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City of Women | Blu-ray Review

Federico Fellini City of Women“It’s all about women!” read the tagline for George Cukor’s classic 1939 comedy The Women but could have just as well been reapplied to Federico Fellini’s 1980 comic romp City of Women, hailed as the maestro’s feminist manifesto. As visually inspired and sexually liberated as any of the director’s celebrated works, this was, comparatively, not a well-received title, and like many of the director’s films following 1971’s Amarcord, courted the disdainful side of divisiveness. It’s not hard to understand why, considering the narrative’s one note dreamy refrain about a man imperiled in an imaginary feminist society which may aspire to satire but more often slips into misogyny. The befuddled businessman portrayed by Fellini stand-in Marcello Mastroianni may indeed be a stranger in a strange land, but he’s portrayed as the perpetually sane signpost in a landscape of varying madness. Despite the film’s archaic tendencies, one can’t help but appreciate the usual visual wonders you’d expect to see in the director’s idiosyncratic tableaus.

City of Women, which Fellini co-wrote with two regular collaborators, Bernardino Zapponi and Brunello Rondi, seems to be the fleshed out version of a dream sequence from 8 ½ (1963), where Mastroianni’s director is at the center of a suffocating dream sequence featuring all the women in his life. Mastroianni returns as businessman Snaporaz, and his considerable libido leads him off a nap on a train to the promise of a tryst after conversing with an elusive woman (Bernice Stigers) he believes to have amorous intentions. But she leaves him puckered up against a tree, forcing him to stumble into a prestigious hotel looming out of the woods like some exclusive mountainside resort we’ve grown accustomed in films by Sorrentino and Wes Anderson, frequented and overrun with all sorts of babbling women who are united wholeheartedly, it seems, in a feminist tirade against men and the cult of the phallus.

Initially, this all feels goofy yet compelling, until Snaporaz takes on a rather patronizing demeanor, professing the usual demeaning stance of privileged heterosexual men by pretending sympathy for the plight of the feminist, but do they have to be so loud and angry about it? City of Women is, at best, the reflection of an Italian male’s psyche during a particular junction in time, where sexual mores and gender empowerment was beginning to have a direct societal impact on the sentiments and behavior of women. However, the rest of the feature feels a bit episodic, which is explained away by its reveal as a dream, another factor of arrogance considering such a world can only be dreamed as a man’s nightmare of anxiety. Still, there are (perhaps inadvertent) kernels of agency here, considering it’s still uncommon to see depictions of women bluntly demanding satisfaction of their pleasures, though they’re always presented here as a punchline. This is hardly the meaty examination of a gender inverse realm as something like Gerd Brantenberg’s Egalia’s Daughters, or Riad Sattouf’s underrated 2014 film Jacky in the Kingdom of Women.

Fellini’s City of Women may be all about women, but merely to convey the chaos and abuse of privilege inevitably to follow should they snatch cultural control. Obviously, one could argue Fellini is attempting to convey the same is true in a world dominated by men, but there’s simply no evidence of anything vaguely subversive. What the film does have is more superb production designs from Dante Ferretti (who had previously worked on a number of Pasolini’s films, and later Marco Ferreri and Martin Scorsese), including a superb finale of fallopian shaped slides and Snaporaz’s escape in the nets of a garish hot air balloon shaped like a robust, voluptuous woman.

Disc Review:

Cohen Media Group makes this minor Fellini title available for the first time in the US (previously, UK label Masters of Cinema brought it to Blu-ray in 2013) and the transfer is fleckless, a visual odyssey to appreciate thanks to editor Ruggero Mastroianni and DP Giuseppe Rotunno’s sometimes delirious moments of fantasy. Included on the bonus features are a documentary on the film, an interview with production designer Dante Ferretti, and an interview with Tinto Brass.

Dreams of Women:
This 30 minute documentary by Dominique Maillet concerns the making of the film. Producer Renzo Rossellini appears to speak of Fellini’s long gestating project on death, something which eventually morphed into this feature, which is described as an exorcism of Fellini’s fears of death.

Dante Ferretti – A Builder of Dreams:
A twenty-one minute interview with production designer Dante Ferretti is included. He speaks of seeing Fellini’s early works while he was a young boy and the director’s eventual divorce from anything realistic in the 1970s and shares the impressive amount of work (and funding) poured into the construction of City of Women.

Tinto Brass – Women, Women:
Director Tinto Brass is on hand for this eleven minute interview as a friend of Fellini, who discusses the director’s fascination (or obsession) with women in his narratives.

Final Thoughts:

Roger Ebert concluded of City of Women, “Fellini can certainly make a bad film but cannot quite make a boring one.” Arguably, this isn’t a bad film by any means (though Andrei Tarkovsky concluded the film to be ‘worthless’ in his diary following the premiere at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival), but perhaps a familiar scenario a bit too broad, a bit too demeaning, and a bit too monotonous to register as one of the esteemed auteur’s more notable achievements. But without a doubt, it’s certainly never boring.

Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review : ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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