaving through the carefully designed sets. These scenes angered many when the film was released, the film in general being regarded as misogynist. However, while Fellini does undoubtedly poke fun at the radicalism of some of the feminists, he is hardly complementary to men. Mastroianni is hilarious here as a lecher who wanders around with a dirty grin, pretending unconvincingly to be sympathetic to the feminist cause. When the women turn on him and thoroughly cut him down to size, the rest of the film becomes a chase as Snàporaz tries to escape from these vengeful women, who are justifiably tired of being treated like pieces of meat.
Like 8½ and Juliet of the Spirit, the resulting journey takes place much more logically inside Snàporaz’ head than outside of it. A lot of the rest of the film concerned itself with Snàporaz’, and Fellini’s by extension, attitudes to women. Zuberkock’s villa is decadent and sexist, but it remains Snàporaz’ dream house – it also recalls the harem sequence from 8½ or the orgy sequence from La Dolce Vita. Zuberkock’s gift to Snàporaz of two women for the night plays out first like a Hollywood musical with Snàporaz gleefully channelling Fred Astaire and moves into the bedroom. Here, however, it morphs to a nightmare for Snàporaz when, instead of two busty, mothering bikinied women, Snàporaz finds himself in bed with a sexually forceful and animalistic incarnation of his previously distant wife Elena (Anna Prucnal). He desperately avoids sex with her and then regresses into childhood via a portal under his bed and a slide – a beautifully orchestrated sequence in which Snàporaz revisits his sexual history through brightly lit windows (read rose-tinted spectacles). As a result, far from being a reactionary diatribe against feminism by an aging sexist, City of Women is a semi-biographical confession and critique of men and their positioning of women into either passive or nurturing roles.
Similarly, the film reflects back on Fellini’s own back catalogue with many scenes that refer back to his previous films, 8½ and Amarcord most frequently. It is open to interpretation if Fellini is inviting us to look back and consider how he represented women in his previous films. This adds a further layer to the film as one gets the impression of an artist reconsidering his legacy – remaking some best known sequences from his other films but with a further level of insight. As a result, City of Women, far from being one of Fellini’s least successful and significant films, is one of the key films in his oeuvre.
As fun and inventive as City of Women undoubtedly is, it is also overlong and some of the sequences just do not work – particularly Snàporaz’ encounter with some young women who drive around listening to techno and doing drugs. It’s a long sequence, which doesn’t really seem to have much to say. A two-hour cut would stand the film in good stead, but otherwise City of Women is a brilliantly made, beautifully lit interrogation of men’s attitudes to women. It might also be Fellini’s funniest films. City of Women is one of his most ramshackle films; yet, for this director, a hint of chaos is always a sign of great inventiveness. Fellini’s films have always worked thanks to their close proximity to disaster.