The Optimism of ‘Nights of Cabiria’

“Nights of Cabiria” was directed by Federico Fellini, but it would not have been possible if not for Giulietta Masina. She was the star of the Italian movie maestro’s previous film, 1956’s “La Strada,” which won the inaugural Academy Award for Best International Feature. It also established “the Fellini circus”: the cliché that he doesn’t make movies so much as he leads a parade, invariably topped with a sad but smirking clown. In “La Strada,” Masina was that clown, but her performance is less Joaquin Phoenix and closer to Charlie Chaplin. In conversation with his biographer, Fellini recalls, “The French critics referred to her as ‘the feminine Charlot,’ their affectionate name for Chaplin. That made her very happy when she heard it. I was happy, too.”

You see, Fellini and Masina weren’t just partners in film, but partners in life. They met during the War at a radio station, Fellini, a writer and Masina, an actress. They married in 1943 just as Fellini transitioned from a career in radio to a career in film, at that point still just a screenwriter. While “the Fellini circus” would later evolve into one of the loudest surrealist voices in cinema, Fellini first got his start in the Italian neorealist movement, most notably with Roberto Rossellini on the screenplay for “Rome, Open City.” “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria” are considered today as transitional pieces in Fellini’s filmography: the bridge between Anna Magnani getting gunned down by Nazis and his characters literally holding hands and dancing as the credits rolled. As it so happens, Masina was the star of both movies.

Cabiria as a character originated in Fellini’s first solo outing as director, 1952’s “The White Sheik,” as a supporting role for his wife in what would otherwise become an early flop for the filmmaker. Despite this, Fellini was inspired to revisit Cabiria while filming another early picture, “Il Bidone.” On-set in Rome, Fellini met a prostitute named Wanda, whom he likened to a “small, homeless, female cat” for the way she’d come closer to him when he offered her food. Wanda was loud and indignant, but over time she began to open up to Fellini, describing to him the experiences of — and the circumstances that led her to becoming — a sex worker. Fellini realized her fiery front was just that: a protective shell she wore around the kind, sanguine woman that the men in her life had exploited. “Nights of Cabiria” was born.

You will likely recognize Cabiria before you even meet her, as the “hooker with a heart of gold” popularized by Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” has transformed this archetype into a stereotype. But before we had a name for it, we only had Cabiria; in fact, when Fellini first shopped around his screenplay for the film, many producers dismissed it because the main character was a prostitute. Try as Fellini might, no one believed he could make a character as “immoral” as Cabiria sympathetic to audiences. They failed to understand the irony of the role: despite the so-called wickedness of her profession, Cabiria demonstrates time and time again the virtue her critics accuse her of lacking, the very same virtue they themselves do not possess.

When we first meet Cabiria, she’s been pushed into a river by her boyfriend — but not before he steals her purse and leaves her to drown. Comments from her best friend and fellow sex worker, Wanda (Franca Marzi), suggest that this is not the first time Cabiria has opened her heart to a man with cold blood. But Cabiria can’t help it; while she carries herself like a tough girl — screaming and yelling like so many Fellini creations — she’s really just a softie. This much becomes clear in one of my favorite scenes, when Cabiria visits a travelling magic show. Despite her protests, she’s called to the stage for the magician’s next trick, where he hypnotizes her to believe she’s met the love of her life. She waltzes with the imaginary man and picks him imaginary flowers, while the audience sits there in silence. No doubt they had hoped for a raunchier show from Cabiria.

Contrary to the fears of those producers, Cabiria is a hugely sympathetic character. In their defense, however, they couldn’t have known just how endearing she’d be with only the script in front of them; so much of the magic of “Nights of Cabiria” is Giulietta Masina herself. She is absolutely terrific here, the kind of actress who can say as much with her eyes as with dialogue (which was reworked by Pier Paolo Pasolini because of his familiarity with Rome’s seedy underbelly). She is equally adept with comedy and drama, important for a film so indebted to Chaplin’s silent classic, “City Lights.” Chaplin once referred to Masina as “the actress who moved him most,” which I’m sure made her beam like Cabiria herself.

The film is divided into a series of episodic misadventures in Cabiria’s life. In the first, she is picked up by an Italian movie star (played by real-life movie star Amedeo Nazzari) and taken to his mansion, of which the seemingly endless staircases remind us how grounded Cabiria can be. In another, Cabiria meets a mysterious man who roams the countryside donating food to the needy, all of whom live in holes below the ground that starkly contrast the movie star’s estate. This scene, in fact, was censored by Rome at the time of the film’s release; they believed it was the Church’s responsibility to feed the hungry, and that the scene made it seem as if the Church was doing a bad job of it. How this scene was censored, and not the one where Cabiria visits a church and prays (in vain) for a better life, is beyond me.

Now, the next paragraph contains a bit of spoilers, so if you plan on watching “Nights of Cabiria” and don’t want this moment to be ruined, skip ahead to my final thoughts. Anyways, “Nights of Cabiria” has one of the most perfect endings to a film I’ve ever seen: an ending that takes every disparate string and ties them all together into one, beautiful bow. Cabiria has been betrayed yet again, this time by her fiancé (François Périer) in a scene that mimics the film’s opening; the way Fellini torments us with Cabiria’s naiveté literally kept me on the edge of my seat. Despite the heartbreak, Cabiria drags herself out of the mud and begins the walk of shame back to her bungalow… what a trooper. As she walks down the long, dark road, she crosses paths with a group of children: they’re riding scooters and playing music in the first great Fellini parade. And as Nino Rota’s score roars to life — as Aldo Tonti’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography shows its first true signs of light — Cabiria turns to the camera and smiles. It’s a wonderful sequence in a film with many: a plain reminder that life is always moving forward, and that strength is being able to smile about it.

Although Cabiria’s work is left entirely to the imagination (so much so that you could, theoretically, watch the whole film and just not get it), I understand there’s something a little back-handed about casting your wife as a prostitute. The truth is, Fellini and Masina’s marriage was not perfect. Fellini was infamous for his infidelity, so much so that when he made the semi-autobiographical “8½,” he began an affair with the actress he cast to play the role of his mistress. But he always came back to Masina, with whom he had a connection (and from whom he received a great deal of patience) like no one else. His love for Masina all but radiates off the screen in “Nights of Cabiria”; of all his films, none feel like a truer collaboration than this. Fellini was an introspective man, and his films often dealt with his life, his regrets, and his memories of them. For that reason, “Nights of Cabiria” is a bit of an outsider: never again did he make a film so entirely devoted to someone else. 9/10

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