Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits”: a visual feast that will send the right side of your brain into paroxysms of ecstasy while the left side struggles to determine the filmmaker’s intent

What is Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti) all about? Even after multiple viewings, I’m not entirely sure — but perhaps its meaning is immaterial. Screening at Pacific Film Archive this Saturday, July 14th at 6:00 pm, it’s a visual feast that will send the right side of your brain into paroxysms of ecstasy while the left side struggles to determine the filmmaker’s intent.

Appearing as part of the Archive’s series, ‘Bellissima: Leading Ladies of the Italian Screen’, Juliet of the Spirits marked a significant turning point in Fellini’s career. The salt of the earth realism of his early efforts (I Vitelloni, Nights of Cabiria) had already given way to cerebral examinations of bourgeois conceit (La Dolce Vita, 8 ½), but with Juliet, Fellini began a long-term journey into deeply surreal waters.

The director’s wife, muse, and frequent collaborator Giulietta Masina stars as the title character, a middle-aged woman torn between dedication to her husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu) and the desire for something more from life. Hiding her feelings behind a perpetual Mona Lisa smile and an array of wide brimmed haute couture hats, Juliet no longer finds fulfillment lounging on the beach and planning social occasions.

Fellini was deeply interested in things spiritual and metaphysical, even experimenting with LSD prior to beginning this production (for the record, he considered his acid trip “a little bit disappointing”). Juliet of the Spirits reflects these influences from the get-go, as Juliet and Giorgio celebrate their wedding anniversary with Genius (Friedrich von Lebedur), the ‘world’s greatest clairvoyant’, and friend Val (Valentina Cortese), who gives Juliet a charm (which appears to be a rather large wind chime) designed to ward off spirits.

Its effect, however, seems to be the reverse of that intended. After a séance conducted by Genius at Val’s behest, Juliet begins to experience a series of visions – some beautiful, some terrifying – that increase and intensify when she discovers that Giorgio is having an affair with a 24-year old model.

Plunging deeper into the psychobabble cults of the period, Juliet also encounters the Indian guru Bishma (Valeska Gert), described as ‘a man-woman with the secrets of both sexes’, and a doctor (American stage actress Anne Francine) who specializes in psychodrama. The value of their arcane knowledge, however, is questionable, as the spirits become increasingly testy – even suggesting, at one point, that Juliet join them in eternal repose.

Juliet of the Spirits arguably marked the apex of Fellini’s career. It’s here that the seeds of the director’s eventual demise were sown, but his hallmark grotesqueries are neither as sharply drawn nor as hideous as they would become in later years. Amusingly, Fellini’s screenplay acknowledges what would ultimately be his undoing when Juliet’s neighbor Suzy (Sandra Milo) announces “I don’t believe fetishism’s a good trait.” Tell it to the judge, Federico.

Nonetheless, this remains a film of extremes — a 135-minute riot of color featuring over-saturated reds and greens courtesy cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo, beyond outrageous costumes designed by Piero Gherardi, and a maddening but irresistible Nino Rota score that sounds a bit like something you might hear in your local haunted house, if your local haunted house was populated by the spirits of dead ragtime musicians. It’s a film everyone should see at least once in their lifetime – and preferably on the big screen.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...