‘City of Women’: Federico Fellini’s Uncertain Journey

Marcello Mastroianni in City of Women (1980). Snaporaz, a greying middle-aged Italian man, is wearing large glasses and a black suit with a red tie. He is leaning against a poster of an attractive woman in a white swimsuit, lounging in a shallow pool.

My literature teacher always used say that there is no established female narrative in the world. He would always emphasise the existence of female artists and writers – good and bad ones, accomplished and overlooked ones, larger-than-life and not-praised-during-their-lives ones – but, as he used to say, it is not enough. These words have been stuck in my brain ever since and, as a result, I get back to thinking about its complexities occasionally. Last time it happened I had just finished Federico Fellini’s, as some critics called it, “disaster” – City of Women. Despite this very unpromising prelude, I knew ahead that the film was playfully shot and hilariously written, the information easily applicable to any Fellini film. Fascinatingly, once I was done watching it, I knew it was so much more than just quintessentially Felliniesque picture. It was something I had seen before. It was something I had felt before. It was something I had sensed before.

The film follows Snàporaz (Marcello Mastroianni), a middle-aged man, whose story starts unfolding on a train journey. He becomes enchanted by one of his female co-passengers and, after a brief interaction with her, finds himself in the middle of nowhere, detached from his journey. The nowhere soon grows into the mysterious and vibrant phantasmagoria full of feminist conventions, sexually hungry women, Italo Disco, phallic sculptures, Nazi-attired policewomen, repressed sexuality, masculinity trials, and unconscious states where daydreams are indistinguishable from nightmares. 

For me it was the journey of self-exploration in the awakening of mysterious events – the ones that exposed protagonist to something surreally hidden for him before. Having no female narrative subject always results in the mystification of their nature. From mythology to contemporary arts, women have covered a very narrow territory as they have always been narrowly perceived. From Sirens to Film Noir femme fatales; from pre-Raphaelite paintings to manic pixie dream girls; from Baudelaire’s poetry to the hottest hits of The Rolling Stones. The issue has always been the public – collective – perception of woman as mere creature. Women have always lacked authentic portrayal in culture, they have always been reduced to archetypes. The hardship of having a true female narrative brings a lot of uncertainty to protagonists like Snàporaz. 

The film came in the year of 1980. After the web of cultural revolutions in the West; decades after the appearance of  Simone de Beuvoir’s The Second Sex and Manifesto of the 343, May ’68, Rivolta Femminile and Carla Lonzi’s feminist manifest… Birth control was approved; most of the universities opened their doors for females; women were gradually leaving their households and transferring to professional lives. It was the aftermath of cultural and political turmoil, but it was also the moment of uncertainty. I always believed that whatever I call uncertainty of post-second-wave feminism is the same uncertainty I see in the paintings of mid-1800’s Romantic painters. Their cultural moment coincided with City of Women and, I believe, they display the same amount of that uncertainty

Marcello Mastroianni in City of Women (1980). Snaporaz, in the same outfit as before, is standing among a crowd of young women in a dimly lit room. He is glancing off to the lower left corner of the frame, the women around him do not seem to pay attention to him.

The uncertainty lies in their understanding, or lack of understanding, of female nature. Both Fellini’s film and mid-century English Romantic painters, consciously or not, exhibit the absence of femaleness in the world. This statement is paradoxical because, on the façade, women are the centre of the works I mentioned. The non-existent female narrative rests in the minds of the people who created these artworks and, consequently, those are the products of uncertainty. The process of creation was their journey towards unveiling the mystery beneath. The mystery was femaleness that happens to be both over and underexposed. Artists, in different eras, have been trying to show their interpretations of what being a woman truly means. Sometimes they verged on stereotypes and sometimes their thought-processing was so uncertain that they created very, very uncertain masterpieces. This uncertainty lies on the mundane faces of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s women, but also in the eccentricity of Fellini’s characters from City of Women

The unknown and uncertain vision of womanhood in two very different decades needs to have a common starting point. Rossetti and his contemporaries lived in a time of progressive perceptional shifts. Mary Wollstonecraft had already published her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; a year before Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen saw a daylight. Middle to upper class women were more and more prone to get close to the level of education men of their social class were entitled to. They understood that the denial of proper education prevented them from pursuing lives outside of their households. In short, women started to raise their voices, limitedly, but they started. It all made people – at least artists and thinkers – deconstruct their ancient views on womanhood, but there were no alternatives for them to contemplate. Thus emerged the uncertainty that pushed lots of creative energy forward.

Returning to City of Women, we can see a very similar picture. The film came out right after the period when the second-wave feminism was at its highest. The movement, similarly, made lots of changes for women’s social, political, and economic lives, started deconstructing many of the myths and legends about their nature, but could not establish this so-called female narrative. This cycle of demolishing outdated ideals still did not result in the elimination of uncertainty

Snàporaz is a middle-aged Italian man who, presumably, grew up with very traditional values. His views on women are extremely limited. There is not a single moment in the film when his relationship with them transcends his lustful fantasies. After all, he has never been told to see a woman as anything more than an earthly pleasure. Moreover, he happens to live in the time when his beliefs start to fall apart. He witnessed how a whole lot of people did not agree to those things he believed and supported. He became stuck between things that were absolutely in contrast to one another. So became his fantasies.

Marcello Mastroianni in City of Women (1980). Snaporaz, still in his suit and tie, is peering out from behind a slightly open door. He is staring at a young blonde woman standing in front of the door, she is looking away and applauding.

It is a very naturalistic detail that we, as viewers, are not given a chance to fully acknowledge which parts were real or which ones were imaginary. Perhaps, it could all have been a fantasy. The most rational conclusion could be the latter, but the poise of City of Women is its uncertainty. It does not matter how much of it physically took place; every sequence is shot in a same manner. The technique which Luis Buñuel employed very often. Directors like Fellini and Buñuel believe that fantasies, dreams, and unconscious state is just as important as our conscious life. Snàporaz’s fantasies mirror the uncertainty of an average, middle-aged working man who lived on the brink of a century in Europe and who experienced lots of cultural changes and who underwent lots of perception-altering events. 

Snàporaz’s interaction with an unknown woman during his train journey is classic hunter/victim dynamic and perfectly summarises what he thinks of women – he values, or more accurately devalues, them for their looks and appearance. Everything that follows, in the quest for this unknown woman, looks like a poetic justice. He, at first, finds himself at a very loud and very crowded feminist convention which, at the same time, is both satisfying and unfulfilling. Many parts and monologues are just plain stereotypical; looks and sounds like what a man like him could possibly think of feminists, how he pictures their gatherings.

For a moment, it makes a 21st Century Millennial, or a Generation Z member, recall the “what society thinks I do versus what I really do” meme. Snàporaz is overwhelmed by their anger, loudness, rage, and their graphic slides where they compare seashells to their “lady parts”. When feminists, on their own, start calling themselves Sirens, we know that we are in the very layered, buzzy, and whirling male fantasy. Snàporaz also meets a lovely (from his perspective) character and repetitively asks her why she is a feminist a few times. The stereotypical male fantasies are seeped in all parts of the film. Sexually demanding, maternal-but-horny type of woman is, of course, not conventionally attractive; younger generation of women are fully consumed by pop culture trends of their era; we hear women moaning and being sexually suggestive a lot. 

Dr. Katzone, whose extravagant mansion becomes Snàporaz’s sanctuary for a while, celebrates his ten thousandth sexual intercourse with a woman. The situation, alongside Katzone’s entire mansion, is purely sardonic. Having slept with ten thousand women whose pictures are accompanied by their erotically charged voices in the specially designed area of a house could be the ultimate fantasy of Snàporaz himself. After all, it was lust for a woman that drove him all the way to the troubles. Now, it is again a lust that sheltered him from the horrors.

Marcello Mastroianni in City of Women (1980). A birds-eye-view shot of Snaporaz, still in the same outfit but lacking his tie and looking a little dishevelled. He is standing at the bottom of a ladder which stretches up to the top of the frame, we see not where it leads. An obscured figure with white hair wearing a grey suit is also standing at the base of the ladder, holding onto a lower rung.

A more detectably dreamy sequence takes place on a roller coaster where Snàporaz is followed by the series of recollections of the women in his life. This part evokes Harem episode of 8 ½ which contains some degrees of autobiography, but it also may remind us the role of women in La Dolce Vita. Marcello’s life revolves around women, but he barely even knows them. He, repeatedly, fails to understand them. They have no narrative. More importantly, we can see the internalised uncertainty of Fellini himself. In 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita he thinks he knows how to portray women; the way Marcello and Guido perceive them is the way Fellini sees femaleness. His perspective, similarly to Snàporaz’s is the product of his environment, probably upbringing, too. However, Fellini’s views experience lots of changes due to his progressing environment. As a result, he loses the track of what it means to be a woman. It, again, becomes a mystery. All he knew before became demolished; lots of positive changes took place, but narrative remained unestablished. 

Snàporaz remembers everything he knows about women; everything he has read about women; everything he has heard about women throughout the film – especially during his roller coaster voyage. He tries to unveil the guise; he tries to demystify things for once and for all. His inabilities led him to a masculinity trial where he existentially questions his being as a man. At this turning point, we believe that he is about to understand what lies beneath, he will, finally, uncover the mystery. Yet, he chooses to be the exact same person that he was at the beginning of the film when he started chasing an unknown woman. He never really understood anything. Uncertainty never really unmasks mysteries. In this case – the mystery of being a woman.  As the film nears the end, we are reminded that, despite the overwhelming number of women on screen, we are watching a very male journey right in his mind. No woman was involved in the process of telling this story. Uncertainty lasts to the end. 

I must admit, the ending is barely promising. The train, once again, enters the tunnel that resembles a womb. The journey did not end at that point, it did not even start there. It started a long ago (even before English Romanticism that I mentioned) and stretched to the 1980’s. As train enters the tunnel, it starts all over again. To this day. It will continue until we have a female narrative. 

by Mariam Razmadze

Mariam is from the country of Georgia and currently pursues her undergraduate studies in Sociology. She dreams of becoming a film director someday.

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