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Nights Of Cabiria Essay Topics

Cabiria's eyebrows are straight, black horizontal lines, sketched above her eyes like a cartoon character's. Her shrug, her walk, her way of making a face, all suggest a performance. Of course a prostitute is always acting in one way or another, but Cabiria seems to have a character in mind--perhaps Chaplin's Little Tramp, with a touch of Lucille Ball, who must have been on Italian TV in the 1950s. It's as if Cabiria thinks she can waltz untouched through the horrors of her world, if she shields herself with a comic persona.

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Or perhaps this actually is Cabiria and not a performance: Perhaps she is a waiflike innocent, a saint among the sinners. It is one of the pleasures of Giulietta Masina's performance that the guard never comes down. As artificial as Cabiria's behavior sometimes seems, it always seems her own, and this little woman carries herself proudly through the gutters of Rome.

“Nights of Cabiria,” directed by Masina's husband, Federico Fellini, in 1957, won her the best actress award at Cannes, and the film won the Oscar for best foreign picture--his second in a row, after “La Strada” in 1956 (he also won for “8 1/2” in 1963 and “Amarcord” in 1974). Strange, then, that it is one of Fellini's least-known works--so unfamiliar that he was able to recycle a lot of the same underlying material in “La Dolce Vita” only three years later.

Now the movie has been re-released in a restored 35-mm. print, with retranslated, bolder subtitles giving a better idea of the dialogue by Pier Paolo Pasolini. There is also a 7 1/2-minute scene that was suppressed in earlier versions of the film.

Seeing it in its new glory, with a score by Fellini's beloved composer Nina Rota, “Nights of Cabiria” plays like a plucky collaboration on an adult theme between Fellini and Chaplin. Masina deliberately based her Cabiria on the Little Tramp, I think--most obviously with some business with an umbrella, and a struggle with the curtains in a nightclub. But while Chaplin's character inhabited a world of stock villains and happy endings, Cabiria survives at the low end of Rome's prostitution trade. When she's picked up by a famous actor and he asks her if she works the Via Veneto, the center of Rome's glitz, she replies matter-of-factly that, no, she prefers the Archeological Passage, because she can commute there on the subway.

Cabiria is a working girl. Not a sentimentalized one, as in “Sweet Charity,” the Broadway musical and movie based on this story, but a tough cookie who climbs into truck cabs, gets in fights and hides in the bushes during police raids. She's proud to own her own house--a tiny shack in an industrial wasteland--and she dreams of sooner or later finding true romance, but her taste in men is dangerous, it's so trusting; the movie opens with her current lover and pimp stealing her purse and shoving her into the river to drown.

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By the nature of their work prostitutes can find themselves almost anywhere in a city, in almost any circle, on a given night. She's admitted to the nightclub, for example, under the sponsorship of the movie star (Alberto Lazzari). He picks her up after a fight with his fiancee, takes her to his palatial villa, and then hides her in the bathroom when the fiancee turns up unexpectedly (Cabiria spends the night with his dog). Later, seeking some kind of redemption, she joins another girl and a pimp on a visit to a reputed appearance by the Virgin Mary. And in the scene cut from the movie, she accompanies a good samaritan as he visits the homeless with food and gifts (she is shocked to see a once-beautiful hooker crawl from a hole in the ground).

All of these scenes are echoed in one way or another in “La Dolce Vita,” which sees some of the same terrain through the eyes of a gossip columnist (Marcello Mastroianni) instead of a prostitute. In both films, a hooker peeps through a door as a would-be client makes love with his mistress. Both have nightclub scenes opening with exotic ethnic dancers. Both have a bogus appearance by the Virgin. Both have a musical sequence set in an outdoor nightclub. And both have, as almost all Fellini movies have, a buxom slattern, a stone house by the sea, a procession and a scaffold seen outlined against the dawn. These must be personal touchstones of his imagination.

Fellini was a poet of words and music. He never recorded the dialogue at the time he shot his films. Like most Italian directors, he dubbed the words in later. On his sets, he played music during almost every scene, and you can sense in most Fellini movies a certain sway in the way the characters walk: Even the background extras seem to be hearing the same rhythm. Cabiria hears it, but often walks in counterpoint, as if to her own melody. She is a stubborn sentimentalist who cannot believe the man she loved--the man she would do anything for--would try to drown her for 40,000 lira. (“They'd do it for 5,000,” her neighbor assures her.)

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She is a woman seeking redemption, a woman who works as a sinner but seeks inner spirituality. One night she happens into a performance by a hypnotist, is called onstage, and in the film's most extraordinary sequence is placed in a trance (half vaudeville, half enchanted fantasy) in which she reveals her trust and sweetness. She also informs the rude audience that she has a house and a bank account.

A man named Oscar (Francois Perier) sees her on the stage and begins to court her with flowers and quiet sincerity. He is touched by her innocence and goodness, he says, and she believes him. At last she has found a man she can trust, to spend her whole life with. She is filled with joy, even as her friends (and we in the audience) despair of her naivete.

Fellini's roots as a filmmaker are in the postwar Italian Neorealist movement (he worked for Rossellini on “Open City” in 1945), and his early films have a grittiness that is gradually replaced by the dazzling phantasms of the later ones. “Nights of Cabiria” is transitional; it points toward the visual freedom of “La Dolce Vita” while still remaining attentive to the real world of postwar Rome. The scene involving the good samaritan provides a framework to show people living in city caves and under bridges, but even more touching is the scene where Cabiria turns over the keys of her house to the large and desperately poor family that has purchased it.

These scenes provide an anchor, an undertow, that lends a context to the lighter scenes, like the one where she is mocked by two Via Veneto prostitutes who are more elegant (and much taller) than she is. Or the scene where she drives away in the actor's big American car while flaunting her new client to her rival prostitutes (again, a scene Fellini would recycle in “La Dolce Vita”). In all of those scenes she remains in defiant character, and then we sense a certain softening toward the end. As she allows herself to believe that her future lies with Oscar, her eyebrows subtly soften their bold horizontal slashes, and begin to curve above eyes and a face that seem more vulnerable. It's all in preparation for the film's unforgettable last shot, in which we see Cabiria's face in all its indomitable resolve.

Of all his characters, Fellini once said, Cabiria was the only one he was still worried about. In 1992, when Fellini was given an honorary career Oscar, he looked down from the podium to Masina sitting in the front row and told her not to cry. The camera cut to her face, showing her smiling bravely through her tears, and there was Cabiria.

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“Fellini’s structuring of his heroine’s story as a series of incidents rather than a linear plot was innovative at the time, doubly so because examples of a woman at the center of a picaresque adventure are exceptionally rare. Part of the picaresque tradition, one that dovetails nicely with Fellini’s own inclinations, is a fervent anti-clericalism. Nights of Cabiria is filled with such feeling.”

It’s rare for a movie director to inspire a new word, but by the 1970s, “Felliniesque” was a common synonym for the grotesque, the satirical, and the surreal. In the 1950s, long before the images that made him famous in this regard – La Dolce Vita’s flying Christ, Juliet of the Spirit’s lurid fantasies, Satyricon’s dying hermaphrodite and homosexual minotaur – Fellini was a major neorealist who would have rejected such dreamy indulgences.

The Nights of Cabiria (1957) is in some respects the crown jewel in his pre-“Felliniesque” work. While I Vitelloni (1953) is a more overt social critique and La Strada (1954) more widely known, Cabiria paints an arguably richer, more sweeping portrait of an outsider among outsiders. Just how rich can now be properly judged in a pristine restored print that also reinstates a crucial censored sequence known as “The Man with the Sack.”

Cabiria, unforgettably portrayed by the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina, is a rather pathetic aging prostitute who plies her trade in a desolate red-light district outside Rome. In the opening scene, which provides a blueprint for all of what will follow, she’s cavorting through a field in what looks like a romantic idyll with her boyfriend. But romance turns quickly to treachery and near-tragedy as he unceremoniously dumps her in the river and steals her purse. Surprisingly, after nearly dying, she reviles her saviors, curses her fate, and stumbles off in one high heel to the echoing words of a boy who explains to the others, “She’s living the life.”

“The life” she’s stumbling off to is a raw existence played out in an unstable, post-industrial world of ravaged fields, broken cisterns, and the crumbling arches of the whore-ridden Passeggiata Archeologica, a pitiful reminder of the long-gone glory of Rome’s past. The whores, along with Cabiria’s unkillable sense of hope, are what help her survive; indeed, they’re the only group in the film with a sense of community and caring, in spite of being marginalized and ridiculed by those who observe or abuse them. Cabiria’s simpatico friend Wanda (Franca Marzi), particularly, rides out Cabiria’s desperate moods that inevitably follow her many misadventures.

Much of the film is a subtle study of class conflict, with Cabiria, in spite of owning a small cement house and having a bank account, in the lower ranks even of her fellow prostitutes. This doesn’t prevent her sudden, brief rise in status in one of Fellini’s most celebrated scenes, a bittersweet encounter with the famous actor Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari). Everything good that their meeting implies is denied her – from a fancy feast of lobster and caviar to Alberto himself. When his girlfriend unexpectedly appears, he locks Cabiria in the bathroom where she sits until morning, when he sneaks her out with a few bucks. Fellini neatly sums up her situation architecturally; Lazzari’s house is impossibly large and mazelike, causing Cabiria to bang into glass doors and lament out loud that she’ll never escape.

Fellini’s structuring of his heroine’s story as a series of incidents rather than a linear plot was innovative at the time, doubly so because examples of a woman at the center of a picaresque adventure are exceptionally rare. Part of the picaresque tradition, one that dovetails nicely with Fellini’s own inclinations, is a fervent anti-clericalism. Nights of Cabiria is filled with such feeling. In a particularly grim sequence, Cabiria and some of her friends join a pilgrimage to beg for redemption. This presumably solemn event turns out to be anything but, with pilgrims screaming and smashing into each other, hysterical pleas for cures unmet, and peddlers rudely hawking religious paraphernalia.

If this didn’t bring on the wrath of the Catholic Church, another sequence did. In a scene that was cut in all but one French print, Cabiria, abandoned in a field, meets “the man with the sack.” The man is an anonymous do-gooder; his sack is filled with bare necessities he gives to the literal “wretched of the earth” – people living in squalor in caves. Cabiria accompanies him on his silent journey, and sees her possible future when she meets a hooker she knew, once wealthy, now living in a hole in the ground. The Church was apparently so annoyed by the idea of a layman appropriating one of its activities that it got the scene cut. More to the point, perhaps, the church feared a permanent visual record of its apathy toward its most hopeless constituents.

In another famous sequence that reveals the depth of Cabiria’s inner life, she’s hypnotized in a seedy variety theater to believe she’s an unspoiled young girl in a budding romance with an equally idealized young man. Giulietta Masina’s Chaplinesque movements, her masterfully simple pantomime of a desperately desired amour, cast a subtle spell that quiets the rowdy crowd of local males, just as it mesmerizes us as an audience. When she awakes, the crowd ruthlessly ridicules her for being an aging whore mimicking what she can never be – an “innocent.” From there it’s downhill all the way, though Cabiria maintains her dignity and fragile sense of hope even in the most dire circumstances, which come quickly in an extended, ultimately catastrophic love affair.

Nights of Cabiria was the last film in which Fellini tried to make sense of an increasingly fragmented, chaotic Italian society. In Masina’s brilliant incarnation of the simple-minded, doomed prostitute – a character the director called the “fallen sister” of La Strada’s celebrated Gelsomina – he found an ideal vehicle for attacking the Church, the class system, movie star culture, and all the other forces destroying the lives of ordinary people. With his next film, La Dolce Vita, his neorealist voice would become quieter; in a few years, it would vanish entirely as Fellini drifted deeper into a private fantasy world.

— Gary Morris

Gary Morris founded Bright Lights Film Journal as a print publication in 1974; it became a web-only magazine in 1996. He is the author of the monograph Roger Corman (Twayne Publishers, 1985) and the editor of Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran (Anthem Press, 2009).

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