Monday 18 September 2017

On Federico Fellini - Donatella and Death. The Truth About CITY OF WOMEN (1980) by Dr Theodore Price (Part 2)

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two part article written by Dr Price. The first part can be found if you click here

In (Otto e mezzo in Italian) a middle-aged film director (in his early forties but looking older) finds himself, like Dante in the first line of the Commedia, in the middle of the journey of his life (Nel mezzo del cammino di nostra vita), in a dark forest of spiritual malaise, confused and anxiety-ridden, contemplating suicide. As in La dolce vita he’s played by Marcello Mastroianni, but his name here is Guido. His life and his work are equally in a mess. In both, he’s “not the man he used to be.”

Marcello Mastroianni, 
Because of his profession he has many opportunities for sexual encounter, but more and more he needs fun and games to reach a climax. He likes strangers. He fantasizes a love encounter with every beautiful woman he meets or even lays eyes on. But once he gets on with them, he tires of them because, as he says, they’re losing their youth, while they say all he’s good for are a few kisses, and then he turns over and goes to sleep. Besides his wife, he has a mistress; but she too, over the years, has become so familiar to him that she might as well be his wife or mother.

His work is also in a mess. He has no idea how to complete --- that is, how to bring to its climax --- the film he’s trying to make. (It’s about a spaceship that’s unable to get off the ground.)

Barbara Steele, 
A director-friend of his, fifteen or so years his senior, who functions in the story as Guido’s Double, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, has left his wife of thirty years for a stunning young brunette, a former school chum of his daughter. The girl --- played in the film by Barbara Steele, who’ll shortly thereafter be playing witch and vampire roles in all those horror movies --- doesn’t love her older lover, is using him to further her acting career, and, in fact, flirts with Guido.

Claudia Cardinale, 
All the women in the film, and there are many, of whom Guido’s wife is bitterly jealous, are, in fact, straw-women. The woman with whom Guido’s really infatuated, with whom, according to the original screenplay he’s to have a love affair in the projected film he’s trying to make, is a girl young enough to be his daughter. She’s the dark-haired Claudia beauty of 8½, its Dark Lady.

It’s this girl he contemplates leaving his wife for, this dark-haired young girl, who, as he thinks, may rescue him, may “save” him (as the young Donatella of City of Women comes to save Snaporaz/Marcello from the Furies at the feminists’ convention), from the middle-age malaise in his life and work. And he wants to use his affair with her as a central part of the film he’s trying to make.

But besides feeling guilty about betraying his wife, he’s terrified that he won’t be able to satisfy Claudia sexually, that she’ll leave him for a man her own age, or that she may betray him the way her Double, Barbara Steele, betrays Guido’s older-director friend. And so almost ends with Guido’s shooting himself. For middle-aged bridegrooms of young brides (brides young enough to be their daughters) sometimes shoot themselves on their honeymoon night. (Cf. the suicide of the young Jean Harlow’s middle-aged husband on their wedding night.)

(5) Juliet of the Spirits. Here the middle-aged husband does leave his middle-aged wife, for a beautiful young dark-haired girl, a model. (The husband’s played by the same actor who played the elderly director-lover of the dark-haired Barbara Steele in 8½.)

Sandra Milo, Giulietta Masina, Juliet of the Spirits
Nor need he feel guilty about doing so, for the film ends with the wife, after he’s left her, supposedly serene and contented, free-to-be-she. The film is a thinly disguised, easily interpreted, wish-fulfillment phantasy of Mr. Any Middle-aged Husband leaving his wife for some Young-Enough-To-Be-His-Daughter girlfriend.

To make the phantasy even more fulfilling, included in the film is a grandpa who flies off into the sky with a sexy young circus girl, Sandra Milo. (In the original screenplay Fellini had planned to use instead of a plane, a balloon, as in the near-final sequence in The City of Women. And we have for Sandra, in her equally sexy other role in the film, a septuagenarian lover with the abilities (supposedly) of Priapus. We see him sitting next to his Double, Mino Doro, who played Nadia’s older lover in La dolce vita and Claudia’s agent in 8 ½.

Toby Dammit
6) Toby Dammit. We’ve already noted the childlike, whore-like, castrating, death-dealing Devil-girl. Her Double in this film is the stunning, dark-haired young beauty at the Awards Dinner, whose face fills the screen as she proffers herself to Toby in almost the same words that Claudia uses with Guido in one of the bedroom scenes in 8½.

(7) With Casanova we come full circle. Fellini describes this movie as having an “atmosphere of death.” There’s the famous scene of the thousands of candles being snuffed out. And at the end of the film Casanova’s mechanical sex-bird symbol, so sprightly in the earlier sequences of the film, is dust-ridden and still. For to become old means to become impotent. And, conversely, impotence means death. In the scenes at Dur, at the end of the movie, when Casanova gives a dramatic “performance,” the young laugh at him.

The Dark Ladies of this film are (a) Casanova’s favorite, the cello-playing Henriette, and (b) the worm-chopping entomologist’s daughter. The first vanishes from his bed the morning after a night of (supposed) love-making. The second stands him up at an assignation so that he has to go to his whores for consolation. Facially, and the way they smile, both Dark Ladies of Casanova so resemble Donatella of the later film that I had to check the credits to make sure neither of them was played by the same actress who plays Donatella.

The third Dark Lady of Casanova (The Third Girl) is disguised. She’s the mechanical-doll, the one woman of his life that Casanova thinks back upon and dances with at the very close of the film.

That Fellini unconsciously associates Donatella with this mechanical-doll girl we can infer from the remark that the moment he chanced upon Donatella’s photograph (a photograph just of her face, something he significantly notes for us), he was “struck by her face, which resembled that of a wooden puppet.”

This mechanical-doll girl in Casanova almost surely has its fictional source in Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, with which Fellini, in all likelihood, was consciously or pre-consciously acquainted. In that story there are three women, each of whom Hoffmann falls in love with and each of whom in some manner eludes him: a girl who turns out to be a mechanical doll; a sensual, deceiving woman; and a dying artist, a singer.

In the opera the hero, Hoffmann, is and remains a young man; but in real life Offenbach, when he wrote it, was a dying man of sixty, who knew he was dying.

The three women of Offenbach’s opera are versions of the recurring triad of ladies in various myth and folk tales. They represent the Fates, the ladies of Destiny. They symbolize the destiny of every man, which is, finally, death. In Offenbach’s opera, as generally in myth, they symbolize the three female love objects of a man’s life: of the child, of the mature man, and of the old man, the dying man.

According to Freud these myths of a man freely choosing from among three women (as in The Merchant of Venice and in King Lear) are the psychic “reversal” of the fact that Lady Death --- Everyman’s Dark Lady --- will eventually, inevitably choose us; but it’s more pleasant psychically to talk ourselves into the pretense that we are choosing her.

As one psycho-analyst puts it (Theodor Reik),”In conformity with the psychological law of the opposite, which can replace one aspect of its protagonist in our unconscious thinking, the goddess of death sometimes appears under the aspect of the great goddess of love.” (Italics added.)

City of Women
Fellini is aware of both the mythic and psycho-analytic orientations of his film. He originally meant Snaporaz/ Marcello to be a professor of Greek mythology; and as though in homage to psycho-analysis he fashions his film as a two-and-a-half hour dream of his hero’s.

He refers to the militant-feminist Lady From the Train as Minerva and Diana. (We should recall the myth of Acteon, whom Diana caused to be torn apart by dogs when she caught him spying on her naked body, though in the film, with her fur hat, she’s also a version of Sacher-Masoch’s Wanda, of Venus in Furs.)

He means the enraged feminists of the film to symbolize the Maenads carving up Adonis. And he fully realizes that this myth is a ritual of the Dying God of the Aged Year. (See my earlier paper “Gilbert Murray Revisited: The Mythopoeiac Mr. Murray.”) In one interview he has remarked, “When a queen made a king, it was only for one year. At the end of the year he was killed, cut into pieces and eaten. So now I make a picture about a man who to this ancient fear has added a new fear --- that of feminist rage. That’s the difference between 8 ½ and The City of Women.”

He’d already used the myth of the Death and Rebirth of the Year in Amarcord. And he’s fully aware of the hard-core psycho-analytic interpretation of the whole notion of rebirth. That, say the old, strictly orthodox analysts, is an illusion, a wish. Rebirth really signifies debirth, back to that holy stillness when all the needs of the fetus were magically fulfilled. This was the state, say the old psycho-analysts, that later gave rise to all those artistic phantasies of a Golden Age, a Shangri-la, a Paradise Isle, Intimations of Immortality, Nirvana: Bliss incarnate, Eros and Thanatos in one.

The Goddess of Love is the Goddess of Death. And in Fellini’s film her name is Donatella.                                                 

Dr. 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. Dr. Price welcomes comments via

Copyright 1988

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