Before Federico Fellini became the audacious and surrealistic film auteur of the 1960s he was a lauded and accomplished Italian Neorealistic film director of the 1950s, more in league with Vittorio De Sica and Lucchino Visconti. No film better represents this era of Fellini’s art than his sterling 1957 film Nights Of Cabiria (Le Notti Di Cabiria), written by Fellini, Tulio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano (with Pier Paolo Pasolini scripting the Roman street slang), and starring his wife Giulieta Masina. It won the 1957 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and deservedly so.
The film deals with the trials and tribulations of the impoverished and downtrodden in a humorous but realistic way that Hollywood still does not dare to do. Yet, even in this film, one can see the filmmaker that Fellini was to become in a few years, for, despite its seeming realism, there are many neat touches of Absurdism, Symbolism, and Surrealism.
The film opens up with as symbolic a scene as could be. Cabiria (Masina’s character’s street name — her real name is Maria) is an aging prostitute who wears worn animal furs and outdated bobby sox with her shoes, and lives in a concrete box hovel in a semi-rural part of the Roman suburbs that has a definite post-war wasteland feel still to it, as if it has yet to recover from the devastation of the Second World War. She is on a jaunt by the river with her lover, Giorgio. All seems out of a storybook, or Hollywood film, until he snatches her purse and pushes her into the river to drown. The act comes out of nowhere, and so early in the film that it is astonishing.
Several small boys and some older local men rescue her and revive her by turning her upside down until the water comes out of her. Cabiria is embarrassed and doesn’t even thank her rescuers. She instead asks of Giorgio, refusing to believe he "done her wrong", and fearing he ran away scared. It is pure rationalization, but it foreshadows the end of the film. After getting over her "betrayal" by Giorgio, Cabiria hangs out with her hooker and biker friends, such as Wanda (Franca Marzi), although most are much younger than her, in a place that seems like something out of a James Dean film. When Cabiria rails that she cannot believe Giorgio would try to drown her for forty thousand lira, the much wiser Wanda says "They’d [meaning men] do it for five thousand." Life goes on.
On her peregrinations, Cabiria ends up outside a restaurant one night, where she meets a film star, Alberto Lazzari (a play off his real name, Amadeo Nazzari, then a huge Italian film star), whose blond bimbo girlfriend, Jessie (Dorian Gray), has dumped him. He takes Cabiria to a fancy nightclub, where she dances up a storm, despite the looks of others, sophisticates who view her as an Eliza Doolittle type.
He has no sexual designs on her, but brings her back to his mansion, and feeds her a feast of lobster and caviar, until the dumb and selfish girlfriend comes back, and she must hide in the bathroom with the film star’s dog, until he lets her out in the middle of the night. She even misses out on his autographed photo, so her friends feel she is lying to them when she later recounts her adventure. Perhaps the best moment in the sequence is when she recognizes the film star and states she went to see his last film, although it turns out to be a movie he was not in. She is embarrassed, but he takes it all in stride. Nazzari is especially strong in this role, and one almost senses he was merely playing himself.
Not long afterwards, Cabiria is walking home at night, when she meets a mysterious "man with a sack", in an eight or so minute long passage of the film that was excised, reputedly because it showed a man, not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, doing charitable deeds with no ulterior motive. It has been claimed the Church ordered the cut. But the Criterion Collection DVD I have has an audio interview with the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, who claims he asked Fellini to remove the section. He says it made the film too long, and took away from the tale of Cabiria. He claims he stole the scene, and only gave it back to Fellini years later.
Consequently, even though the film thankfully does come with an English language dubbed soundtrack, that scene is not dubbed. But, removing it was a bad idea, because this sequence allows us to contextualize Cabiria in her time and place. She and her friends are not mere ragged anomalies, but a good portion of the population. Seeing the anonymous do-gooder also gives us insight into Cabiria, for now we know why she has such an enduring faith in mankind — because of people like the man with the sack, even though, in many ways, this film is about the human ability to deceive. Even Cabiria deceives herself about her life.
The only truthful person in the whole film is the man with the sack, whose act of giving food to the homeless who live in caves on the outskirts of Rome contrasts mightily to the next sequence, where Cabiria and her pals go to a revival meeting where religious scam artists try to get the gullible to pray to the image of the Madonna. Nothing comes of it, of course, and the scene is especially poignant after the dumb religiots make buffoons of themselves, praying for Mother Mary’s forgiveness, and it ends with a shot of Cabiria’s male friend’s uncle, a former pimp and drug dealer, now paralyzed, falling to the floor because he cannot be cured, nor hold himself up, despite his entreaties.
The added punch of this sequence coming on the heels of the man with the sack sequence is taken even further in the next scene, when Cabiria goes to a carny show that a mesmerist (Aldo Silvani) is giving. He has some shills in the audience pretend they're rowing a boat, then lures Cabiria to the stage. Just when we think we know the trope of the scene, that the smart talking and streetwise Cabiria will expose the man as a fraud, it turns out he can truly mesmerize. Cabiria falls under his spell easily, and tells of her impoverished youth, and long black hair when eighteen, while also telling of her dreams of a better life.
Like a puppeteer, he makes her dance with an imaginary lover the mesmerist calls Oscar. When he awakens her she is enraged, and does not leave the theater for hours, until all her hecklers leave. The whole scene is cinematically mesmerizing, in a different sort of way, for it takes a moment to realize that the Cabiria character is indeed experiencing something unreal in her filmic world.
Just then, a mild mannered man, who claims to be an accountant also named Oscar, Oscar D’Onofrio (François Périer), approaches her and says he was touched by her purity of spirit, and her tale of seeking love. He ends up coaxing her to date him, and as the film nears conclusion, Cabiria seems to have all she has ever wanted, the love of a good man, and a future, for Oscar says he cares nothing of her past. He offers to marry her. Cabiria rushes home, tells her friends, and in her ecstasy she sells her concrete hovel, withdraws all her money from the bank, and goes to meet Oscar, to live happily ever after.
Yet, in the final scenes, we see Oscar is a bit different — colder, more detached. He takes her on a walk to a cliffside, to see the sunset. Cabiria realizes something is amiss. She senses he is not who he said, and feels he will kill her, tossing her off the cliff, just like Giorgio did, from the banks of the river, at the film’s start. But, while Oscar is a con man who just wanted the 750,000 lira Cabiria has, he is no wannabe killer. Shame and guilt manifestly riddle him, as Cabiria cries over her folly. She begs for him to kill her, to end her wretched life. He sees her vulnerability, backs away, yet still takes her money, and runs off.
Cabiria writhes in the grass, until she wakens at night, on the cliffside, and begins her long walk home, possibly to stay with her friend, Wanda (who is much tougher and forgiving than she lets on, just as Cabiria is much more vulnerable), now that she is again broke and homeless. Musicians play for her, as she smiles in silence, often directly at the camera and us, the viewers, as she is still somewhat optimistic, yet still foolish, although, perhaps a little less so than when the film began.
The Nino Rota score, excellent throughout the film, pays off especially well in the ending, yet the fact that numb Cabiria remains silent is the key to the scene, for what could she say to these strangers, or anyone else, at that moment? Any other ending would have been trite or contrived, and it is almost as touching an end to Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, from three decades earlier.
In many ways, the film is a picaresque of one of the oldest clichés: the hooker with the heart of gold, but such a generalization utterly disservices the "how" of how art affects one, and how it does its task. Masina’s brilliant performance, which won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, is often compared to Chaplin’s tramp character. Yet it is more like Lucille Ball’s TV character of Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy, albeit with depth, delicacy, and heart; such a depth of a character that a lesser actress would have let descend into burlesque.
Yet, Cabiria’s expressiveness is more subtle and true than either Chaplin’s or Ball’s characters, for they exist only in comedies, and Nights Of Cabiria is not a comedy, despite some funny moments. Cabiria exists in a far more complex and realistic world than the Tramp or Lucy Ricardo. Her face contorts into twists of pain Lucy Ricardo never dreamt of, and which the Tramp simply shrugged off, or responded to with wild slapstick,
Cabiria is wary, mistrusts, and does not seem to learn, frustrating both her and the audience she has gotten to root for her. I knew many such women in my New York neighborhood while growing up. And they can be tough, street smart, yet still gullible enough to fall for an Oscar.
That said, critics have disagreed, over the years, over whether or not Oscar was conning Cabiria from the start. I think it’s clear he was, for from her answers to the mesmerist he felt she was an independent woman of means, assuming a poor woman would never even go to such a show. One can even see from their scene of meeting at the train station that Oscar is putting on an act, changing his facial expressions the moment he sees her, dropping a toothpick from his mouth, after looking like the consummate con man, and then assuming a weak demeanor to lure Cabiria into his trap.
That the woman who makes her living in sex is still so naïve to the ways of emotional sexual involvement says a lot of Fellini’s prescience in parsing out realities of character development. Then, when he found out she was a prostitute, he felt a bit guilty, as if preying on someone from his own class, and thus wanted to not know of her "job". A part of him, it seems, wants to not con her, at the cliff, and this was why his demeanor is so different. Yet, ultimately, he’s a con, she’s a whore, and reality dictates they act their parts. But, unlike Giorgio, he is no would-be killer.
The only question is what his initial con was to be — to marry a woman of means, and then, failing that, to just take Cabiria’s money the moment he saw it, knowing his original plan was dead, for he could not sponge off of her. Such small ambiguities, even if not pertinent to Cabiria’s ultimate unhappiness, nor the film’s ending, makes Fellini an artist of the first rank, for only such artists pay attention to such things. These things, not the great things, are often the difference between greats and minor artists.
These sorts of subtleties in common folk are never even broached, much less dealt with, in modern Hollywood films. Such is the richness of this marvelous study in class and self-deception, where humans live in small concrete boxes they call homes, as if lab rats. That the film does not follow a conventional narrative format is a good thing, for it heightens the realistic sense of the film.
It also subtly repudiates religion, although not so much in the overtly religious scenes, where Cabiria’s spiritual entreaties go unheard, nor where she mocks the religiots as fools, but in those scenes where Cabiria reveals her most human side, the non-fantastic, which is ironic, since she works in a profession that deals with fantasy. The film also deals with survival, at its basest level, for Cabiria barely grows intellectually through the film.
Yes, by film’s end, one could argue that her latest user and abuser, Oscar, is a step up from Giorgio, whom she began the film with, but has Cabiria really ameliorated? Perhaps, because in the beginning, she cannot even believe Giorgio would do such a thing as try to kill her for money, whereas by the end she is all too willing to believe the worst in Oscar, before he even reveals his true self, assuming killing her has been part of his plan all along. Yet, how much of this slight wisdom will really stick with her is debatable. Hollywood, of course, would have copped out totally, and made Oscar repent and Cabiria forgive him, then end with them kissing in the sunset, the reformed and redeemed prostitute and con man. Thankfully, Fellini never went down that dismal route.
The rest of the DVD has only a few features, such as an interview with former Fellini assistant Dominique Delouche, the aforementioned audio interview with producer Dino De Laurentiis, a snippet from Fellini’s film The White Sheik, where Masina originated the character of Cabiria, and a DVD restoration demonstration, as well as subtitles and an English language dubbed soundtrack. Unfortunately, there is no DVD commentary.
To close, Nights Of Cabiria owes much to City Lights for its focus on the poor, as well as to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief for its realistic view of life at a certain time and place, especially its end, which simply ends, with no indication of whether or not Cabiria will be better off or not. This helps viewers more strongly identify with her, because we all are unknowing and uncertain of our futures, and even though Cabiria’s uncertainty is half a century removed, the tingle we get in our bellies, at the film’s end is a recognition of our fears in her gaze toward us, and despite it’s unsettling effect, such butterflies still flap their wings for the future.