From its initial shot of a train hurtling along a rural track and entering a pitch-black tunnel, Federico Fellini’s City of Women (La città delle donne, 1980) screams sex from the very beginning. This frank, highly personal dissection of feminism in 1980s Italy succeeds the master director’s echoing his more succinct and potent previous work. Yet, it seems that by the age of the leg-warmer, Fellini appears only capable of merely imitating his earlier masterpieces. Herein, long-time collaborator Marcello Mastroianni gives a semi-reprisal of his character from 1963’s 8 ½, Snàporaz, who traverses a surreal world populated predominantly by women.
Dreamlike and playful, the dapperly-dressed and sexually-charged Snàporaz encounters a convention of militant feminists who decry patriarchal society in various ways – ranging from calls to castrate men to the worship of Earth Mother idols. Realising that this initially tantalising utopia populated by Amazonian femmes might not be the heaven he once imagined, we follow the film’s loosely autobiographical central character as he makes a bid to escape this surrealist nightmare, dissecting contemporary attitudes to women’s role within society in the process.
Represented are numerous twisted archetypes of femininity, ranging from sexualised washerwomen crones, roller-skating black garbed widows, nubile punkish teens and, of course, the mother figures. Whilst this menagerie initially delights, with beautiful cinematography that rollicks around the screen making you feel trapped in a gender-politicised version of Dante’s Inferno, the frantic fun soon begins to wears thin, failing to capture the true spirit of 1980s sexual liberation as it was. We do get a few beats courtesy of Gino Soccio and spiky-haired, baggy t-shirted teens, yet the impression we get is always that of an outsider, with Fellini himself never understanding nor capturing the vibe of the age fully.
As is always the case with Fellini, there is a degree of reflexivity to proceedings. The Italian director knew he was an older man dissecting a generation to which he did not truly belong. The women titillate, excite and scare the acclaimed filmmaker, who can only ever voyeuristically peer in, until the inevitable anti-climactic acceptance of the inability to understand the opposite sex. Yet unlike 8 ½, where the line between sexism is carefully walked and often parodied in a way that always delights, here the experiment feels stale and unsuccessful. The amount of repetition from earlier works borders on self-plagiarism, the overall effect muddled at best.
City of Women is not without its pleasures. There is the satanic Dr. Xavier Katzone (Ettore Manni), who lives within his own temple-like mansion, collecting memories of his thousands of past sexual conquests in pictorial and aerial form. This feels like Fellini at his most overt, humorous and surreal, and provides the most enjoyable sequence in the film. It’s easy to see why City of Women divided audiences at the 1980s Cannes Film Festival, but a weak Fellini effort is still a Fellini effort – while the bar here may be lowered, it still remains scalable.