Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterwork 8 ½ is, among many things, a look at women from the perspective of man. The lead character’s impressions of women, throughout all the stages of his life, are a vibrant pastiche ranging from the vulgar and exaggerated to the subtle and stoic. In City of Women (1980), a follow-up of sorts, the fallibility of perspective is from an even higher bird’s-eye view; while we follow one man (played by Marcello Mastroianni, the same actor as in 8 ½) on an even wilder ride, where he’s no longer the one in control. Woman’s story here is reclaimed; the 1963 image of Mastroianni armed with a lion tamer’s whip and chair is replaced by exaggerated feminist sensibilities, including roller-skating women kicking male mannequins in the groin.
In fact, City of Women also plays like a sort of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – beginning with the pursuit of a White Rabbit as a mysterious woman in sunglasses; followed by a series of misadventures, each more absurd than the last; and culminating in a trial, outrageous sentencing, and an awakening from a dream.
The film opens with a just-past-middle-aged man Snàporaz, played by Mastroianni, riding a train where he has a brief fling with a stranger. Enraptured, he follows her into the forest, then loses track of her and wanders into an overgrown, seemingly abandoned Grand Hotel. He finds himself in the middle of a feminists’ convention, a scene of chaos and pandemonium filled to the brim with passionate activist women, where the key note speaker is a woman with multiple husbands; she says she was inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Snàporaz tries to get back to the train station, and after a few bumpy starts, finds refuge at the home of Dr. Katzone, who lives in the countryside away from the hotel. Katzone’s house is a sort of high-tech villa, or maybe a tomb, free from the rule of women where he is lord and master of his own space. His labyrinthine home includes interactive photographs, showcasing his past loves and playing audio of their soundbites, and a celebration is about to unfold celebrating a “milestone” of sorts in his love life. Here, the women of his lifetime, including girlfriends, servants, chefs, all fall to his command. In hiding himself out, and perhaps by separating the women of his household from the greater community, they seem oblivious to the rising feminism and self-determination of their sisters outside the palazzo walls.
That night, under the guise of staying as a houseguest, Snàporaz is caught in a trap: underneath his bed is a slide, and he whisks by his own memories of women looming from his past; not as static photographs and audio recordings like for Katzone, but as the real deal: living, breathing women, illuminated by stagelights like acts in a circus. He glides past them and lands deep below into some sort of test of masculinity; it’s hard not to be reminded of gay conversion camps, with exaggeratedly delicate-looking men donning robes, short shorts, and scarves, who, one by one, are summoned away for a final test of manhood and ultimately a trial – all run by women.
The events of the film reflect an impotence, both figurative and literal, of man in the era of feminism; Mastroianni, at one time an effortlessly suave embodiment of confidence and self-assuredness, now has no control over his destiny, and is fully at the mercy of women, whether they cart him around or chase him away. The world of the 1960s where he commanded (in his mind at least) the opposite sex is gone now, and now in his 50s, his masculinity just doesn’t seem up to the task anymore. Taking Katzone as a contemporary, in age and romantic prowess, the only way men in this world can grapple with the rise of feminism is to run away from it.
The power Mastroianni held over women in 1963’s 8 ½ is long gone by 1980’s City of Women. Even the few that do seem charmed by him, and go out of their way to help him, are doing so by their own accord, and even then they ultimately bamboozle him. He’s little more than a pawn or a plaything. Perhaps this shift, daringly embodied by Italian cinema’s leading figure of masculinity, is all the stronger a case that times have changed. Or rather – not that the times themselves have changed, but that men are finally realizing it.
The common delusional misconception that feminism is hatred toward men, is here fully realized and experienced by the likely machismo-minded older men of 1980 Italy. They, in turn, grew up before and during the fascist era, and perhaps being confronted by the concept of gender equality may have been truly shocking for them. In addition to Mastroianni’s performance, this gender and generational conflict is recognized one of world cinema’s preeminent filmmakers, Fellini; through this film, he acknowledges his generation’s (and perhaps his own) failings or misunderstandings that the world is moving on. Like Snàporaz, the City of Women has been awakened.