Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
Written by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi
Directed by Federico Fellini
8 ½ garnered justified acclaim for Federico Fellini, adding to his reputation as one of the best filmmakers of all-time while in the middle of his career. That success caused the director to continue down this path of psychoanalysis through cinema in his following picture, Juliet of the Spirits. He once again centered a movie around his wife & constant muse, Giulietta Masina, whom he hadn’t made a film with since Nights of Cabiria, seven years prior. The relationship between these two was not necessarily conventional, but it worked for them. They occupied different floors of the same house day to day and had different circles of friends. It’s well-known that Fellini constantly flirted with other women, but they stayed together and seemed to have a very passionate relationship. In Fellini’s words, Juliet of the Spirits was an homage to Masina.
Giulietta Boldrini (Masina) is a comfortable upper-middle-class housewife. Her husband, Giorgio, is successful in his professional career, which has given them the privilege to attend dinner parties and social events. Giulietta is content but growing less so by the day. She’s always suspected her husband of cheating and is coming up against undeniable proof that he is. This has caused her to begin questioning her happiness or the potential illusion of it she holds in her mind. The film starts to highlight her daydreams, thinking about likely men to cheat with, one her own age and a professional, while the other is a mute younger man who represents pure sex. Part of her transformation involves a burgeoning friendship with her glamorous and mysterious new neighbor (Sandra Milo).
One of the core elements of Juliet of the Spirits is an embrace of the spiritual realm. The Fellinis were known to be great believers in that mysterious world, with Masina often suddenly pausing mid-conversation to whisper, “We are not alone.” In the film, while celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary, the couple and their friends entertain a spiritualist for a seance. She goes along, and they seem to tap into something. The following day, Giulietta finds the spirit world’s door has been thrown open, and she encounters these entities in her waking life. She seeks help, and the guru Bishma tells her, “Love is your religion. Your husband is your god.” so our protagonist must get to the bottom of her husband’s infidelities to determine the direction of her life.
You’ll be struck immediately at one significant difference between this and Fellini’s previous work. This film is in color, Technicolor, to be precise. That could have been a difficult transition when thinking about how masterfully the director worked with the rich blacks & whites in his other movies. Yet, he leans into the bold possibilities of color through production design and costuming that focus on primary colors. The result is a candy-coated version of Rome, a fantasy within which we see a middle-aged woman’s dreams. Just like 8 ½, this visual style creates the sense of a fairy tale for adults.
There’s an argument to be made about how much of the film is Masina’s and how much Fellini transposes his thoughts into a female avatar. Masina had such apprehensions behind the scenes, so we are not watching a recreation of her relationship with Fellini but a version of it. Juliet is seen in some circles as the start of Fellini’s decline as a director, which has some basis in reality. First, it was a financial and critical failure, followed by the Italian government investigating the director for taxes. He was left bankrupt, having to sell off many things, yet he found ways to raise more money and make more movies.
What I see happening in Juliet is Fellini going more profound in his exploration of the subconscious, showcasing his personal belief that the realm of the creative was a tangible source linked to our souls. The material falls away as Giulietta’s interactions with other people are up for interpretation most of the time. Even if she is in that space talking to them, some of their actions or other elements in the scene pop up from Giulietta’s mind. Her neighbor Suzy could be a manifestation of Giulietta’s repressed sexual energy; she cavorts with multiple men and takes pride in the amount of sex she has. Giulietta has an opportunity to go to bed with one of Suzy’s male friends but runs from it; whether that actually happens to her or is fantasy is unimportant because how she reacts and what she does is what drives the arc of the character. The presence of the spirits, often framed in Fellini’s beloved grotesque style, body types, and gender presentations that push against the mainstream, are all those things Giulietta wants to ignore but needs to face so that she can become the person she should be.
The relationship that seems to define Giulietta the most profoundly is that with her late grandfather. When she was a little girl, he fell in love with a circus ballerina. He was a widower at the time, living with his daughter, Giulietta’s mother, and this affair was seen as scandalous. Grandfather runs away with the ballerina on a circus plane in a gorgeously directed and designed flashback/dream sequence. He returns two years later, full of joy and love that little Giulietta hadn’t seen before.
At this same time, Giulietta is acting in a church pageant where she plays a young girl that renounces her faith and thus must be punished. That punishment has her being strapped to a table and lowered into paper mache flames as a stand-in for hellish damnation. Her grandfather is in attendance and is appalled, leaping from his seat to “save” his granddaughter. He escorts her out of the building as her mother and the congregation & clergy react to the scandal of it all. Both of these incidents from her past serve to show Giulietta’s subconscious understanding that following the path laid out for her by society is unsatisfying and ultimately soul-crushing. This image of little Giulietta strapped to the table, the paper flames reaching out for her occurs again near the film’s end, and this time it is adult Giulietta who sets her child-self free.
Fellini keeps the screen full of fascinating & beautiful images so that the audience is constantly being entertained on the surface level. Yet, beneath it, all is a story about a woman who doesn’t know herself and is beginning that journey. The film’s ending is much more ambiguous and potentially darker than the director’s earlier work. We don’t get a concrete resolution either materially or metaphysically for Giulietta, something happens at the end of the movie, but it’s intentionally obscure so that the audience is free to interpret as they will. I don’t think a housewife has ever had such a lavish, magnificent version of her story told like this, a story that wants to explore the rich inner life of such people. Giulietta is someone who primarily exists as an accessory to her husband and an afterthought to her family, but through this film, we understand her as a complex human being.