One cannot watch Juliet of the Spirits without wondering what the real-life marriage of Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina (director and star, respectively) was like. Was it anything like the deeply troubled marriage depicted in the film? If it was, at least they had the self-awareness to examine their problems through their art.
The film marked the first Fellini shot in colour, as well as the sixth in which he directed his wife. It was released in 1965 to tepid reviews and little financial success.
Juliet of the Spirits may not be as well-remembered as some of Fellini’s others, like 8 ½ and La Strada, but it is nonetheless an important step in the filmmaking legend’s evolution, when his fixations on dreams and illusions exploded into colourful fantasia.
Masina plays Juliet, a bored housewife who begins to suspect her husband, played by Mario Pisu, of cheating on her. She consults doctors, mediums and clairvoyants who set on her path of psychological discovery, dramatised by Fellini through multicoloured, surreal vignettes.
A seance, held on the night her husband forgets their wedding anniversary, opens Juliet up to spirits, visions (or delusions, depending on how you choose to see them) and dreamscapes.
Her journey also includes extravagant flashbacks sequences and comparison shopping with the life of her glamorous and sexually liberated neighbour, played by Sandra Milo.
The episodes prompt Juliet to confront a difficult truth; that the husband she has centered her universe around is not all that deserving of her devotion.
It’s a film about having to accept something that shakes your faith and crumbles your worldview, then finding a way to walk into your new reality.
From the first scenes, everything in Juliet’s world is constructed. Artifice is brought to the forefront. Fellini makes the most out of shooting in colour by making the sets and costumes all confections of ‘60s psychedelia. Even Juliet’s house and yard look clearly like they were built on a soundstage, which, of course, they were.
As well as acting as commentary on the state of her marriage, the artificial environment is the perfect staging ground for Juliet’s dreams, memories and phantoms.
Though it is not thought of as being in the same league as Fellini’s best work, Juliet of the Spirits is still a fascinating exploration of the kaleidoscopic fractals that comprise one woman’s psyche.