Fellini is commonly regarded as one of the top five greatest film directors who ever lived. In addition to that honorable distinction, he also holds the number one rank for many as their all-time favorite. He is responsible for at least six of the greatest films ever made: I Vitelloni; La Strada; Nights of Cabiria; La Dolce Vita; 8½; and Amarcord. Despite some truly memorable visuals and classic set-pieces, Fellini's City of Women is not one of his best films, but it is far from the travesty that some people (including Andrei Tarkovsky) have made it out to be.
What started out as an aborted collaboration with Ingmar Bergman (another top five greatest film director candidate), City of Women, released in 1980, is best considered an episodic satire on the women's lib movement and stereotypical Italian Male's obsession with the opposite sex. Fellini and his screen alter-ego, Marcello Mastroianni, are reunited again for the first time in a feature film since 8½ (1963). Here, Mastroianni plays a slight variation on the bemused film director character (based on Fellini himself) he played to such legendary perfection in their previous collaboration. We're not sure what his character's profession is in City of Women, and it doesn't really matter. What matters is we know he loves all women and is willing to risk his own well being for even a brief encounter alone with one of them, be it in a bathroom on a speeding train or in a strange woods.
As he steps off the train for an unscheduled stop, Fellini and Mastroianni lead us on a surreal and somewhat nightmarish odyssey through a dreamworld populated almost entirely by the fairer sex. What begins as an amusing sex comedy quickly succumbs to an overindulgent and tiresome fantasy with too much going on and too little to say. The film lacks the emotional punch and artistry of his great works, or even the gentle mysticism of Juliet of the Spirits. I found City of Women to have the most in common with Fellini's I Clowns and Ginger and Fred. I Clowns was a semi-documentary produced for Italian television (later released to theaters) but it became a meditation on Felllini's own childhood and lifelong obsession with the circus clown. In the film, Fellini himself admits that his obsession started out as a fear. I think this observation could be true of City of Women also. The women on display are meant to be feared, not gawked at or adored. Structurally, the film shares the most in common with Ginger and Fred (produced just six years after City of Women), another minor Fellini vehicle for Mastroianni and the luminous Giulietta Masina (Mrs. Fellini). Fellini allegedly had a longtime affair with one of his frequent players (Sandra Milo) yet his wife always remained by his side. City of Women seems to be another example of Fellini exorcising his own demons (like he did in 8½) by admitting his faults and infidelities on camera, especially in the final set-piece when Mastroianni is essentially put on trial. Unlike 8½, where he bravely cast his real-life mistress as his onscreen mistress, City of Women seems less insightful and far more abstract.
The Blu-ray is a revelation in picture and sound. This truly is the definitive release of one of Fellini's most promising and perhaps trivial works. And let it be said: even a trivial Fellini film is still worth the price of admission.