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One of my best-loved Fellini films, Giulietta Degli Spiriti (aka: Juliet Of The Spirits)
contains all his classic archetypes, surrealistic visions, hatred of the church and its manifold
hypocrisies, a love/hate relationship with big-bosomed, terrifyingly licentious women, a delight in
the flamboyant theatricality of the world, circuses, brothels, tinsel, tits and trash. This heady mix
stirred to its depths by the music of Nino Rota, so perfect a match for the humour, grotesque irony
and sadness of this director. As with all Fellini's films, complexities abound, spread to all aspects
of the cinematic process, like a virus.
The simple, warm-hearted and domesticated Juliet (the incomparable Giulietta Masina) is at the core of all the hybridised goings-on throughout the film, yet she is a perplexingly meek and mild catalyst. Usually calm, beatifically so, it is her gentle unravelling of events, or rather, the breakdown of her marriage that unfolds her life before us, offering to our gaze her inner world, peopled with spirits, memories, hallucinations and potentially lethal beliefs. Bullied and shamed by her mother and sisters, so small and delicate that all the other characters in the film seem to tower over her - the women in their bizarre costumes, designed by Piero Gherardi, especially so - she nonetheless is the most radiant presence on screen, as she engages through the quality of her sympathy and humour. Like a silent film star, her face is the mirror of her emotional turmoil, not her words. The camera adores her.
Her belief in the bond that unites love with self-destruction and sacrifice is fuelled by her guilt over the death of a school friend, Laura, who committed suicide we are told, because of love. This Ophelia-like presence is an enigmatic cipher, throughout, as is 'Iris' - friends or foes? The visit to a suicidal guest of her promiscuous neighbour who is constantly unlucky in love further highlights this fatalistic theme, in a desolate room, strewn with dead leaves. Juliet is slowly and lovingly revealed as a woman who fears her own needs and desires, continually trying to efface herself but always thrust to the centre of things, against her will. The encounter with Bishma, the man/woman mystic, when she is told that "love is a trade" and dares to question this cynical pronouncement, shows that she has fight and integrity, without the guidance of crazy religious weirdoes. She is alive, very alive, and yet is not sure if she really likes being so.
She wishes to know the truth about her husband, while realising that it could destroy her. She is courageous in that timid stubborn way that always has a ring of truth about it. As more of her inner life is uncovered, the convent scene is one that links farce with horror in a unique way. The faceless shrouded nuns, whose movements are strange and mechanical, crowd into her visions, as in the play of martyrdom, the child Juliet strapped to a rack, surrounded by paper flames, which is then elevated into the air. It is a scene that is both comical and utterly chilling. The purposeful air of the nuns, and their belief in this being a suitable way for children to spend their time, appals. Juliet's grandfather, a rogue, yet a loving and humane rogue, storms out of the passive audience and onto the stage and releases Juliet, who weeps as he leads her away. He afterwards runs away with a circus dancer, and Juliet pictures them flying off together in the circus plane.
After her humiliating wait in the home of her rival, and the departure of her husband, Juliet finally confronts the spectre of her cold, narcissistic mother. She releases her child self from a prison, hidden behind an Alice In Wonderland type door. There is a sense of wholeness in her being alone, an untying of masochistic bonds.
There are as many meanings and permutations to this film as there are viewers, I am sure. I also loved the circus as a child, and I think this is one of the reasons I adore Fellini so much. The sawdust clings and the tinsel never fails to dazzle me.
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