A work of great stylistic flexibility, The Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria) is one of Federico Fellini’s finest achievements. Fellini first introduced its protagonist, a Roman prostitute, in his glorious comedy The White Sheik (1952), whose screen story Michelangelo Antonioni wrote—Fellini and Antonioni’s one collaboration. There, Cabiria is worldly-wise, her professional experience the prism through which she views the foibles and vulnerability of humanity. For years I thought inside a box, deciding that the Cabiria who appears in one film cannot be the same character as appears in the later film, where Cabiria herself seems so vulnerable. As I grew older, though, I grew wiser, like Cabiria; I realized that the chronology of the two films reverses the chronology of the character. In The White Sheik we see the same woman after the experiences that the later film recounts. We may say, then, that The Nights of Cabiria is an unannounced prequel. At home, it won both major prizes as best film: the David di Donatello Award; the prize of the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, which also named Fellini best director. The Nights of Cabiria also won best foreign film prizes in Spain and the United States (the Oscar).
Fellini has acknowledged the influence on this film of Charles Chaplin’s City Lights (1930), the most essential American film of the Great Depression and among the most hauntingly, ambiguously open-ended films. We shall see that The Nights of Cabiria ends in a similarly “open” fashion. In the meantime, we can point to Chaplin’s influence elsewhere: Fellini’s blend of comedy and pathos; the film’s satirical social canvas; Cabiria herself, whose dogged persistence in an inhospitable, humiliating universe recalls that of Charlie the Tramp in City Lights and other Chaplin films. It cannot be seriously argued that Fellini’s film is the artistic match of Chaplin’s, but there is no such vast and deep shortfall here as is the case with Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1998) vis-à-vis its inspiration, Chaplin’s devastating The Great Dictator (1940).
Fellini’s film opens near a slum in the hilly outskirts of Rome. A couple, in long shot, silently run to the ocean’s edge. These are Cabiria and her boyfriend, Giorgio. Both seem intent on the view rather than on each other, as though they are utterly secure in one another’s company. Cabiria is twirling her purse; it is a confident gesture. All of a sudden Giorgio grabs the purse, pushes Cabiria into the water, and flees. Only Cabiria’s hands are visible poking through the water’s surface. Children at play rescue her, dragging her onto land. Adults who were loath to get wet, even to save someone’s life, now take charge. As in the earlier image of her desperate hands, Cabiria, out cold, can exert no control over herself or her environment. Someone is pushing and pulling her slack arms; when this fails to free water from her lungs, she is turned upside down. She is missing a shoe. She comes back to life, angry, scornful of those helping her, humiliated. Once she has regained sufficient strength, she runs to her shack; Giorgio is not there. Later, she asks Wanda, her friend, disbelievingly, “Who would drown someone for 40,000 lira?” Wanda responds, “Nowadays they would do it for 5,000”—about fifty bucks. This is the film’s first reference to those who are left behind or marginalized in Italy’s difficult postwar recovery.
It’s a surprise that this initial reference to poverty applies specifically to Giorgio, the “victimizer” rather than the victim, Cabiria. Later, when another man, one whom Cabiria is presumably engaged to marry, similarly robs her, Fellini’s earlier compassion regarding Giorgio will reverberate. What these men do is horrible, but socioeconomic humiliation has pushed them to the brink, and beyond. The gaggle of prostitutes to which Cabiria belongs, each contentious with the others for her bit of urban turf, are no bevy of beauties making money hand over fist. Like Ellie May’s mother in Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava, 1940), they eke out what existence they can. Cabiria remains independent, refusing the overtures of another prostitute’s pimp to join his stable, but her autonomy is illusory. Hers is hardly the image of a successful prostitute; she wears socks and sandals to work, along with an abbreviated pony-tail, and her perpetually painted-on eyebrows make her look like a clown. It is by sheer accident that she turns the one trick that we witness. Cabiria happens to be standing near when a quarrel in the street causes a woman to walk out on her man. Cabiria gets to dance a little in a nightclub (Cabiria loves to dance), and the man, a movie celebrity, even invites her to his palatial residence, but they never do have sex, and the man and his girlfriend reconcile that night, with Cabiria, locked outside the bedroom, espying the couple kissing—a lovely keyhole shot that underscores Cabiria’s being left out of life. Even what seems to go right in her life ends up going wrong.
The key to Cabiria’s personality, here as in The White Sheik, is her unselfpitying nature. When sister prostitutes are organizing a religious pilgrimage, Cabiria questions whether she should go. For what would she ask the Madonna? “I’ve got everything I want,” she notes; “Even my mortgage is nearly paid.” Given the disappointments we have seen befalling her, we may find her attitude heroic; as the Victorian British writer Thomas Carlyle might say, Cabiria has decreased her denominator rather than increasing her numerator. An intelligent capacity for amnesia adds to one’s resilience; Cabiria is not one to brood about either yesterday or the string of yesterdays, and so her spirit is resurgent. Fellini’s concept of the character is vastly different from the one in the Broadway musical version, Sweet Charity, if Bob Fosse’s film (1969) is any indicator. There, Charity is endlessly self-pitying, rendering even her pluck garishly sentimental.
Cabiria’s personality is deeply rooted in her participation in the human community. She tells her friends and co-workers she might not go on the religious pilgrimage because she feels no need to have a prayer answered, but immediately after saying this, when a procession of singing pilgrims passes through the scene, moved by the example of their hopefulness, she follows. When she gets lost along the way, her path crosses that of “the man with the sack,” the anonymous stranger who ministers to the poor who live in caves. This, the most moving passage in the film, and a passage that deepens the complexion of the entire film, was recently restored; the Roman Catholic Church pressed for its deletion at the time of the film’s original release owing to the sharp contrast that the film delivers between this individual’s mission of mercy that profoundly affects people’s lives and the nonsensical religious pilgrimage, a moneymaking operation that exploits the hopes and fears of its participants, brings them to a pitch of hysteria in a packed, poorly ventilated church, and, as Cabiria herself points out afterwards, changes nothing and nobody. The Church succeeded in having the pulsating heart of the film cut out, and Fellini’s courting of its condemnation in his next film, La dolce vita (1959), is most fully appreciated in this context. The complete version of The Nights of Cabiria now available to us demonstrates a compassion for the poor that the cut version only hints at, and with that, an outrage and an anger at the Church’s exploitation of the sick and the poor that the film plainly regards as nothing short of institutionalized criminality. Now it is clearer, for example, that the stage hypnosis of Cabiria, which leaves her enraged and humiliated, is a metaphor for the corrupt pilgrimage and the Church’s manipulation of the masses.
While accompanying the man with a sack at night, Cabiria discovers that one of the homeless occupants of a cave is a sister prostitute, once wealthy, now too old to work and impoverished. (Cabiria also will be homeless by the end of the film.) Cabiria greets the woman by her professional name; the man with a sack greets her using the woman’s real name. Later, when he drives her back to Rome, Cabiria tells the stranger her real name: Maria. The stage hypnotist also draws this revelation from her, but because it is done against Cabiria’s will the moment is inexpressibly obscene. Without the contrast provided by her earlier willing disclosure of her name, and most especially the sharpened context of comparison between the stage hypnosis and religious manipulation, the moment of name disclosure onstage falls flat. It is robbed of its import. Everything in the film, in fact, takes on fresh or clearer meaning through the restoration of the film’s most remarkable passage.
Or is the brilliant finale still the film’s most wonderful passage? Indeed, its lead-in—Cabiria’s and her fiancé Oscar’s trip through the woods, ending on the cliff above the sea, where Cabiria begs Oscar to kill her once she realizes that the whole plan for them to go off and marry was a ploy to rob her of her life’s savings—is fetching and heartrending. (Who can forget the pale, luminous sky—a light so beautiful that Cabiria comments on it?) Earlier, she had told Oscar, “I guess there’s some justice in the world,” now that she was happily in love; but the remark implies its opposite, that there is no such justice, now that Oscar takes her purse, with the money, and abandons her. Cabiria must get on with the rest of her life. The high camera, aiming at her back, follows as she walks back, alone, through the dark woods. Suddenly there are young revelers surrounding her, children playing musical instruments, and we see Cabiria’s tear-stained face. These children have thus crashed the barrier between objectivity and subjectivity, between reality and film, for the music (by Nino Rota) that we have been listening to on the soundtrack now has a visible, realistic origin. Weaving around her, the children are smiling; one wishes her a good evening. Cabiria also smiles, and for a quick instant finds us, anonymous humanity, by looking directly into the camera. We know we are complicit in Cabiria’s ambiguous fate. We know we have a job to do, perhaps along the lines of what is being done by the man with a sack, and perhaps Cabiria will join us in this endeavor. The world is unjust, and people are in need of our help and kindness. Perhaps we will be luckier than Cabiria and not have to start over.
Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s astoundingly gifted wife, plays Cabiria. Hers is certainly one of the greatest performances in all of cinema. Masina was named best actress at both Cannes and San Sebastián and by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.
The script is by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
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