When a person mentions Fellini, it always invokes the familiar titles in one’s mind: Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, and, of course, 8 1/2. But for me, Federico Fellini is Nights of Cabiria, which tells the story of a prostitute roaming the streets and finding nothing but misery along the road. Giulietta Masina‘s Cabiria is similar in appearance to her character Gelsomina from La Strada, but also in nature since both are betrayed and abandoned. Face glared white, painted-on eyebrows, heavily-lined eyes hiding the inner sadness. Cabiria is a prostitute, a tomboy-like character, who seems like a silent movie mime. Fitting, of course, since Cabiria is a character from an Italian 1914 silent film. Her striped shirt resembles a vaudeville costume, but the overall appearance invokes the idea of a sad clown. A crooked smile and a head tilt show more emotion than facial expressions of other actors combined. She is the lady of the night, and has to smile all the time, even though she’s breaking apart.
Cabiria’s boyfriend pushes her into river and steals her purse with money. That was probably one of the most upbeat moments of the film, so you can imagine how her misfortune unwinds. Soon she meets a famous movie star, who takes her to her house, just to lock her in the bathroom when his girlfriend comes back. That’s the sad story of Cabiria, even when she wanted to make love, she wasn’t allowed to. She continues working as a prostitute, but soon prays for a better life inside a church. Of course, nothing happens.
In one particular sequence, Cabiria finds herself in a magic show, where she’s being hypnotized on stage. She is asked to imagine her greatest wish being fulfilled. The lighting encompasses her and she is not the lady of the night any more, at least for a second. The thing Cabiria wants the most is to be loved. But in that split second of weakness and truth, she is just ridiculed by the men in the audience. Being honest just gives the outside world the opportunity to grind you down. After the episode, she meets a mysterious man enchanted by her, and falls madly in love with him. But you know, nothing well should happen to Cabiria, after all. A heart of gold is on the wrong side of the tracks of life.
Fellini never shows his Cabiria in bed with men, even though we know what she does for living. That part is not Cabiria. She tells a story of her parents dying when she was a little girl. Our Cabiria is still childlike, having dreams and desires, having inexhaustible energy, but constantly being let down by the world of adults. Italian censors of the time removed a part illustrating the sheer poverty in the outskirts of Rome. Cabiria meets a generous man with the sack, who provides food and clothes to homeless people living in underground caves outside the big city. Apparently, the Church felt that this was an implicit accusation they did not do much for the poor. But they had no problem with a woman like Cabiria leading such a hopeless life. Nobody should live like that. And yet, there’s no censorship here because you cannot censor sadness.
Maria ‘Cabiria’ Ceccarelli: Guess there’s some justice in the world. You suffer, you go through hell. Then happiness comes along or everyone.
The film ends with Cabiria standing tall after the worst moments in her life. She walks away from what could have been her grave. She walks proudly but helplessly, like a baby deer trying to take its first steps. She hears music and notices a group of young people singing and clapping. Cabiria’s despair slowly transforms into a smile. Her makeup creates a sad clown face, with a single big mascara tear visible. Fellini knows, like in La Strada, that life is a circus. But on the inside, is Cabiria happy? We don’t know. But there’s hope.
Burke, Frank (1996). Fellini’s Films: From Postwar to Postmodern. Twayne Publishers.
Cardullo, R. J. (2016). The Artistic Achievement of Federico Fellini: The Nights of Cabiria as Exemplum. Teaching Sound Film: A Reader. Sense Publishers.
Fellini, Federico (1976). Fellini on Fellini. Trans. Isabel Quigly. Methuen.
Kezich, Tullio (2006). Federico Fellini: His Life and Work. Faber and Faber.
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