Surreal ‘Juliet’ of the Symbols

<i> Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for the Times Orange County Edition</i>

There were a few wags who thought Federico Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits” should have been named something like “8 1/2: Her Story” when it came out in 1965.

This grandly garish, joltingly hyperbolic movie entered the scene just two years after Fellini’s acknowledged masterpiece “8 1/2,” and it, too, gazed long and uproariously at the hopes, doubts and fantasies of a complex protagonist.

But where the autobiographical “8 1/2" fixated on a male filmmaker (Fellini’s stand-in), “Juliet of the Spirits” was from a woman’s perspective, that of a mousy housewife all dressed down and nowhere to go.

As with the earlier movie, “Juliet of the Spirits” (which screens Monday night as part of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center’s outdoor “Celestial Cinema” series) shows off the playfulness of Fellini’s mind. Phantasmic images collide throughout as Juliet (played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina) slips into a dream landscape as her despair over a lousy marriage and cheating husband grows.


In “8 1/2,” we see clowns and other circus performers leading the hero to heartache, insight and laughs, and in “Juliet of the Spirits,” the heroine is guided by even stranger creatures. Bhishma (Waleska Gert), for instance, is a bizarre-looking oracle of undetermined sex who keeps showing up to soothe and cajole.

“Juliet of the Spirits” is even more flamboyant than “8 1/2,” and this leads to its biggest flaw. The movie lacks the defining self-awareness Fellini brought to “8 1/2" and, along with it, a more assured control. Even when Fellini takes us down a puzzling path in that movie, we come out at the other end knowing what the little side-trip was all about.

In “Juliet of the Spirits,” though, the excursions can feel gratuitous, as if the great director is tossing out inspirations without a subtext. This doesn’t detract from the film’s fertile imagination, which is mostly fascinating, but it may have you wondering what all the visual commotion is meant to convey.

Even if not one of Fellini’s best, the picture is still mesmerizing. It’s problematic in many of the same ways as his even more outrageous and indulgent “Fellini Satyricon” (1970), but, like that movie, it presents an environment completely different from any you can find in other films. Even when unsettlingly ambiguous, Fellini is always an entertaining trickster.


“Juliet of the Spirits” is also interesting because it marks the first time Fellini tried color. And wow, does he use it. The picture is so bold as to be almost blinding--costumes, scenery and makeup take on party-mad hues, all adding to his carnival interpretations of psychological distress.

A strong point is Masina, whose lost child’s vulnerability makes Juliet instantly likable, no matter how much brilliant chaos is spinning around her. Masina can also be seen tonight at the Bowers Museum in “La Strada” (1954), perhaps her most recognized performance and one of Fellini’s seminal films.

* What: Federico Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits.”

* When: Monday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m.


* Where: The Muckenthaler Cultural Center amphitheater, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton.

* Whereabouts: Take the Riverside (91) Freeway to Euclid Street and head north to Malvern Avenue. Take a left, and the center will be on the right.

* Wherewithal: $2 and $3.

* Where to call: (714) 738-6595.