Fantasy and Spectacle Lend a Timelessness to ‘Juliet of the Spirits’
Federico Fellini’s 1965 “Juliet of the Spirits” remains a timeless, major work of a master, a portrait of a dutiful wife plunged into crisis that triggers her spiritual awakening. With Fellini’s own wife, the great Giulietta Masina, as Juliet, and with his unique command of fantasy and spectacle in full force, “Juliet of the Spirits,” Fellini’s first film in color, is at once an eye-popping display of bravura and a work of compassionate insight.
To see this film again or for the first time is to feel both the full measure of Fellini’s talent and also the great loss to world cinema with his death in 1993, with Masina’s passing occurring only five months later. For Fellini admirers, Cooper Square Press is releasing a paperback edition of Charlotte Chandler’s invaluable 1994 interview book “I, Fellini” in conjunction with Rialto Pictures’ release of this magnificently restored 35-millimeter print of “Juliet of the Spirits,” which also has newly translated subtitles.
On the eve of her 15th wedding anniversary, the demure Juliet has spent her marriage in a state of gratitude to the handsome Giorgio (Mario Pisu) who asked her to marry him. Now in his dashing, expensively tailored, silver-haired 40s, Giorgio is a successful PR impresario who travels a lot, almost certainly not only for work, and attracts a retinue of frivolous, bizarre socialites who seem straight out of “La Dolce Vita.”
Having carefully planned a candlelight dinner for two at her dollhouse-perfect home near the sea, Juliet is greeted by Giorgio, who has forgotten their anniversary. But he shows up with his entourage in tow, which includes, among many others, Val (Valentina Cortese), a medium who persuades Juliet and others to participate in a seance that has a decided, if mysterious, effect on Juliet.
From this point on, the film flows freely between Juliet’s daily life and her newly unleashed imagination, alternating between dreams and fantasies. This occurs just as she has reason to suspect that her glib husband, who has become sexually indifferent to her, has a mistress.
Thus commences Juliet’s odyssey of self-liberation, which Fellini expresses with wit, grandeur and humor. In addition to Masina, he draws upon his formidable familiar collaborators: co-writers Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi; cinematographer Gianni De Venanzo; composer Nino Rota; production and costume designer Piero Gherardi. Fellini designed the chic, understated wardrobe for Juliet while Gherardi created amazing costumes for the other actresses, decking them out in outsize picture hats, and miles of feathers, ruffles, chiffons and silks. Surely only a group this talented could have hoped to keep all this visual splendor light, floating and beguiling.
Juliet is intimidated and overwhelmed on all sides. Her mother (Caterina Boratto) is an icy, ageless beauty; one sister (Sylva Koscina) is an attractive TV hostess, the other (Luisa Della Noce) is puritanical and pregnant, insisting that Juliet hire a private detective to get the goods on Giorgio.
As various gurus, including an androgynous Eastern mystic (played by pioneering performance artist Valeska Gert) are telling Juliet what to do, she is at once flooded with childhood memories and drawn to the hospitality of her gorgeous blond neighbor Suzy (Sandra Milo), who lives in an Art Nouveau-ish palace with her Greek tycoon lover and whose parties would not be inappropriate for a bordello.
In “I, Fellini,” the director reveals that he and his wife argued over “Juliet’s” ending, with Fellini admitting that in retrospect, he should have listened to Masina more. “Juliet of the Spirits” builds to a glorious epiphany, but where Fellini envisioned a Juliet free at last from her inhibitions, Masina saw an image of a middle-aged woman all alone.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: Some sensuality, adult themes and situations.
‘Juliet of the Spirits’
Giulietta Masina: Juliet
Mario Pisu: Giorgio
Sandra Milo: Suzy
Valentina Cortese: Valentina
Valeska Gert: Pijma
A Rialto Films release of a Federiz production. Director Federico Fellini. Producer Angelo Rizzoli. Screenplay by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi; from a story by Fellini and Pinelli. Cinematographer Gianni De Venanzo. Editor Ruggero Mastroianni. Music Nino Rota. Costume-production designer Piero Gherardi. In Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.
Exclusively at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theater through Thursday, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330.