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With: Giulietta Masina, Sandra Milo, Mario Pisu, Valentina Cortese
Written by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Directed by: Federico Fellini
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 137
Date: 10/22/1965

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Wherefore Art Thou?

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

With Juliet of the Spirits (1965), director Federico Fellini stands on the brink,desperately grabbing at bits of his past, and boldly looking forward to a newfuture of decadence and garish color (this was his first in color). The filmserves as a marker, pointing to exactly where and how Fellini departed from oneand embraced the other.

The wonderful Giulietta Masina stars in Juliet of the Spirits, her sixth film directed by her husband. Masina represents the best of Fellini, giving a soul to his wonderful semi-realist films of the 1950s. It's telling that after first tasting of these new bizarre clownish visuals, Fellini would stop working with his wife altogether, save for one more late-period film, Ginger and Fred (1986).

The film's first scene betrays the feel and theme of the entire movie. Stagnant housewife Juliet (Masina) gets ready for a quiet, romantic dinner for her and her husband's wedding anniversary. She tries on two colored wigs, then opts for her own hair, an unglamorous brown lump (she rejects color while Fellini embraces it). We don't see her face until just before the door opens, and when we do, it's Masina's marvelous face with all its excitement bursting from her bright eyes and her wondrous smile. But her husband brings in an unwanted collection of freaks that might have escaped from a circus, a strongman, a fortune-teller, etc. -- characters who might later populate Fellini's Satyricon (1970).

Following this promising kick-off, Juliet of the Spirits continues to work fairly well, in that Fellini roots the story in emotional realism before the visuals shoot off into never-never land. Juliet begins to suspect her husband (Mario Pisu) of having an affair. She tries to confront him and fails, then hires a detective to find out for sure. Meanwhile, Juliet meets her next-door neighbor, a glamorous single blonde who tries to teach Juliet to live life to the fullest. She shows Juliet her secret sex places, a treehouse complete with a kettle-shaped elevator on a pulley, and a slide leading to an underground swimming pool, just at the foot of her love-bed.

Fellini gives Masina by far the dullest role in the film. He squelches her natural radiance with plain clothes and plain hair, made all the more rudimentary by the extraordinary costumes and makeup all the other characters wear. Though Juliet begins to explore the phantasmagoria side of her life, nearly sleeping with a young man at a party and exorcising a disturbing image of herself as a child, she never crosses the line. The vicious blow Juliet receives in that first scene more or less marks her for the entire film.

Fellini must have seen his wife as living evidence of his previous "boring" and "realistic" films. Like a boy pulling wings off insects, he plunges his cinematic spouse into this new world where she doesn't belong. It's as if he's trying to say goodbye to her -- exorcise her -- before moving on. To tell the truth, most of the images here doesn't make a lot of sense to us viewers, though it probably did to both Fellini and Masina, who were evidently working out some issues together.

Nevertheless, despite Fellini's best efforts to make her seem dull, Masina anchors the film with her clear-eyed portrayal, as she does my three favorite Fellini films, Variety Lights (1950), La Strada (1954), and Nights of Cabiria (1957). In those films Masina shone with the light of a great clown, a great lover, and a great spirit. In Juliet of the Spirits, she's not as bright, but still not altogether doused.

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