What is an Italian woman if she’s not a Madonna or a whore? This is one of many questions that Federico Fellini ponders in Juliet of the Spirits, his 1965 technicolor masterpiece (part of the new Essential Fellini collection, now streaming on Criterion Channel). In this film, the female lead’s psychology gets the hallucinogenic self-analysis that Marcello Mastrianni received as Guido, the womanizing artistically flummoxed filmmaker in Fellini’s landmark 1963 film 8½. Guilietta Masina plays Juliet, a sad-eyed but sunny-minded middle-aged housewife who must journey into the center of her subconscious to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity and untangle her strange and unearthly memories and visions.
The film begins with Juliet, furiously and happily preparing for an anniversary dinner. Her dashing husband Giorgio (played by Mario Pisu) arrives home with a motley crew of fashionable friends in tow, having forgotten the date. Dinner spoiled, Juliet dutifully indulges the manic crowd of trendy, new-age lingo-spouting ding-dongs by participating in a seance. Little do they know, Juliet, plain and unassuming, is plagued by actual visions that both puzzle and haunt her. Over the next 2-plus hours, we’ll get to know all about Juliet’s spirits and demons as she begins to understand how she became the sum of her saints, and how to let them go.
From the beginning, Juliet has an inkling that her husband, a handsome and smooth-talking Hollywood publicity man, is luxuriating in the comforts of marriage while indulging his extramarital desires. It’s not enough for her to find out who the other woman is; she wants to know where it all went awry. We follow her on a quest to find answers from a litany of swamis, priests, spiritualists, private detectives, and echoes from her own complicated past, to see if there’s a new religion or ideology that can help her understand herself. Juliet will have to go through terrible trials of temptation and loss to find her way out of her doll’s house and see her life as it is.
In a 1966 interview with critic Gideon Bachmann for Playboy magazine, Fellini describes Juliet as “the portrait of an Italian woman, conditioned by our modern society, and yet a product of misshapen religious training and ancient dogmas–like the one about getting married and living happily ever after.” In his view, a woman is pulled in two directions from the start, to be sex goddess or a a good wife. To get meta about it, Juliet is caught between Fellini’s favorite conflicting subjects–sex and religion. Should she embrace uninhibted sex goddesses like Suzy, the blonde voluptuous Aphrodite (Sandra Milo) who makes love in treehouses and on water slides? Or the trappings of the church and its lurid, suffocating, and yet, enchanting influence to be a wife and mother? These are Fellini’s familiar hang-ups.
The film is a strange love letter to Masina, the star of Fellini’s most adored early works, La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). In both those films, Masina plays optimistic wandering waifs, whose optimistic spirit endures despite wretchedness. While Masina is older and less naive in Juliet, she’s still the same unflagging spirit who marches onward, somehow, despite being crushed again and again by brutal and uncaring men. Juliet endures her shallow, callous, and unworthy husband (Pisu, while debonair, purposely lacks the charm of Mastrianni). Is this Masina’s burden?
To compare Juliet and Guido is a non-starter. Guido is forgiven for all his womanizing while Juliet is left with nothing, only a scrap of hope that she can begin to live again without lies and delusions. Can we trust Fellini to deliver on a woman’s experience? Of course not.
None of this is discouragement to watch Juliet of the Spirits, which is a showcase for Masina, who conveys more emotion with the whites of her eyes than most can do with their entire bodies. Surrounded by circus elephants, visions of hell, sun-drenched beaches and bikini-clad female bodies (it’s Fellini, did you expect sparse and subtle?), Juliet is the film’s beating heart. Her sweetness and humanity, her trademark half-smile and wide eyes are more alluring than all the sexual temptations and ghouls and hellfire that dazzle her eyes but inhibit her understanding of herself. It’s a lush masterpiece, ripe and luscious, and deeply emotional. Masina adds bursting vitality and layers upon layers to Fellini’s dopey assertion that a woman’s lot is to choose between the good and bad girl.