Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

directed by Federico Fellini

Plot Summary
Giulietta is a sensitive, polite housewife who occasionally has hallucinations of a wide varitey of characters, often representing people from the past or fragments of memories. She tries to maintain her marriage, but it becomes evident that her husband, Giorgio, is cheating on her. She ignores the idea at first, but her forceful sister eventually takes her to meet an investigator. Giulietta agrees to let him spy on Giorgio, and he confirms her suspicions by returning a few days later with slides and film of her husband visiting his mistress. The distraught Giulietta tries to console herself by visiting her promiscuous neighbor, Susy, and her eccentric friends. While there she considers letting a young man seduce her but has a frightening vision and runs home. The next day, during a get-together at her house, Giulietta receives advice from various people on how she should handle the situation; the visions continue. Her husband goes away on a trip, and she is left alone to deal with the numerous spirits. She finds a representation of herself as a little girl in a play as Joan of Arc and frees her from the burning stake. The visions disappear, assumedly for good, and Giulietta walks outside the gates of her house. She hears the voices of other spirits promising to be her friends but ignores them and begins walking toward a nearby wooded area.


Juliet of the Spirits bears some of the characteristic Fellini flourishes that are particularly evident in his later works, but the film also maintains a tight focus on its central character in an effort to illustrate her psyche. Giulietta's numerous and strange hallucinations, as well as the odd assortment of people found at her neighbor's house, give the director ample material from which to draw a few of his typical carnivalesque sequences. However, at the center of the film remains the relatively calm Giulietta, well played by Giulietta Masina, whose psychological awakening drives the narrative and keeps the film from slipping into pure spectacle. Although the film's conclusion may not contain any real revelations, the filmmaker does provide an interesting and even moving account of the protagonist's desires and fears.

The film gives various clues that Giulietta and Giorgio's marriage may be failing and less than ideal. Giorgio 'works' late almost every night and when he is home, there seems to be little interaction between the couple, sexual or otherwise. When he goes to bed, Giorgio wears not only a mask for his eyes but earplugs as well. Even when Giulietta catches him obviously talking to his mistress on the phone, he answers her with tired and obvious lies, as if it is hardly worth the trouble of explaining or caring. Similarly, as he prepares for a trip with this other woman, Giorgio realizes that his wife may be aware of his adultery and unconvincingly assures her that the lady is just a friend. Giulietta does not contradict her husband's false claims; she placidly accepts them and politely lets him go his on his way. This lack of communication between the couple establishes that Giulietta's anxiety over their growing separation will not be dealt with jointly in the open. Rather, she will have to resolve these and other concerns internally by struggling with her inner spirits and memories. The film leads the viewer to think that Giulietta might betray her husband with his refined and polite acquaintence, Jose, yet she remains faithful. A telling sequence occurs near the end of the film when Giulietta considers her marriage in retrospect. She remembers Giorgio meeting the approval of her judgmental family. She also recalls an undistinguished scene of the two of them asleep, lying close together in the bed. These memories suggest that insecurity and perhaps low self-esteem are reasons Giulietta wants to maintain her defunct marriage, even though it seems any real love is gone.

Giulietta's close contact with spirits and the otherworldly is established early on through sequences involving a seance and a meeting with a buddhist mystic. Some of these spirits perhaps represent what Giulietta feels other people would do or would want her to do. Many can be seen as manifestations of Giulietta's psyche and represent different viewpoints or ways to deal with her marital problems and, on a larger scale, her confused identity. For example, a recurring and distorted vision of the martyr Joan of Arc shows Giulietta's religious background; a flashback shows she acted as this figure in a play when she was young. After initially discovering Giorgio's infidelity, Giulietta believes the spirits are perhaps urging her to be more like her sexually-liberated neighbor, Susy. However, a disturbing vision of the martyr in raging flames scares Giulietta off and shows her that these inner voices in her life may not be completely trustworthy. This incident symbolically conveys that it is unwise to blindly follow others' advice or to try to live up to some false image; real change must come from within a person, based on their true beliefs and feelings. Near the conclusion when she is left alone, Giulietta is surrounded by a multitude of spirits and memories and must try to make sense of them to maintain her identity and sanity. In an archetypal psychological situation, Giulietta has a frightening vision of her controlling mother and tells her that she isn't afraid of her anymore. By finally standing up to this domineering presence and choosing not to sacrifice herself totally for others, Giulietta can form her own personality and self-esteem and, therefore, deal with her crumbling marriage. The final shot reflects Giulietta's inner revelation, showing her walking away from her structured, fenced-in home towards a more natural and free setting.

Although the basic narrative and ideas contained within it are nothing new, the film succeeds memorably in its visual representation. Because of night scenes or darkened rooms, there are numerous shots of characters' faces obscured in the darkness, furthering the idea that Giulietta does not know who she is or who she can trust. The sequence when she is scared from her neighbor's house is strikingly directed and effectively frightening. The spirits become fearful to Giulietta because they represent the many new decisions and confusing choices she would face by taking control of her life and steering it in her own direction. Fellini's camera eagerly explores Susy's strange house and eclectic residents. Some of the visual compositions there are so dense, it becomes difficult to discern what is in the frame; this may reflect Giulietta's confusion at these much different lifestyles. Mobile camerawork also forms visual motifs such as when Giulietta meets a woman in Susy's house that has tried to commit suicide several times. As the two walk away from her, the camera tracks out to emphasize her extreme lonliness and alienation. This movement is repeated with Giulietta as the subject when Giorgio leaves for his trip, and she is left alone to deal with the spirits.

Masina brings Giulietta alive and evokes sympathy in her search for identity and peace. The film's basic premise is reminiscent of another Italian film made around this time while the style suggests an earlier Fellini film: a kind of Red Desert by way of 8 1/2. While Juliet of the Spirits may not qualify as Fellini's best work, it is a visually rich film that shows the director putting some of his cinematic excesses to good use in driving the narrative and informing the central character at the heart of the film.

6 of 10

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© 1998

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