Never give up on a genuine artist. Case in point: Federico Fellini. Approaching the status of a Grand Old Man of contemporary filmmaking, Fellini continues to demonstrate astonishing powers of imaginative recuperation. Just when you're tempted to count him out, Fellini bounces back with delightful resilience and gusto.
It happened seven years ago with "Amarcord." It has happened again with "City of Women," an outrageously funny and blithely sustained flight of fancy opening today at the West End Circle and K-B Studio 3.
"City of Women" is Fellini's variation on "Alice in Wonderland": the first image leads us right down a rabbit hole of fantasy that is also a venerable Freudian joke: A train hurtles into a tunnel. In a flash Fellini establishes a humorous dream state that is then sustained with remarkable zest and ingenuity for the duration of the ride.
The plot is calculated to keep flying off on tangents, confronting the curious, mystified protagonist with bizarre new characters and surroundings. If he blunders into a trite dead end, Fellini quickly takes off ina more productive loony direction. His digressions maintain momentum and a jovial mood while springing constant surprises and ultimately adding up and coming full circle in emotional terms.
The ease and speed with which Fellini gets his show on the road come as both a gratifying reminder of The Real Thing and an unintentional rebuke to imitators. Perhaps it's significant that Woody Allen located his alter ego in "Stardust Memories" on a train that wasn't moving. Fellini's train is already in rapid motion when we pick it up entering the tunnel. A moment later we're inside a compartment watching a dozing passenger, a middle-aged man of somewhat weathered, rumpled handsomeness, impersonated by Marcello Mastroinanni.
Jostled in his sleep by an apparently bumpy roadbed, the passenger wakes up and becomes immediately aroused by a woman sitting opposite him. A serene, statuesque woman of fashion, she wears a capacious fur coat, dark glasses and an enigmatic smile. When she leaves the compartment, the gentleman prusues her. She vanishes in a crowded passageway, but he corners her in a bathroom. Despite the cramped quarters, and probably because of them too, his lust is barely controllable. Complacently amused by his impetuous attentions, the lady leaves him unsatisfied when the train suddenly lurches to a stop and she hops off.
Like Alice following the rabbit, Mastroianni follows the mystery woman. Catching up with her in a clearing in the surrounding countryside, he allows himself to be tricked into another abrupt brushoff. "With all my troubles," he mutters, "I have to go and make a fool of myself. Snaporaz, why are you so incorrigible?" From the context one gathers that his nickname, Snaporaz, the only name we know him by, is also a vulgar term of endearment for the hero's sex organ.
Frustrated by still game, Snaporaz picks up the chase and spots his prey entering a large, secluded hotel. Inside, the mystery woman keeps disappearing and reappearing among a multitide of women, for Snaporaz has walked into a convention of radical feminists. Skulking about, he eavesdrops on boisterous discussions, seminars and theatricals.
Soaking up the atmosphere, Mastroianni wears a look of complacently wolfish bemusement, similar to the disguised Jack Lemmon ogling the girls in the band in "Some Like It Hot." Visions of orgiastic fun seem to be dancing in the hero's head. After all, the joint is wall-to-wall women. They're acting standoffish and sounding off in pretty weird ways too, but still, his expression seems to say, they're pretty cute when they're angry and some of that rhetoric is downright suggestive.
The feminist conclave is merely the first side trip on Fellini's screwball itinerary. The title may destroy its significance and even suggest an antifeminist bias, but the movie as a whole has no sexual ax to grind. Fellini is agreeably evenhanded when it comes to spreading around the ridicule. Even when the feminist fanatics are parading by, it's obvious that the principal butt of the humor is Snaporaz, Fellini's own alter ego. Fellini never presumes to speak on behalf of women. He's preoccupied with the desire, anxiety and confusion that women provike in men, and the feminist rhetoric adds a new element of comic bewilderment.
The object of Snaporaz's desire always does elude him. The closest the hero comes to a sexual conquest is during an encounter with a bawdy char-woman who threatens to overpower him, much to his consternation. Moreover, the prize nut case is also a man, a pompous, paranoid libertine named Dr. Zueberkock who is preparing to celebrate his 10,000th conquest. Snaporaz runs onto his property while fleeing a gang of spaced-out-teeny-boppers. Zueberkock appears with a rifle at the ready and asures his guest, "I'll cover your retreat from those lesbians. How can female creatures stoop so low?"
Eventually, Fellini transforms Snaporaz's misadventures from a sexual pursuit into a metaphor for his own artistic vocation. The mystery woman who leads Snaporaz on this beguiling wild goose chase is finally indistinguishable from the filmmaker's muse. She represents a dream of perfection and fulfillment that constantly tantalizes and eludes him. The penultimate sequence illustrates the fundamentally artistic nature of the quest in literally heavenly pictorial terms. Sailing away in a giant balloon dominated by a figure of his Ideal Woman, Snaporaz is shot down by a sniper. Caught in the netting of the balloon, he hangs on, buffeted by swirling wind currents, at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
Snaporaz emerges as a comic Every-man to an extent that Guido, Fellini's big-shot alter ego in "8 1/2," never could, and Mastroianni endows him with an endearing foolishness that invites far-reaching human sympathy. Fellini was almost 60 when he shot "City of Women." Judging from the results, it couldn't have been a jollier turning point.