Fellini (through alter ego Snaporaz, played by Marcello Mastrioanni) explores his fear and awe of the new woman, trying to grapple with a brave new world dominated by Feminism. Although Fellini himself was not a subscriber to the Feminist ideology -he preferred to separate himself from any form of ideologies- he nevertheless had a deeply entrenched feminine sympathy, he adored women, having the utmost respect for the female of the species, always regarding them as subtly superior to men.
Mastrioanni is probably most famous for his character in Fellini’s 8 1/2 made some 20 years earlier, where he also plays a kind of alter ego. In life Mastrioanni and Fellini were quite different. The latter being something of an ascetic except for his singular vice of women, while the former smoked and drank wine habitually. Yet they had an understanding in the context of the films they made, lasting decades. Fellini apparently allowed Mastrioanni to smoke on set, which he did pretty much continuously between takes.
In City of Women Snaporaz drifts off into a daydream while aboard a train facing a beautiful but evasive woman in his compartment. She wears an intimidating grey business suit, hiding behind large amber-tinted sunglasses and make-up. His dream in fact lasts the entire duration of the film.
In the dream Snaporaz follows the mysterious woman into the trains bathroom closet, after some flirtatious exchanges, where he awkwardly tries to fondle her. She holds him at a distance keeping her suit on; he barely manages to kiss her. She disembarks the train at an unplanned stop and walks across a field into woodland. Snaporaz does the same, trailing her, terribly infatuated by this mysterious creature. They play a game of cat and mouse between trees and bushes; she continues to dodge his advances, leading him to the entrance of a strange conference center with a bright carnivalesque sign, deeper in the woods. Inside the building a massive feminist gathering is in progress, not a man in sight.
The moment Snaporaz enters, he does not seem welcome. He is surrounded by hundreds of women, who see him as a slimy imposing male chauvinist journalist. He wanders through various shadowy chambers with flickering light full of women jeering at him, involved in enigmatic communal activities. A crowd of laughing woman watches a series of slide-projected illustrations of giant phalluses. They single Snaporaz out as some kind of monster; he ducks behind a pillar shamed and is led away by a beautiful woman deeper into the labyrinthine complex down an elevator to a basement gymnasium. He sees a punch bag puppet of himself being kicked and boxed. Snaporaz is now at the epicenter of a roller rink; myriad roller-skating girls encircle him in an endless dizzying daisy chain. He grows faint.
City of Women is exquisitely stylized, consisting almost entirely of a series of impeccably lighted, elaborate ‘dream’ set pieces often shrouded in the artificial mists of smoke machines and penetrated by strobing lights, scoured by dramatic mechanical winds. These are the product of the marvelous collaboration between Fellini, a new production designer Dante Ferretti and director of photography Guiseppe Rotunno (who lensed Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ and Fellini masterpieces ‘Satyricon’ and ‘Amacord’).
Fellini rejected the limitations of the script, often making spontaneous additions to the film on the following day of shooting based on a dream he had had the night before, an entirely appropriate way of working in this case, as the film is in essence one long dream sequence. Far from improvised these were guided by a lucid vision. Luckily Ferretti was receptive to these challenges and was able to economically construct elaborate pieces of set architecture within hours. Apparently Fellini had conversations with Feretti, where he encouraged him to recall his dreams. Not being able to, Ferretti would just make up things on the spot to please Fellini. He reveals in an interview that a few scenes at the end of the film were drawn from these ‘daydreams’, unchanged by Fellini.
After tumbling down a staircase pursued by bloodthirsty roller skaters, Snaporaz finds himself in the basement of the building, with a large unattractive middle aged handmaiden hanging up laundry. She turns out to be his ticket out of there. They exit on her motorcycle as he clings onto her waist. She stops the motorcycle at a cabbage field, beckoning Snaporaz to follow her inside a greenhouse where she throws her weight onto him, entangling him with her giant thighs, attempting to force him into copulation, saying ‘Feed the cat! Feed the cat!’
Snaporaz manages to brake free from her clutches still fully clothed and wonders back onto the farm road where he recognizes a dark haired woman from the feminist conference.
He follows this woman down the road and through a field. Sees a bouncing beach buggy full of teenage girls, punk music blaring from the stereo, parked under a huge billboard with a surreal collage. He gets in the buggy and drives off with them. He’s trapped in a surreal mobile backseat disco, bouncing down a dirt road at night with another car of partying teenagers in tow. Snaporaz feels overwhelmed and jumps out the car, the punk girls follow teasingly behind him with menacing headlights, music blaring. He dives into the underbrush off the roadside trying to escape the pursuing buggy, headlights beaming ominously through the branches as it continues to follow him.
He stumbles onto an eccentric property with palm trees, shrouded in mists. An alarm goes off, searchlights come on reflecting off the vapour, as the owner appears at the front entrance in a gilded robe, with a gun and two Doberman’s at his side. The man introduces himself and invites Snaporaz inside his futuristic looking house. He seems to be some kind of aging movie star, darkly tanned and overweight with a shock of bright red hair going grey, he’s called ‘Katzone’ (translating as ‘Big Dick’). In reality, actual retired Italian sex symbol Ettore Manni, from a bygone era of 1950s big screen epics.
Katzone takes Snaporaz upstairs and offers him a drink, showing him all manner of strange artifacts, a electronic vibrating dildo apparatus, a glowing Chinese mask on the wall, whose tongue extends to lick you, as you come close to it.
Tragically Manni (Katzone) killed himself in an accidental shooting during filming, blowing off his penis with a revolver, which was in his belt. Apparently there had been some tensions between Fellini and Manni on the set. He believed Fellini was making fun of him. The entire last chapter of the film was allegedly reinvented to deal with his absence.
Shorty after guests arrive at Katzone’s for what seems to be his birthday party. There’s a giant tiered cake and a female performer who makes coins disappear into her vagina. Snaporaz discovers a strange high ceilinged passage with light box images of women lining the walls, possibly Katzone’s past sexual conquests. There is a button next to each image, when pressed the image lights up and the recorded voice of the woman is heard through a little speakerphone below the image. The walls are marble. It almost looks like some kind of memorial or mausoleum. Sex and death intertwined. At the end of the passage he discovers his wife seated on a settee, in a red velvet dress. They move back to the party, having an argument about Snaporaz’s infidelity, against the backdrop of activity.
An all female secret police squad raid the party, charging Katzone with various crimes and shooting one of his beloved dogs. Two voluptuous dancing girls on a stairwell lead Snaporaz upstairs into one of Katzone’s guest rooms, with a pearly bed resembling a massive upholstered clamshell. He undresses and puts on a nightgown. The half naked dancing girls in spindly lingerie are teasing him, kneeling on the bed, leaning over him with hanging breasts in his face, as he lies on the bed in silk pajamas. Outside the plate glass windows a storm is raging, his wife is outside singing opera amongst the waving palm trees. The girls disappear through the door and his wife enters in a nightgown made from the same fabric as the bed. She performs a curious ritual ‘geisha’ dance on the bed straddling him, her nightgown hanging open teasing him with her breasts, with night make-up on her face, while a storm rages outside, the palm trees lashing in darkness, illuminated by lightning. She then rolls over on her side on the opposite side of the bed, her back to him, and goes to sleep.
Snaporaz crawls under the bed, he emerges out the other side on a red slide winding down a massive scaffolding structure decorated in carnival lights. As he slides down, he enters various childhood memories of women he was infatuated with. A nurse. A fishmonger. Memories of a brothel during the war. A strange scene in a graveyard with a maid in black stockings on her knees on top of a horizontal black marble tombstone, wagging her behind towards the camera while she polishes it. Snaporaz shoots off the end of the slide into a lion’s cage. The gate slams shut and a tarpaulin is draped over it and he is carted off. When it is pulled off, he is in the lair of a female terrorist group of some kind. He is charged with various offences against women, while two drag queens fondle him, his embarrassment mounting. Abruptly all the women leave the chamber.
Snaporaz rounds a corner and finds himself in an auditorium before an audience of women, rocking from side to side playfully watching various spectacles. There’s an all girl punk band on a go-cart. Masked women torch a mannequin in bridal dress. Snaporaz weaves amongst all of this, still in his nightgown and socks. The crowd jeers at him, pointing him in the direction of a ladder on a tall structure rising up at the centre of the auditorium. He climbs this emerging at the top in a boxing ring with an old woman in the one corner. There is a hole in the ceiling of the building; a ladder leads up to a balloon basket. He climbs up into the basket to find he is looking up at a giant blue skinned balloon of one of the girls, in lingerie with a halo of lights around her head, which has been taunting him throughout film. He floats off into the night sky, happy as a child, gazing up at the huge naked balloon woman above him. A woman below on the ground –the same woman caricatured as the balloon- raises a machine gun at him. She showers the balloon with bullets, Snaporaz watching the deflating blue body above him, as he clings to the netting for dear life.
Snaporaz awakens in his seat in the train compartment; apparently it was all a dream. In the seat facing him sits his wife, still in the same red dress. She says he’s been mumbling for the last two hours. In the seat next to him sits the other woman who he met on the train at the beginning of the film. He smiles to himself. Two other women enter and sit on the seats next to his wife. He cheerfully recognizes them too. He drifts off to sleep again smiling, as the train enters a tunnel.