Snàporaz (Marcello Mastroianni) is on a train journey when he nods off thanks to the rhythmic motion of the carriage, but when he wakes up he notices with some interest that an attractive woman (Bernice Stegers) is sitting opposite him, and possibly returning that interest in the occasional glance in his direction. When the carriage jolts and nearly topples a bottle, they both reach for it to steady the receptacle, and before he knows what is happening he is in the bathroom with her and trying to persuade her to have sex with him. She kisses passionately enough, but then the train reaches her stop, frustrating his advances...
Director Federico Fellini was fascinated by women, so much so that if the characters in his films were not actually female then they would often be female-obsessed males, but nowhere was this preoccupation more evident than in this part of his last cycle of movies, City of Women, or La città delle donne if you spoke Italian. It came across as some satire or other, though whether it was sending up the feminist movement of the previous decade which showed no sign of abating, or the men who were left confused in the wake of all these assertive women was not entirely clear; in some scenes, either could be the case, but whichever the work proved controversial.
That would be flak from both sides, with some seeing this as Fellini's tone deaf attempts to make sense of modern woman in general and making a fool of himself. As a result, City of Women is rarely mentioned among the finest efforts of the great director, but over the years a cult developed of audiences who preferred to see it as a sympathetic and wryly - at times ribaldly - funny step back from the social turmoil brought about by the so-called battle of the sexes. Whatever it was, it was one of the strangest films in the maestro's canon, an increasingly surreal meander through various setpieces with the legendary Dante Ferretti on design duties, and for the most part living up to the imagination run riot on display.
Snàporaz follows this dream woman from the carriage and down by the tracks, whereupon the train pulls away without him leaving no option but to continue to follow her. The drive for feminine emancipation often generated one reaction in the men of the day, and that was to soothe its sting for them with humour, which was what Fellini was up to here, but don't go thinking this was a near-two and a half hour long Benny Hill special, as there was a thoughtful quality to this which belied its spoofy surface, which itself grew more serious and even bizarrely nightmarish as it progressed. Snàporaz's first port of call is a hotel where a conference of women is being held, but they are every one a militant, spouting anti-male rhetoric at great length which naturally disturbs him.
All he wanted was a quickie, consequence-free sex with this mystery lady and the further he pursues this the further it is apparent he's participating in an exercise in futility, embroiled in a morass of sexual complications. Having seen himself humiliated by the conference, a sequence which seems shrilly reactionary on Fellini's part though it is quite funny, Snàporaz - who is supposed to be the same character as Mastroianni played in 8½, though he doesn't have to be - embarks on a quest to find the nearest railway station but soon that search transforms into one of those "into the night" movies which came into their own during the eighties, only this was one of the most wandering and picaresque. Our baffled hero, Fellini's stand-in as far as we can tell, moves from a journey with young women who playfully threaten to kill him to a doctor (Ettore Manni) who is even more sexist than he is, leading to an expedition into his own mind which ends in a curiously Charlie Bubbles fashion before a cop out which may not be. Food for thought if you could work it out, a visual feast if not. Music by Luis Bacalov.