WARNING: spoilers below
I had a hard time with this film if I'm being honest. There is so much to love about it, and many aspects of it are beautiful. It's absolutely an emotionally powerful, heart-wrenching film. I feel so deeply for Gelsomina. As much as the film 'worked' on me emotionally, and as drawn as I was to the character, I struggled with it and I would say I respect the movie more than I liked it, hence the overall positive rating despite the somewhat negative tone of this review.
In particular, I find the ending frustrating because it is an excellent ending in its own right, and I admire the compassion and power that it holds, but I can't square the effectiveness of the movie with the way I feel Gelsomina kind of gets shafted by the narrative at the end. For most of the film, from my vantage point, this is her movie. It's a movie that is about a woman who is dealt an awful hand in life and ends up stuck in an abusive relationship with a brutal man that she just can't quite bring herself to leave. She has convinced herself that her purpose in life is to stay with him, because who else will? she says to herself. Then, the end of the movie does not belong to her. She is cast aside, killed offscreen, and the end of the film centers the emotions of her abuser.
It's not a bad ending, in fact, I don't disagree with Martin Scorsese when he says it's the more challenging ending for the audience. It just feels—I don't know—off to me. It seems to endorse the idea that her purpose was, in fact, to be abused by this man who does not know how to love. Maybe that's harsh. I am not here to condemn the movie, and I actually think there is a reading of the film that is more charitable, that she should have left him but was led astray by the social mores and sense of obligation that women were conditioned to feel toward their partners at the time. Her true purpose, to me, is to perform. She seems to be at her happiest when she is performing in front of an audience. The idea that this woman's purpose is to stay with her abuser because he needs her is revolting to me, and it's hard for me to reconcile the boundless compassion the movie has with this idea that seems to throw the whole film out of balance. I don't want to belabor the point any longer, though. I think the film is challenging and open to interpretation, and I think the ethics of its portrayal of abuse are worth interrogating, even if I respect the power the film has in general and was very much moved by it.
I also found the acerbic wit of the Fool to be a delight, and I appreciate that the film sees both of the male counterparts in flawed and three-dimensional ways. He has a sadistic streak to him that doesn't merit his unfortunate demise at the hands of Zampanó but also doesn't paint him as this saintly alternative to Zampanó's brutish cruelty. The films is commendable in that it extends empathy and compassion to every character in the film, even if I struggle with when, how, and where that compassion is applied. I am interested in seeing more Fellini films for sure, and I get the hype around him now, so to speak, even if my first introduction to his work was a challenging experience. I suppose I want to be challenged as a viewer, and great films are meant to be challenging, even if I'm not sure how I feel about this particular challenge.