Review: City of Women / Cert: 18 / Director: Federico Fellini / Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi, Brunello Rondi / Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Prucnal, Bernice Stegers, Ettore Manni / Release Date: Out Now
In their time, Fellini's films in colour were greeted as milestones in what was seen as his ongoing decline into senility and decadence, but if a title like City of Women came out these days, critics would fall over themselves to hail it as a masterpiece. It's brave, imaginative, inventive, and plays freely with the medium of cinema, while saying arresting things about gender and sexuality. And over 30 years on, it's so far out there it makes Holy Motors look like a tame afternoon TV movie.
It starts off with a randy middle-aged man, Snaporaz (Mastroianni), flirting with an attractive woman on a train (Stegers), then following her off it, only to lose sight of her and find himself at an hotel in the throes of a noisy feminist convention. With yoga, lectures on the vagina and lessons in how to kick men in the testicles, it's clearly the last place he should be, but his attempts to make his way back to the train station end in farce. Besides, there's no escape really, as we discover that the whole country is now in control of a lesbian elite.
Summed up in this way, the movie sounds like some kind of anti-feminist tract, but it's much more than that. It's full of sequences which you can tell have been plucked straight out of Fellini's subconscious, and this gives it an authenticity and cohesion far beyond the limitations of any particular agenda. A bit, for instance, where Snaporaz is in the clutches of a bunch of hippies smoking dope in a 2CV next to an airport, under the flight path of the incoming planes. Or a scene in a grand master bedroom, with storm-tossed trees pressing against the window and Snaporaz's half-naked wife Elena (Prucnal) engaging in menacing Butoh moves. These moments aren't about scoring points or serving a prospectus, they're just there, bringing an icy chill with them.
And when it comes to the presentation of women, this film has nothing to be ashamed about. Snaporaz may want to see them as sex objects, but the female characters shirk that role with a shrug or a mocking giggle and emerge as forceful independent beings. Nor is Snaporaz quite the out and out chauvinist he might seem – you can read his unease when he is forced to take shelter overnight with the creepy Katzone (Manni), an ageing playboy whose house is full of guns and erotica.
What really impresses with City of Women, though, is the degree of risk-taking. Check out the bravura sequence where Snaporaz goes on a literal roller coaster of memory and emotion – it's a wonderful vindication of cinema. The film glows with life in this HD restoration, and comes jam-packed with extras which give fascinating insights into Fellini's working methods and abiding obsessions.
Extras: 'A Dream of Women' – 31 min 'making of' documentary / 'Notes on City of Women' – 61 min documentary / 'Dante Ferretti: A Builder of Dreams' – 22 min documentary about the film's production designer / 12 min discussion with Tinto Brass about the picture / Substantial booklet containing archival imagery