City of Women (1980)

Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi, Brunello Rondi
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni

It’s hard to believe that there ever was a time when a film like this could get made. Let alone by someone as respected, praised, honored, and treasured as Federico Fellini. No one would ever accuse Fellini of thinking very highly of women or valuing them for much beyond their bodies, but even for him City of Women is all kinds of low. Masking itself as a fantastical comedy of sorts, the film is simply a gross and misogynistic attack on women, feminism, and the mere notion of women as beings worthy of respect or agency outside of male supremacy. The only value in this movie is to showcase the male reaction to the Italian feminist movement of the 70s, and that reaction is derision, attack, and belittling.

Italy was a country that didn’t legalize divorce until the 70s. Prior to that divorce was illegal and impossible. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s documentary Love Meetings, an Italian woman voices her discontent because while men could leave the home and live as if they were single with new lovers and girlfriends, women were stuck at home, abandoned, and left to raise children with no support, be it emotional or financial. So how are these newly liberated women portrayed in the film? As harpies, monsters, demons, intent on male destruction and castration. This film reads as a Freudian nightmare for men afraid of losing supreme power and their own penises. I mean, for Christ’s sake, there is literally a character whose name translates as Doctor Huge-Cock!

The film opens with the protagonist Snàporaz (Fellini male-muse Marcello Mastroianni) on a train. A woman looks at him and when she gets up to use the washroom, the man follows her and begins to fondle her without permission. He tries to have a quickie in the bathroom, but the train stops and the woman gets off, walking towards a forest. Snàporaz, all blue balls and horny, decides to stalk her in the woods, and catcalls her the entire way. She, though, is portrayed as the bitch who won’t play game, and he is the funny and likable guy that just wants some. Why won’t this repressed freak give him the v?

During his pursuit, Snàporaz finds himself in an enchanted land surrounded only by women. Women discussing castration, talking about sex as degrading and a violation, coming up for new words, female words, for the vagina, talking about feminism, pantomiming domesticity while the male is portrayed as Frankenstein’s monster, chanting that matrimony is akin to being thrown in a mental institution, women as prisoners of awful men. At one point a woman (an elderly, overweight, and unattractive one) literally attempts to rape Snàporaz. All the while every action is filtered through his gaze, one of mystifying non-understanding, for he loves women and believes he respects them, so why are they so angry, evil, and vindictive when nothing bad has ever happened to them?

The film is anything but subtle. At one point, Nazi-clad women kill a dog, the ultimate movie signifier of evil. Women are horrible, amirite? The film is just so grossly offensive. Two women in burkas disrobe only to become nearly nude belly dancers. A row of men look at giant disembodied closeups of female bodies and masturbate under one giant sheet. Men are eventually put on trial and found to be guilty because they are men, and having a penis makes one guilty no matter what. Fellini and his fellow screenwriters so clearly didn’t understand feminism, its discourse, or its adherents and instead of attempting a dialogue with someone, they decided to indict the movement and write a film whose sole intent was to ridicule and demean it. His antipathy is clear, his condescension impossible to mask, his ignorance on full display. It’s a shame that this film, one of the director’s last, shows someone so unable to see past his own erection and incapable of seeing women as anything but a Madonna, a mother, or, above all else, a body upon which to wiggle and abuse and make his own.

If anything this film shows us how far we’ve actually come, and where we should never return to. Agency, independence, and self-worth are not laughing matters. Even if a once great movie director says they are.

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