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Savant Preview Review:

Juliet of the Spirits

Juliet of the Spirits
Criterion 149
1965 / Color / 1:37 / 148/137 min. / Giulietta degli spiriti
Starring Giulietta Masina, Sandra Milo, Mario Pisu, Valentina Cortese, Caterina Boratto, Frederick Ledebur, Sylva Koscina, Valeska Gert, Lou Gilbert, Milena Vukotic, George Ardisson, Marilù Tolo
Cinematography Gianni Di Venanzo
Production Designer Piero Gherardi
Costume Designer Piero Gherardi
Film Editor Ruggero Mastroianni
Original Music Nino Rota
Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi
Produced by Angelo Rizzoli
Directed by Federico Fellini

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 spiriti 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 81/2 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 movies. 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 Clarke in Danger: Diabolik.

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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, BBC Fellini Interview.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 5, 2002

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