Wednesday 13 September 2017

On Federico Fellini - Donatella and Death. The Truth About THE CITY OF WOMEN (1980) by Dr Theodore Price (Part 1)

Federico Fellini
In a television interview when The City of Women (La città delle donne, Italy, 1980) was opening in New York, Fellini was asked what his latest film was about. He answered, “The fear of oldness.”

When Fellini made the film, he was sixty-one. Marcello Mastroianni, who stars in the film, was fifty-five. Over and over again, during various interviews, both Fellini and Mastroianni would comment on their ages, how they were getting old, Mastroianni mentioning this even more than Fellini.

Marcello Mastroianni, City of Women
 The hero of the film is named Marcello and surnamed Snaporaz, Fellini’s nickname for Mastroianni. Mastroianni, still married and with a grown daughter, keeps having love affairs with beautiful women young enough to be his daughters. They stay with him for a while, but not for very long. And he goes on to others, still younger.

The key to The City of Women is, not surprisingly, a woman. But not any woman (of the hundreds of women who appear in the film.) Nor is she either of the two seemingly central women of the film: The Wife or The Lady from the Train.  The woman is the lovely, charming young girl of the film: Donatella.  She is young enough to be Snaporaz-Mastroianni’s daughter, young enough almost to be his grand-daughter, a schoolgirl. (Once in the film, she calls to Marcello, “Come on, grandpa.’

Mastroianni, Donatella Damiani (Donatella), City of Women
A man of fifty-five falls in love with a schoolgirl, hoping to be “saved.” This is what Fellini’s THE CITY OF WOMEN is about.

Facially, with her brunette beauty and the way she laughs, Donatella reminds us of the Claudia girl of (Italy, 1963) .  She is Mastroianni’s and Fellini’s Dark Lady.

In the original screenplay for Guido was literally in love with the Claudia girl. In La dolce vita (Italy, 1960) the Marcello character was perhaps literally in love with the Angel girl of the final (the beach) sequence. In many, many of Fellini’s other films an aging hero is in love with a young girl. In Toby Dammit (Italy, 1968) a sensual young Devil-girl child entices the actor-hero to his death.

...the image of a dark corridor, City of Women
Throughout The City of Women there recurs, over and over again, the image of a dark corridor through which the hero tries to make his way. That is how the film ends, in a train tunnel.  Psycho-analysts are familiar with this sort of image. It’s a symbol of the return to the womb, to the Mother, to where one has been before one is born.

The Ideal Woman, the Dark Lady that Snaporaz/Marcello seeks, is well known to Artists of the Romantic Movement. She is, she can only be, as Fellini senses --- Death.

Let’s assume we’re right, that the focal point (the Truth About the Film) is a January-May infatuation, the predicament of an aging man, in his middle fifties, who’s fallen in love with a young girl, hardly out of her teens, as the decade of the 1980s begins. Fellini is on our side here. He says that the film is “about a man,” that it is “a declaration of love,” and he calls the Donatella character “fundamental.” What problems, then, might this man, in his middle age, as the 1980s begin, face? We can think of at least seven:

(1) If he has a wife, as such a man usually has, chances are she’ll not take kindly to this sort of happenstance, and may even tell him so in no uncertain terms. If he loves her (or loves her too), or even if he’s just fond of her, this woman whom he’s been living with for a generation, he’ll feel guilty about betraying her; and these guilt feelings will cause the poor man grievous pain.

(2) An aging man often has problems enough in life without adding new ones. Fashions, as we know, change. If he’s a movie director, critics and audiences may not like his kind of movies anymore. If he’s a movie actor, his type of movie hero may no longer be in vogue. (Early in the film Marcello bemoans, “With all my problems, I have to go and make a fool of myself.”)

(3) January-May romances have problems sui generis. As she grows more mature, he just grows older. As she grows sexually more demanding, he grows less able.

(4) In the 1980s there’s a new sexual permissiveness. Girls make love more nowadays. Aging Lover doesn’t know if Young Girl is sleeping with him because she loves him or just because she likes him and it’s fun. She may suddenly start sleeping with someone else. And the pill, and abortion, are available on demand. (There are abortion-clinic ads in her college newspaper.) She doesn’t have to worry about getting pregnant. Furthermore, seducing some 20-year-old is no big accomplishment nowadays. There’s not even that prestige. Girls are sexually active at fourteen or fifteen. Nastassia Kinski, real-life daughter of a real-life movie actor, has an affair with real-life movie director Roman Polanski when she is only fifteen. Mastroianni makes a movie with her where (like Casanova in a sequence that Fellini could not bear to keep in his film on Casanova) he suspects that the young girl he’s been sleeping with may be his daughter by an old love. And then there’s the drug scene nowadays. Aging Lover can’t handle martinis anymore, while Young Girl is belting down Quaaludes.

(5) Women’s Liberation. This, of course, is the major element of the film, its emotional mise-en-scène: a Women’s Lib convention that Snaporaz/Marcello chances upon. All men are bastards. Do to them what they’ve been doing so long to you. Get even. Castrating them is right, just, and fun. Or, who needs them in the first place? Lesbianism is right, just, and fun. Now he’s got to watch out not only for his young girl’s boyfriends but her girlfriends too. And older women won’t take it anymore. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose. Have affairs with younger, more potent men, for love or fun. After all these years, he can’t even trust his poor old wife.

(6) Then there’s the political situation. Not only do young girls make love freely, they don ski masks, fire machine guns, and throw bombs. And what are they shooting at? Old institutions, old values, old men --- him. For aging men are old-hat politically as well as sexually.

(7) Finally, the very ground rules for culture are being changed. Who cares who wrote Goethes Faust?  Nor is this sort of thing what some petit-bourgeois shopkeeper Philistine or what some lumpen-proletariat hoodlum may be saying, but what some young, Leftist, lady literature-professor is teaching. Not only is there no longer a need for the Young to pay all the “old dues”; but the Old have to pay entirely new ones. And he doesn’t have life enough left to come near to paying them.

Is there evidence of a January-May theme in any of Fellini’s earlier films, that might alert us to the possibility of such a theme in The City of Women? Here’s evidence of some minor variations on this theme.

(1) In The White Sheik (Italy, 1952) a young bride has romantic longings for an older, Valentino-like comic-strip hero (whose toughie, same-age-as-her-husband wife drives him around on her motorcycle, as in The City of Women Snaporaz/Marcello is driven around.)

(2) In I Vitelloni (Italy, 1953) Alberto Sordi’s sister runs off with an older, married man.

(3) In The Nights of Cabiria (Italy, 1957) an aging Errol-Flynn-type movie star has an off-again, on-again affair with his young, blonde mistress.

(4) In La dolce vita young Nadia has had her marriage with a millionaire annulled so she can be with her older, balding lover, whom she catches with an even younger girl, a brunette. The reason Nadia does that famous striptease (to the “Patricia” song) is that she’s angry with him and wants to get even.

Anita Ekberg, The Temptation of Dr Antonio
(5) In The Temptations of Doctor Antonio (Italy, 1962) a middle-aged, Ph.D-ish Antonio makes a fool of himself over young, Devil-girl Anita Ekberg.

(6) And in Toby Dammit Toby loses his head to a sensual even younger Devil-girl. (She’s dressed as a child but has a painted whore’s face.)

And here are the major variations on this January-May theme:

(1) In Variety Lights (Italy, 1950, c0-directed with Alberto Lattuada) a middle-aged vaudeville comic with the clown-like name of Checco (for Snaporaz, Fellini’s nickname for Mastroianni, is really a clown’s name) falls heels over head in love with a young stage-struck girl, who doesn’t love him; but they’re together for a while. He’s played in the film by the same actor who later plays Doctor Antonio. And, as in The City of Women, the film begins and ends with a train trip, where he’s met the girl originally, and where he’ll meet another version of her at the end.

(2) In Il bidone (The Swindle, Italy, 1955) an aging swindler, really a sad clown, with the traditional clown’s name of Augusto, whose wife has left him, has only one true love, his schoolgirl daughter, whose name is Patricia. There’s a scene where he takes her to lunch and where they look not like Father and Daughter but like lovers. He ends up meeting his death for the sake of a second young girl. (Fellini had wanted the swindler role to be played by Humphrey Bogart, who at the time was married to the young-enough-to-be-his-daughter Lauren Bacall.)

(3) In La dolce vita the hero, a man in his middle thirties, named Marcello and played by Marcello Mastroianni, falls in love with a young waitress still in her teens. He meets her while the music on a juke box is playing the song “Patricia.” In the film the hero’s father, a man in his middle fifties and obviously the hero’s Double, attempts love with a brunette chorus girl (young enough to be his daughter) and suffers a heart attack. At the film’s end Marcello has the chance to have an affair with the young waitress, but he grandly declines because she’s (seemingly) too young, too sweet, too innocent, too virginal.

(4) 8 ½ isn’t just a variation on the January-May theme. It is the theme. This grand Fellini movie, surely one of the greatest films ever made, is about a middle-aged man who wants to leave his wife for a young girl but who hasn’t the courage to do so. Although 8 ½ is probably Fellini’s most thoroughly explicated film, this is possibly the first time in Fellini criticism that the film has been so described. And I myself didn’t realize this about the film until I had seen The City of Women. Yet how could it be otherwise?

(Part Two follows shortly)

Dr Ted Price is the author of a recently published, revised and enlarged, Superbitch! Alfred Hitchcock’s 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper and the Eternal Prostitute: A Psycho-analytic Interpretation ISBN 978-1-936815-49-4.  It can be obtained at the lowest cost from Just contact via email for orders and details.
© 1988

City of Women may be purchased through Amazon UK on Blu-ray It is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC on a 1080p transfer.

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