By Carter Glace, staff writer
Whenever a film is restored and screened, I always wonder what the motivation was to bring the film back. If I had to take a guess as to why Federico Fellini’s “City of Women” is in this position, it is because whoever owned the rights saw that issues like feminism and traditional masculinity have come back into the limelight, and thought they could throw their hat into the ring. While I can’t be absolutely certain that was their intent, it is rather fascinating to see a director and writer from the 80’s try and wrap their heads around feminism and gender politics.
The basic plot surrounds a middle-aged man named Snàporaz (Marcello Mastroianni), who follows a beautiful woman off of a train into a strange meeting of all your favorite anti-feminists tropes. They’re angry, empowered, and not welcoming to men. From there, he goes through episodes with cartoonish caricatures, as Snáporaz is forced to address his masculinity and perspectives on women, as things continue to get stranger. Then it turns out to be all a dream.
The film is a long ways away from one that dives into the relations between genders in a pshyco-surreal way. In fact, the politics are confusing at best, kind of gross at worst. The Feminist Conference is slightly better than you would expect from the 1980’s, which isn’t saying a lot. It flies through the typical strew men of feminism, being belligerent, violent against the role of the housewife, mocking men of all strands, being polyandrous. They try to frame Spàporaz as the one in the wrong, but it feels hollow while Fellini is going through the patented “List of Anti-Feminist Rebuttals.”
The film tries to rectify this somewhat by introducing a new character out of nowhere near the end of the film. I guess he is supposed to represent masculinity, a boorish slob defined by his romantic endeavors who rants and raves against the incoming feminists while touting his weapon collection. The more I think about that, it sounds more like a warning for the present than a parody of the 80’s. But they don’t even go all the way with that, because they try to make him out to be a sympathetic character by the end.
This is why the “City of Women” is ultimately confused. It tries to straw men and sympathize both sides, ultimately having no clear message or meaning. The reason why a similar film— “Wizard of Oz” —worked with a similar concept is it showed us what her life was like before entering the dream. Thus everything in OZ was a reflection of her real life, making her lessons understandable. But we know nothing about Snàporaz, so when characters like his ‘ex-wife’ are thrown at us, we have no idea what they are suppose to mean. The result is that when we finally come to an end, where his masculinity is “judged,” it means nothing, as both he and the audience have learned nothing.
I suppose I could recommend “City of Women” as a fascinating look into an 80’s perspective on gender politics during an era of anti-feminist rhetoric. Everything is inherently political, but if you were to remove this film’s politics, it would be a weird but confused physiologic adventure with interesting visuals.
“City of Women” is currently playing at Film Forum.