Friday, October 18, 2013

Federico Fellini | Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria)

by Douglas Messerli
Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Pier Palo Pasolini (screenplay), Federico Fellini (director) Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) / 1957

Almost all of Federico Fellini’s films are episodic, and many—as critics have noted—are structured circularly. But none is more circular in form than that of his Nights of Cabiria. Its central character, Cabiria Ceccarelli (Giulietta Masina)—who, one might argue not just at the movie’s center but is the film itself, its raison d’etre—travels through vast spaces of post-war Rome without going anywhere. Her life, filled with dreams and aspirations, remains in stasis, and, accordingly, one might almost describe Fellini’s early masterwork as a comic study in duration.

      Part of the problem with the delightful Cabiria, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his 1998 review of the film, is that this character moves against the rhythms of life itself. “On his sets [Fellini] 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 hearing the same rhythm. Cabiria hears it, but often walks in counterpoint, as if to her own melody.”

      Like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton walking against the storm, the ridiculously dressed, pixyish Cabiria uses this and the character’s other eccentricities to great comic effect, swaying, shrugging, even physically wrestling with others around her to maintain her personal defenses again their cynicism. While her fellow prostitutes dress to reveal their buxomly shapes, Cabiria, in stripes and a matted faux-fur top-coat, emphasizes her skinny impishness, looking, at times, like a young boy in drag instead of a grown and ageing woman. Wherever she goes, an argument is sure to follow, even if nothing is said as when she becomes determined to move from her usual stopping grounds of the Archeological Passage to the posh Via Veneto, where the tall and well-dressed women of the night look down disapprovingly upon her. Any man choosing to go home with Cabiria might almost be seen to be making a personal joke.

      Indeed, in the very first scene of the film, Cabiria’s current boyfriend-pimp, steals her purse and tosses her into the river. Unable to swim, the character almost drowns, saved only at the last moment by children and local worker. Later, she is picked up, after a fight between an well-known movie star and his girlfriend, by Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), who takes her to a swank nightclub, where she becomes entangled in a bead curtain. Later, at his lovely estate, before she can even take a sip of champagne or bite of duck, he orders her to hide in the bathroom as his angry girlfriend returns. Cabiria spends the night in the bathroom in the dog, sneaking out of the mansion early in the next morning, only to go crashing into the glass doors. At least she has the actor’s signature to prove her “luck.” After revealing her belief in joy and love under the spell of a cabaret hypnotist, another man, Oscar (François Périer) courts her, claiming that he desires the same things in life. Finally, it appears, that Cabiria has found the love she has been seeking; but he too, taking her to a cliff in the woods, robs her and would through her over the cliff were she not to beg him to let her live. Although she bought and, later, sells a ramshackle shack in an industrial field at the edge of the city—a house of which she is very proud—she seems never, at least as we observe her, to actually have even a one-night-stand, let alone a romantic success.

     Cabiria’s belief also extends to all things religious, despite her avocation. But a trip, with other fellow prostitutes, to what purports to be an appearance of the Virgin Mary (a similar situation is played out in La dolce vita) ends with a claustrophobic rush of bodies, terrifying the plucky sinner. A far more spiritual encounter is Cabria’s late night observation of a saintly good Samaritan, who, with his own money, brings food to the desperate cave-dwellers outside Rome. It is there, also, where Cabiria sees what might someday soon be herself, as she encounters a former prostitute, now a haggard and wizened being, living in the dark of these caverns. But even these more spiritual revelations do not truly alter Cabiria’s thinking. Like a dancer moving against the beat, she remains locked in a pattern of refusing to believe the very realities Fellini presents her with. If there was ever evidence that Fellini was not a neorealist at heart, it is in the film; Cabiria, portrayed by his own wife, is the fantasist that the director would soon become.  

     Although Nights of Cabiria ends, oddly enough, with a procession of young and beautiful boys moving forward through the forest, and catching up the forlorn waif in their march, we know that that movement forward will not last long. Surely Cabiria will at some point turn back, retrace her steps, and end up very near to the place where she has begun.

Los Angeles, October 18, 2013

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing about a great movie. However, you definitely got something at the end wrong. You say that she begs Oscar to let her live. Exactly the opposite. He's already scared to follow through with his plan and she actually begs that he DOES kill her. She begs him to throw her off the cliff. He doesn't of course. He just takes the money and runs. But it's the saddest part because it's the only time we see her truly defeated and giving up. Which is why it's nice that moments later she's able to smile due to the kids playing her music as she walks