Though Federico Fellini’s 1964 Best Foreign Film Academy Award for 8 1/2 confirmed his place among the world’s greatest filmmakers, he remained as unsure of his ability as when he had arrived in Rome from Rimini in 1939. If the success of the psychoanalytical 8 1/2 persuaded him of anything, it was the need to examine even more thoroughly the sources of his creativity, which lay in dreams, and in his ambiguous sexuality.
To do so, he broke decisively with films like La Strada and La Dolce Vita. Juliet of the Spirits would be his first in color, and the first not rooted in contemporary reality. And for the first time in seven years, he would be directing his wife, Giulietta Masina.
The Fellinis shared a profound belief in psychic phenomena. Giulietta would halt a conversation in mid-sentence to whisper “We are not alone!” Fellini, who mined his films from a rich dream life—“I go to sleep, and the fête begins,” he said proudly—often changed plans on the advice of astrologers and mediums, whom he cast in his films as an excuse to have them around during shooting.
Though Fellini and Masina shared a house, they occupied separate floors and had very different friends. Fellini flirted overtly with women but made his closest relationships with a succession of young gay assistants, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini. In Juliet of the Spirits, superstition and marital breakdown collide as Fellini, behind a smoke screen of fantasy, debates his future. Juliet, a neglected wife moping in her summer home in fashionable Fregene, is recognizably Masina, just as her preoccupied, philandering husband Giorgio is a streamlined Fellini—younger, thinner, and better dressed.
After Giorgio has forgotten their fifteenth wedding anniversary—the Fellinis had just celebrated their twentieth—Juliet’s pleasure-seeking friends draw her into a spiritist séance with Eugenio Mastropietro, who has modestly nicknamed himself “Genius” and claims to be the Rome police department’s official medium. Next morning, she discovers that the passage to the Hereafter has been thrown open. Phantoms crowd down the psychic corridor, invading her home, the nearby woods, and the beach.
An ancient guru named Bishma tells Juliet the spirits are disturbed by her failure to accept Giorgio’s infidelities and neglect: “Love is your religion. Your husband is your god.” But at the same time, she murmurs that sangria (still exotic in 1965), “quenches those who drink it. It quenches our secret thirsts too.” Immediately, such thirsts start to trouble Juliet. She calls on Suzy, a sensual neighbor, whose treetop house disguises a pleasure dome, complete with a giant bath and a slide to enter it. Staying on for an orgy, she’s tempted to have sex with Suzy’s androgynous part-Arab godson, only to flee back to her sterile villa and a showdown with the spirits.
Milanese publisher Angelo Rizzoli, who financed 8 1/2, put up the money for Juliet, but not without wondering if Masina warranted a $3 million film. He suggested an international name, like Katharine Hepburn, but Fellini was adamant; Juliet of the Spirits would re-invent Giulietta as a new star for the sixties.
With psychedelia turning the world DayGlo and OpArt, and even Ingmar Bergman filming in color with an eye to a better U.S. release, he dictated eye-popping decor and costumes for Juliet. Long-time designer Piero Gherardi and cameraman Gianni de Venanzo obliged, confecting an artificial world set at an eccentric angle to modern Rome.
Meanwhile, his writers assembled a screenplay that was all too realistic about the Fellinis’ marriage. “He hasn’t left out a single bizarre or unhappy detail,” noted one insider. Masina felt ambushed. When Fellini told her he wanted her to “play herself,” she snapped that if anyone fantasized about fornicating with girlish Asian princes, it wasn’t her. Increasingly her role felt like Fellini in drag. The arguments became so bitter that friends predicted divorce.
Visiting Hollywood for the Academy Awards, Fellini tried to recruit some Hollywood legends for his film, including Mae West, whom he wanted to play Bishma. After she declined, Fellini cast 72-year old lesbian androgyne Valeska Gert, a fabled Expressionist dancer and choreographer of ’30s Berlin, last seen on screen in G.W. Pabst’s 1931 Threepenny Opera. Suzy was voluptuous Sandra Milo, long assumed (due mainly to rumors she circulated), to be Fellini’s mistress. Valentina Cortese played Juliet’s friend Valentina, spending her days in beauty salons and her nights with handsome young “protégés.”
Rizzoli infuriated Fellini by ceding an entire panel in the credits to the makers of BriNylon, but without them there would have been no film. Even the grass around the villa is synthetic. Ambling through a role as the languid businessman who makes a play for Juliet, Spanish playboy and writer José Luis de Villalonga disparaged this “nightmare universe of plastic materials.” “Everything around me is fake,” he sniffed. Fellini smiled. “Just like in life,” he said softly.
That, finally, is the charm of Juliet. It admits us to Fellini’s dreams and fantasies, which, truly, were his entire life. With cryptic images like the two uniformed guards who pace silently past Juliet’s window, rain tapping on slick black waterproof capes, the raft packed with naked men and women that nuzzles up to the sunny beach, and the towering bearded figure of authority that erupts into the house, he puts his signature on Juliet of the Spirits to a greater extent than any other of his films.
Fellini and Masina remained together; events left them little choice. After Juliet’s critical and financial failure, the Italian government targeted Fellini for unpaid taxes. Effectively bankrupt, he was forced to sell everything. Then a mysterious malady left him helpless for months. He didn’t release his next feature until 1970—Fellini Satyricon, which, in its frank embrace of the gay lifestyle, showed that Juliet of the Spirits had helped Fellini turn an important corner. But Juliet remains an absorbing film in its own right, not only as a milestone in the development of a great artist, but as an anthology of visual delights that displays the Fellini team of performers, writers, and designers at full and exhilarating stretch.
John Baxter's books on the cinema include biographies of Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Robert De Niro, and Federico Fellini. He lives in Paris.