“Fellini’s structuring of his heroine’s story as a series of incidents rather than a linear plot was innovative at the time, doubly so because examples of a woman at the center of a picaresque adventure are exceptionally rare. Part of the picaresque tradition, one that dovetails nicely with Fellini’s own inclinations, is a fervent anti-clericalism. Nights of Cabiria is filled with such feeling.”
It’s rare for a movie director to inspire a new word, but by the 1970s, “Felliniesque” was a common synonym for the grotesque, the satirical, and the surreal. In the 1950s, long before the images that made him famous in this regard – La Dolce Vita’s flying Christ, Juliet of the Spirit’s lurid fantasies, Satyricon’s dying hermaphrodite and homosexual minotaur – Fellini was a major neorealist who would have rejected such dreamy indulgences.
The Nights of Cabiria (1957) is in some respects the crown jewel in his pre-“Felliniesque” work. While I Vitelloni (1953) is a more overt social critique and La Strada (1954) more widely known, Cabiria paints an arguably richer, more sweeping portrait of an outsider among outsiders. Just how rich can now be properly judged in a pristine restored print that also reinstates a crucial censored sequence known as “The Man with the Sack.”
Cabiria, unforgettably portrayed by the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina, is a rather pathetic aging prostitute who plies her trade in a desolate red-light district outside Rome. In the opening scene, which provides a blueprint for all of what will follow, she’s cavorting through a field in what looks like a romantic idyll with her boyfriend. But romance turns quickly to treachery and near-tragedy as he unceremoniously dumps her in the river and steals her purse. Surprisingly, after nearly dying, she reviles her saviors, curses her fate, and stumbles off in one high heel to the echoing words of a boy who explains to the others, “She’s living the life.”
“The life” she’s stumbling off to is a raw existence played out in an unstable, post-industrial world of ravaged fields, broken cisterns, and the crumbling arches of the whore-ridden Passeggiata Archeologica, a pitiful reminder of the long-gone glory of Rome’s past. The whores, along with Cabiria’s unkillable sense of hope, are what help her survive; indeed, they’re the only group in the film with a sense of community and caring, in spite of being marginalized and ridiculed by those who observe or abuse them. Cabiria’s simpatico friend Wanda (Franca Marzi), particularly, rides out Cabiria’s desperate moods that inevitably follow her many misadventures.
Much of the film is a subtle study of class conflict, with Cabiria, in spite of owning a small cement house and having a bank account, in the lower ranks even of her fellow prostitutes. This doesn’t prevent her sudden, brief rise in status in one of Fellini’s most celebrated scenes, a bittersweet encounter with the famous actor Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari). Everything good that their meeting implies is denied her – from a fancy feast of lobster and caviar to Alberto himself. When his girlfriend unexpectedly appears, he locks Cabiria in the bathroom where she sits until morning, when he sneaks her out with a few bucks. Fellini neatly sums up her situation architecturally; Lazzari’s house is impossibly large and mazelike, causing Cabiria to bang into glass doors and lament out loud that she’ll never escape.
Fellini’s structuring of his heroine’s story as a series of incidents rather than a linear plot was innovative at the time, doubly so because examples of a woman at the center of a picaresque adventure are exceptionally rare. Part of the picaresque tradition, one that dovetails nicely with Fellini’s own inclinations, is a fervent anti-clericalism. Nights of Cabiria is filled with such feeling. In a particularly grim sequence, Cabiria and some of her friends join a pilgrimage to beg for redemption. This presumably solemn event turns out to be anything but, with pilgrims screaming and smashing into each other, hysterical pleas for cures unmet, and peddlers rudely hawking religious paraphernalia.
If this didn’t bring on the wrath of the Catholic Church, another sequence did. In a scene that was cut in all but one French print, Cabiria, abandoned in a field, meets “the man with the sack.” The man is an anonymous do-gooder; his sack is filled with bare necessities he gives to the literal “wretched of the earth” – people living in squalor in caves. Cabiria accompanies him on his silent journey, and sees her possible future when she meets a hooker she knew, once wealthy, now living in a hole in the ground. The Church was apparently so annoyed by the idea of a layman appropriating one of its activities that it got the scene cut. More to the point, perhaps, the church feared a permanent visual record of its apathy toward its most hopeless constituents.
In another famous sequence that reveals the depth of Cabiria’s inner life, she’s hypnotized in a seedy variety theater to believe she’s an unspoiled young girl in a budding romance with an equally idealized young man. Giulietta Masina’s Chaplinesque movements, her masterfully simple pantomime of a desperately desired amour, cast a subtle spell that quiets the rowdy crowd of local males, just as it mesmerizes us as an audience. When she awakes, the crowd ruthlessly ridicules her for being an aging whore mimicking what she can never be – an “innocent.” From there it’s downhill all the way, though Cabiria maintains her dignity and fragile sense of hope even in the most dire circumstances, which come quickly in an extended, ultimately catastrophic love affair.
Nights of Cabiria was the last film in which Fellini tried to make sense of an increasingly fragmented, chaotic Italian society. In Masina’s brilliant incarnation of the simple-minded, doomed prostitute – a character the director called the “fallen sister” of La Strada’s celebrated Gelsomina – he found an ideal vehicle for attacking the Church, the class system, movie star culture, and all the other forces destroying the lives of ordinary people. With his next film, La Dolce Vita, his neorealist voice would become quieter; in a few years, it would vanish entirely as Fellini drifted deeper into a private fantasy world.