Juliet of the Spirits

(Giulietta degli spiriti, Federico Fellini, Italy, 1965)


These days, the excellence of colour work in cinematography and the design of costumes and sets is judged on the achievement of an overall, carefully maintained palette.

In Federico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, however, colour is the occasion to create an aesthetic riot, from shot to shot and often within shots: a frame which is all red and green intercut with a frame that is gleaming white.

This was Fellini's first colour film, and he explored the possibilities with glee. Conceived as a companion piece to Eight and a Half (1963), it delves into the psyche of Juliet, played by Fellini's famous wife Giulietta Masina.

Faced with an uncertain marriage and a philandering husband (the film is lightly autobiographical), Juliet strays into a highly eroticised world of spiritual mediums, high-class whores and affluent acquaintances. Soon, the spirit-visions come, tormenting Juliet with the gap between her oppressive, religious upbringing and the liberation or contentment she seeks.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this movie today is its absolute modernity. The faces, costumes and attitudes seem not at all dated. Doubtless this is because of the film's unique prescience: already, Fellini had absorbed, and lovingly exaggerated, the pop-mystical fads that were to explode later in New Age culture, especially those concerning body-and-mind philosophies – for this is truly a movie about body and mind as surrealistic communicating vessels.

Although Fellini was later reproached for merely using women (somewhat misogynistically) as the ground for his narcissistic, fantasy projections, Juliet is in fact his finest female character. Masina brings to the outlandish proceedings both a childlike wonder and a down-to-earth hesitation and scepticism which makes her a splendid figure of identification for the viewer.

Stylistically, Fellini began marrying here his dream-fed visions with the technological bric-a-brac of the modern world (telephones, movie projectors, screens), thus simultaneously making sublime things mundane, and mundane things sublime.

His camera is a roving eye, sometimes evoking a confused guest at a party: the relentless entries and exits from the frame, the artful shuttling of multiple bodies, the sudden moments when an image is revealed as Juliet's point of view ... All these devices, swinging to the rhythm of Nino Rota's rich, carnival-style score, evoke a heady plunge into the realm of the unconscious.

MORE Fellini: Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, La Strada, Orchestra Rehearsal

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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