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JULIET OF THE SPIRITS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Giulietta Masina, Sandra Milo, Mario Pisu
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Fellini Interview
Length:  137 Minutes
Release Date:  March 12, 2002

“Love is your religion.  Your husband is your god.  You are the priestess of your cult.”

Film **

Legend has it that Federico Fellini took LSD in preparation for making Juliet of the Spirits…whether this is true or not, I cannot say, but I can’t help feeling a sense of cosmic poetry in that idea.  His film is indeed as colorful and as filled with strange, fascinating, and elusive images as an acid trip…but ultimately, just as lacking in real substance.

It was the Italian master’s first color film, and he wielded color like a kid with a new toy.  His black and white films were filled with memorable visuals, but Juliet is like a smorgasbord of eye candy.  It has flavor, but ultimately, as much of a treat as candy is, you can’t subsist on it alone for long before your body starts crying out for something more substantial.

It marked the return of his wonderful wife Giulietta Masina to a leading role.  She plays the Juliet of the title.  She is a frumpish, sad, withdrawn housewife whose emotional duress leads to a bizarre spiritual awakening.

On the eve of her 15th anniversary, she plans a romantic dinner for two, but husband Giorgio (Pisu) has forgotten all about it, showing up instead with an entourage of weird friends.  One of these leads Juliet and companions in a séance, and from that point on, real or imagined, the spirit world is speaking to Juliet.

The problems are 1) these “spirits” often offer wildly conflicting and sometimes impractical advice to Juliet (one even beckons her to commit suicide), and 2) because of Fellini’s usual parade of eccentric characters in his films, it’s often hard to determine who is flesh and who is spirit.

Juliet fears her husband is cheating on her.  All the signs are there, and everybody in her life, whether real or imagined, has some kind of tip for her.  Amongst those she follows are visiting a psychiatrist, who actually attempts to analyze Giorgio from photographs, and hiring private detectives. 

But the film isn’t really about infidelity…even worse, it doesn’t really seem to be about anything.  It’s a visual tour-de-force as Juliet’s minor adventures take her through the story.  But the picture is either suggesting nothing, or it is trying to fault Juliet for her own marital unhappiness.  Neither choice is particularly appealing.

The best moments involve her vivacious and free-spirited neighbor, Suzy (Milo), whose home is a posh pleasure playground.  Her gauche bedroom even includes a chute down to a heated pool, and she even owns a lush treehouse high above the woods where lovers can be entertained.  Should Juliet follow in Giorgio’s footsteps?  Fellini doesn’t think so…even though the husband cheats without moral qualms, entertaining the slightest temptation fills Juliet with dreadful visions of hell fire.

Juliet marked a real turning point for Fellini, even more so than 8 ½, by abandoning almost all semblance of conventional or cohesive narrative in favor of visual rape.  At least in Juliet the images are still largely beautiful, even if they carry the weight of Fellini’s psychological baggage.  By his next film, Satyricon, he was taking his audience prisoner and forcing them to wallow in his own private hell and confront his most personal demons through ravaging and grotesque imagery.

Juliet therefore remains arguably the most picturesque of Fellini’s work, despite being mired in indulgence and misogyny.  Husbands are unfaithful and wives suffer, but at least the wives get to live in their husbands’ erotic fantasies, even if they are deprived of experiencing them for themselves.  Not a very satisfying notion to take away from a film, is it?

Video ****

Calling all adjectives…as someone who’s looked at many classic films on DVD over the years, I have to say that Juliet of the Sprits is an apex.  This is quite possibly the best presentation of a pre-1970 color film I have ever seen.  Fellini’s Technicolor vision is captured and preserved with an amazing breath of rich, vibrant tones that are lush and natural looking.  Image detail is beyond incredible…every little iota of information in every shot is sharply defined and crystal clear, from the foreground to the background.  You can count leaves on trees or tiles on floors if you want to…there’s nothing fuzzy or vague about any image in any sequence, whether lighting is bright or dim.  Criterion delivers their visual coup with this DVD offering.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is fine, but audio is often hard to judge on a Fellini picture, since all dialogue and effects are recorded in post production.  I didn’t notice any problems…the track seemed clean and clear throughout, and Nino Rota’s score was effectively well presented.  Not spectacular, but no complaints either.

Features **

The disc contains the antithesis of a Hollywood trailer (ie, it gives NOTHING away), and a short interview with Federico Fellini in English.

Summary:

Juliet of the Spirits marked the beginning of hard times for Fellini, both critically and financially.  The film was a box office failure, sending his career into a bit of a tailspin that some say he never fully recovered from.  It’s a picture whose lack of self-restraint is often interesting if not appealing, but it remains one of the most visually striking and beautiful color movies ever filmed…for that aspect alone, film fans owe themselves at least one look at it, preferably on this superbly rendered Criterion DVD.