‘Nights of Cabiria’ or — Indefatigable Beauty?
With ‘Nights of Cabiria’ (1957) Fellini immediately breaks our hearts by making us laugh. Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) and her boyfriend are taking a romantic stroll towards the banks of a river where we fully expect they’ll fall to the ground and make love… only for her boyfriend to steal Cabiria’s purse, push her into the river and run off!
It’s both an effective and hilarious way to instantly make us care for this poor woman as she is swept along by the current until some boys drag her to dry land and ignominious safety, although we soon discover that Cabiria hasn’t had much luck to begin with anyway. Sure, she has her own home but it’s more of a shack than anything else and it’s soon apparent that the only reason she can afford this meagre dwelling is because she’s a prostitute.
And Cabiria’s fortunes don’t improve from there: a famous movie star picks up her up because he’s lonely but drops her like a hot potato as soon as his ex reappears; a stage magician gets her to expose her inner most yearnings to be loved to an audience for their amusement and mockery; another man strings her heavily bruised heart along only to brutally break it to pieces again. This should be unwatcheable!
Except it isn’t and that’s because of Masina’s indefatigable resilience as Cabiria as well as Fellini lightening the neorealist darkness with humour, silent comedy and even the perky feel of animation (poor Cabiria frequently reminded me of Jerry the mouse from Tom and Jerry’s ‘Mouse in Manhattan’ as this tiny creature is buffeted by the massive waves of an unforgiving metropolis). Indeed, with its focus on lower social classes, dark humour, sexual transactions and female determination in the face of a hostile environment there’s a lot of parallels between ‘Cabiria’ and the work of Shōhei Imamura.
The social commentary here was a surprise for me as there’s pretty much none of that in Fosse’s remake ‘Sweet Charity’ (1969), which focuses solely on Shirley MacLaine’s lead character and her search for love. With ‘Cabiria’, however, whilst the centre of the movie is certainly Masina, it is the social, religious and sexual commentary that cuts through the movie and into our heads like a knife slicing an apple. This isn’t just the tale of a woman looking for love but a critique of Italian society and I have the hunch that that’s what happens when you get Pier Paolo Pasolini to help with your script as the swipes at religion, along with the focus on Rome’s underclass, certainly feel as though they came from his pen.
Yet this is still a Fellini movie more than anything else and the film is filled with his usual touches. So there’s gorgeous cinematography, wonderful set design, immaculate lighting, a sophisticated use of music and sound and, possibly the most Fellini-esque touch of all, a moment of highly impressive synchronised double-buttock choreography. This means that ‘Cabiria’ is never anything other than captivating and beautiful to look at and with each moment of sadness sweetened to the perfect degree with a funny joke. It’s also a fantastic example of illustrating that sometimes the best way to alleviate tragedy and pain can be to pile on some more. Cabiria has just had her heart broken by that selfish movie star and quietly heads home from his apartment. How do we lighten the tone? Have the poor woman walk into a glass door as she leaves.
By the end, and without giving too much away, poor Cabiria has been used once again except this time she has found herself floating in a different river — the river of humanity. Her brief look into the camera lets us know it’s not just she that is part of this current but that we, the audience, are too. And Masina’s performance is mesmerising, heart-breaking and hilarious and stops the movie (in fact, makes it downright impossible) from descending into nothing but total despair.
I can understand why many people regard ‘Nights of Cabiria’ as Fellini’s most satisfying work as it is touching, funny, energetic, beautiful and possibly the last movie the great Italian director made where his focus was outward and on other people before he went off and made movies where he seemed to be attempting to shoot nothing but the inside of his own head.