Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Dir. Frederico Fellini
Starring Guilietta Masina, Francois Perier, Franca Marzi, Amedeo Nazzari
Kids, I got something to tell you. Something you’re not going to like. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t deny who I am. I know you hold me in high esteem, and if you wish to avoid having your illusions shattered and watching as your heroes crumble before your eyes, I suggest you turn back now and never think of this again. But here goes. I don’t really like the films of Frederico Fellini.
I mean, it’s a little complicated. I obviously recognize his mastery of the craft, and I applaud his bold commitment to his own unique vision. But I can never really get all that invested in the content, especially his later films, which are richly articulated examinations into the subconscious of an individual who is worried about a lot of stuff that just doesn’t mean much to me. It’s a personal thing. Fellini is just so fixated on his hang ups about sex, relationships, and religion, and it all seems a little needless to me. I got plenty of my own issues, but those three things I feel like I got a good handle on. I feel like I could clear up his problems pretty easily just by pointing out that A) There is no God, B) Sex is awesome and you should have as much of it as you can as long as you don’t hurt anyone, and C) Just be yourself and try to have fun with the people in your life.
There, see? Issues resolved. Now you can make a film as gorgeous as 8 ½ about something which is actually interesting, like a coven of lesbian vampires fighting a robot. Maybe in space. Although Italy would be ok, too, I don’t think I’ve seen one of those set in Italy (I bet one exists, though.)
Anyway, Fellini’s films are always a visual treat, but as they get more abstract later in his career there’s not a lot of narrative of character center to hold onto and if you don’t really get into his central themes they’re a bit of a commotion about nothing.
So, having flippantly dismissed the acknowledged masterpieces of one of cinema’s towering geniuses, I have to say that I sort of loved NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, which may be the first Fellini film I’ve seen which combines his surreal eye with the warmth of character from his neorealist period. It’s pretty much an amazing, mesmerizing, heartbreaking, sumptuous, overwhelming, immersive, inspiring cinematic experience which might or might not remind me or someone else why they fell in love with cinema in the first place.
NIGHTS OF CABIRIA is the story the titular Cabiria (Guilietta Masina, who by a remarkable coincidence is also married to Fellini) who works as a prostitute in one of Rome’s seedier districts. Actually its hardly a story, in the conventional sense – more like a series of vignettes as we follow Cabiria through her encounters with various people in her life (though interestingly, none of them are clients). Some encounters are comic, some are heartbreaking, some banal, and not all even entirely revolve around Cabiria. Fellini takes advantage of the freedom his anti-narrative allows by allowing his focus to drift a little, and is rewarded with rich visual haikus full of earthy detail. It’s not just that his compositions are effortlessly gorgeous; it’s that they carefully mine each image and face for hints of its soul. At this moment in career, with one foot in neorealism and the other in surrealism, Fellini manages to be both penetrating and poetic, carefully allowing the truths to reveal themselves but not yet smothering the world with his own personality. Even without its central character, Fellini’s keen eye creates a deeply felt portrait of a time and place.
With its central character, though, it’s a classic. Guilietta Masina, who starred in several other Fellini films early in his career (notably LA STRADA and THE WHITE SHIEK, where she has a brief appearance as Cabiria) creates one of cinema’s most unique and complex female characters, bar none. Her Cabiria is a raging maelstrom of contradictions: she’s both naïve and world-weary, tragic but inspiring, brave but terrified, sexual but timid, clever but foolhardy. She’s been hurt a lot, and struggles to keep herself closed off enough to protect herself even as she can’t quite give up hope that things could somehow be different. There’s a winning cheerfulness to the character, but there’s a profound sadness dancing just beneath the surface. She seems frustratingly naïve and even abrasive sometimes, but then there’s a certain careful tentativeness to her which suggests that maybe it’s a survival mechanism. But she’s more than complex. Rarely does a character seem so exhilaratingly alive on screen, so deeply and thrillingly engaged with the world. When she thinks no one is looking, she does this little dance which –aside from being beyond adorable – speaks more than dialogue ever could to the infectious enthusiasm which makes the character so endearing even in the face of her flaws and tragedies.
And she’s funny. Really, really funny. Her body language and expressions are hilarious and sometimes fairly broad, but they make perfect sense for the character. If she has a comparable cinematic peer, it can only be Chaplin’s tramp character, another perfect embodiment of comedy and pathos expressed with a similar physicality. It’s almost a shame NIGHTS OF CABIRIA has more than comedy on its mind, because there’s a comedic genius in the performance which I think gets undervalued in the face of the film’s more tragic themes. (Actually I just looked her up and apparently she’s “often” called the “female Chaplin,” so I guess I’m not the only one who thinks so. Damn, I was kinda feeling proud of that one.)
Anyway, going into more detail about the film and its events doesn’t seem all that necessary. It’s not exactly a film that has a lot of stuff to discuss; it’s a film to experience, and one which has an uncommonly deep connection to the human condition, even if it doesn’t have a lot of big right-brained ideas to write essays about. Fellini’s mastery of his craft speaks for itself, but it’s Masina who really makes this one a classic with their fiercely funny portrayal. That’s a pretty potent combination of director and actor right there, and the results are really something special. No offense to Martin Lawrence and Michael Bay intended.
I’m thinking that I may have underestimated this Fellini guy. He just may have what it takes after all, he might be one of those talents to watch that they talk about, I don’t know, we’ll have to see. Bring on JULIET OF THE SPIRITS!
PS: I should also point out that another important person here was Dino De Laurentiis, who put his own money up for this film after no one else would finance a film about prostitutes. As a major fan of his work and his granddaughter, I would like to say that a career that includes Fellini, EVIL DEAD, David Lynch, BARBERELLA, David Cronenberg, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Igmar Bergman, and the whale-centric JAWS rip-off ORCA is a career worth honoring with excessive drinking.