Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fellini's first color film, Giulietta degli spiriti is the show where Federico abandoned
naturalism and turned instead to interior states of fantasy. Whereas earlier pictures
had always communicated his personal visions, from hereon he would delve almost exclusively in
surreal self-portraiture. Casting his wife as an upscale housewife in a marital crisis, Fellini's
phantasmagoria has been described as a female 81/2, a simplification
that John Baxter, Criterion's liner note scribe, is quick to refute. Intensely visual and dreamlike
to the point of delirium, Giulietta degli spiriti is still primarily Fellini's inner visions
thrown up onto the screen for all to see.
Juliet, a well-to-do housewife with no children (Giulietta Masina), prepares an
anniversary party for her businessman husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu), only to have him ruin her
romantic hopes by bringing home a dozen friends. Giorgio is staying away from the house far too
frequently, and she hears him speaking another woman's name in bed. Private detectives
confirm his philandering, and Juliet is heartbroken. Without ever revealing the reason for her
sadness, she turns to friends and their friends for some kind of answer, but finds them all
pursuing personal illusions. Sculptress Dolores (Silvana Jachino) imagines she has a relationship
with all of her beefcake models. The Bhisma (Valeska Gert) is a weird guru who recommends sex as
a universal cure-all. Giuletta's bizarre neighbor Suzy (Sandra Milo) lives a hedonistic life taking care
of disturbed women and servicing a steady progression of men. Giulietta tries to give in to her
fantasies with Suzy but cannot. Giulietta's mother (Caterina Boratto) and sisters are alternately
critical and self-absorbed, her lawyer and a Brazilian visitor make unwelcome overtures, and
she finds herself retreating into memories of her black-sheep Grandfather (Lou Gilbert)
and her own childhood in Catholic school, playing a saint burned at the stake in a school play.
After a seance, she starts hearing the disembodied voices, including that of Laura, a childhood
friend who killed herself over love. Giulietta initially rejects the spirits, but her inability
to get Giorgio to admit to his infidelity, and a general disillusion with the rest of her
relationships, turns her back to the voices' comforting company.
To get this off on the right foot, one must first emphasize that Criterion's disc of Giulietta degli
is visually stunning. Savant's only seen this show in 16mm, where countless details just didn't
come through. Fellini turned his designers loose with a lavish budget, and the settings and particularly
the riot of color on view is intoxicating. You have to keep your hand off the remote - you feel like
freezing the many brief, stunning shots that pass by so quickly.
The DVD has captured
the saturated colors as they might have appeared in original Technicolor prints ... skin tones are
so warm and fleshy, you find yourself sensually moved by the huge closeups of beautiful Sandra Milo
and Sylva Koscina. When Fellini pulls off setpieces - the ancient airplane, Suzy's mirrored bedroom
with the slide into the pool, the weird wagon that hauls away all the troublesome people in Giulietta's
life - he really goes whole hog. There are dozens of erotic setups that must have taken hours to
put together, but last scarcely a couple of seconds each. Fellini's kinetic
camera style, putting fast-talking characters into a blendor of camera movement, is
at its strongest here.
Fellini's cooperative wife Giulietta Masina gives the show a nice center, as she remains positive and
open to all the possibilities of distraction and dissolution offered her. Her warmth and sincerity
is so complete that we aren't frustrated when she does not take charge of her situation more
forcefully. Fellini, at least cinematically, doesn't seem to believe in strong or permanent love
relationships, so there's no romantic solution to Giulietta's plight, just undesirable tangents off
into cult mania or erotic self-deception.
The answer seems to be an inner spiritual life, which in Giulietta's case means voices from the
beyond, prompted by a seance in the ad hoc dinner party that opens the show. She's beset by visions
from two formative childhood events, her repressive religious upbringing, and the
story of a grandfather who ran away with a young showgirl. If the story has an ending, it would seem
to be Giulietta embracing the spirit voices, who may even include the trees that tower above her
cartoonish little house. Varying interpretations of the show have hinted that much of what 'happens'
is an interior illusion, and there's plenty to bear this out, with the sensationalist Suzy living
in a pleasure palace that seems at least partially to be built in a treehouse. Is Suzy a neighbor,
or some kind of oversexed alter ego for Giulietta, wandering in her dreams?
Giulietta degli spiriti qualifies as hardcore surrealism by its refusal to discriminate between
its real and imaginary worlds. The detectives talk and behave like bureaucratic demons from some
patronizing Hell, while the erotic phantom that is Suzy is a heartfelt friend. In the 'real' portion
of the show, there's Giulietta and her servants, who behave in a consistently mundane fashion, but
not so the rest of Giulietta and Giorgio's bizarre associates, who constitute a predictable
(and this is negative criticsm) Fellini chorus of freaks, asserting their oppressive viewpoints and
their diverging sexual appetites. If Juliet has no friends, it may be that she needs to find a
neighbor or two who doesn't have a boy toy in tow, or doesn't look like they stepped out of a
psychedelic nightmare. One real reason we respect the heroine of this picture, is because
she's the one of the few people with a semi-normal appearance.
If Giulietta degli spiriti wasn't successful, perhaps it's because the Fellini answer to
unhappiness - giving in to vague spiritual delirium - isn't very encouraging. Reality's too tough?
Disengage. It's really very sad, and eventually kind of empty, with Giulietta so alone at the end.
The ride, however, is a lulu of visual overkill. There's not much of a sense of humor, but there
is Fellini's usual gallery of intensely interesting faces and bodies, pulled from all over the
cinematic landscape, each bringing with them previous associations. Sylva Koscina was the beauty
who graced Agent 8&3/4 and the de Concini Hercules
Frederick Ledebur was Queequeg in Moby Dick
and a gallant professor in The Roots of Heaven. Valeska Gert is famous for roles in
the German G.W. Pabst classics Diary of a Lost Girl and The Three Penny Opera. Lou Gilbert
is an American bit player notable in pictures from Viva Zapata! to Fearless Frank.
If Giulietta's mother, Caterina Boratto, looks familiar to Mario Bava fans, it's because she plays Lady
Criterion has done an excellent job of presenting Juliet of the Spirits on DVD. In the late '60s
it was a doper's favorite whenever 2001 wasn't available, and has been restored to a level of
quality we probably never saw back then. The 16:9 image is matted to 1:85, and the subtitles are said to be
an improvement on the originals. A nineteen minute 1966 b&w BBC interview with Fellini is included,
and it's okay, except for his broken English. He spends most of the interview in unrewarding
doubletalk, but it's still a rare piece of time spent with the director. The trailer, which might
be an original, is a bit faded, but even at full power it couldn't sell you snow if you were on fire.
The best extra is a brief but loaded liner note essay from critic John Baxter, that's full of
authoritative revelations both personal and cinematic about Mr. & Mrs. Fellini. His disclosure that
several of the actors in Giulietta's clique were real mediums and spiritualists, helps explain a
lot, including a billing for an actor named simply, 'Genius.'
There's an 8-minute time disparity between the IMDB and the listed length on the DVD jacket which
doesn't necessarily indicate a longer version out there anywhere, especially as this was taken from
original elements in Rome. This is not one of Criterion's expensive discs ($30) but is certainly one
of the most beautiful.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Juliet of the Spirits rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: trailer, BBC Fellini Interview.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 5, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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