#1 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
This might end up being my favorite Fellini. It’s use of character is so clear and on point while it’s perfectly acted, centered on Giulietta Masina’s wonderful performance as the eponymous Cabiria. From the opening to its tragic but still hopeful ending, Nights of Cabiria is a marvelous creation from a director who is in full command of every element on screen.
The joys of this movie are evident from the beginning. Masina was a well known comic radio performer when she met her future husband Fellini during the war, but her talents extended to the physicality of her performance. As Gelsomina in La Strada, that was obvious and to the forefront, but when Cabiria, who has just been rescued from the Tiber after her boyfriend pushed her in and stole her purse, she arrives at her small stone house in the middle of a desolate stretch of land just outside Rome and needs to get in. The way she holds her body as she peeks through the keyhole and pushes a barrel to her window to sneak through it just so eminently watchable and interesting. She contorts her body in fun ways to do simple things.
Anyway, the movie is a series of episodes as Cabiria navigates her life and the contradictions that she has built into herself. As a streetwalker, she’s always hoping for a man to settle down with. She’s surprisingly independent financially, but she wants a savior to take her away. She’s been hurt by men, but she’s always looking for the one. She’s viciously cynical on the outside, but she’s still got the tender heart of a young girl on the inside (the heart of gold, so to speak). The episodes themselves range from her getting picked up by a famous actor who ends up leaving her in his bathroom all night when his girlfriend shows up tearfully after a fight and the couple reconcile to Cabiria going with some fellow prostitutes on a pilgrimage to a remote church where a miracle was to have occurred. Though these events are unconnected by a strong plot, they are tightly connected by a strong sense of character exploring a central theme.
That theme is the idea of the contrast between who we are internally and who we are to the rest of the world, with another idea that feeds into it, the vacuousness of the modern world. Ultimately what Cabiria wants isn’t a man, or money, or a way out of her life, but meaning. Her life of walking the streets at night and sleeping during the day is unfulfilling, and she searches for meaning where she can find it. The key to this part of the story is the pilgrimage. It’s there, in that out of the way church, surrounded by people, that she reveals herself fully (one of only a few times that she does) as she begins joining the chant for the Madonna to bless her and give her the escape that she so sorely needs and wants. There’s commentary about how Fellini uses the spectacle of the Church, but I think a lot of it misses the mark.
The spectacle we see in this and La Dolce Vita is the spectacle of the people rallying around extraordinary spiritual events that may or may not be true. Both films contain crowds of people trying to take part in a miracle, but in Cabiria, the main character doesn’t get anything. However, we do see people with religion at their heart walking at the edge of the scene, asking quietly for help, and they seem far more content than Cabiria, implying, to me, that there is power in religion to Fellini, but it cannot be a mass event. The spiritual touch of God, to Fellini, was a personal and quiet one.
Everything seems to change for Cabiria when she goes to a magic show and is hypnotized. On stage, she play acts a meeting with a nice man named Oscar in her mind where she reveals her real name (Maria, which she only reveals in her most vulnerable moments) and her dreams of living peacefully. Angered after she comes out of the daze, she storms off only to be met by another Oscar who eagerly wants to get to know her better. They see each other repeatedly with Cabiria wondering what the whole innocent acquaintance means until Oscar proposes. He’s fine with her past life as a streetwalker and has paid for everything since they met, so his motives must be pure and she accepts. The joy in her as she tells Wanda, her friend, of the news is infectious, but this being a Fellini movie, this can’t end well, and it does not.
You see, when Cabiria was on stage, she revealed that she owned her own house outright which implies that she has some decent amount of money. Oscar clung to that until he convinced Cabiria to marry him, after which she sold her house and took out all of her money (which came to about 750,000 lira which would probably be about $12,000 today) as her dowry. Oscar, though, was playing a long game and steals her money in her purse in a scene that recalls the opening scene of Cabiria being thrown into the Tiber by her previous boyfriend. And then we get the fulmination of the movie’s central ideas and characters as Cabiria, broken and robbed, walks back from her secluded spot in a strange part of the country when she comes across a roving band of young people just playing music as they dance down the road. Cabiria tears up, her tear smearing her mascara like a painted tear on a clown. Slowly, her frown turns into a smile and she glances at the camera. It’s a marvelously magical moment that caps the entire film of a woman, beaten down and abandoned by everything she tries to invest herself into, never loses who she is underneath, finding that there still is life worth living mere minutes after she begged her new husband to murder her because she couldn’t take the pain of the betrayal.
Nights of Cabiria is a great film. It fits well in Fellini’s earlier period with grounded aesthetics built on real Roman locations including caves and street corners and also has touches of the elements that would later come to define his films, the carnivalesque atmosphere and parades, but they’re far more in the background and never really the point. The point is always Cabiria herself, her contradictions, and her spirit. I adore this film.