DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Nights of Cabiria

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Nights of Cabiria

Nights of Cabiria (1957) dir. Federico Fellini
Starring Giulietta Masina, Francois Perier, Alberto Lazzari


By Greg Klymkiw

Can there be any greater feeling than that which comes from ascension?

Movies at their very best can make you feel this way. They make you soar.

Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria is just such a movie. Screening in Toronto at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox cinemas on Sunday, August 14 at 6:15pm, it is part of a sumptuous celebration entitled “Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions” and includes a very cool series of double bills that pairs a Fellini picture with the work of another filmmaker treading similar (or contrasting) waters.

(My only criticism of this great collection of pictures is that Il Bidone is not screening at all. In fact, a perfect pairing for it would be something like Your Three Minutes Are Up, the neglected 70s American classic by Douglas Schwartz. A personal note to TIFF Bell Lightbox topper Noah Cowan: "Get on this, bud – it’ll be an evening guaranteed to blow us all away".)

In the TIFF Bell Lightbox Gallery, one will also find a series of exquisite exhibitions that include screen tests of Fellini grotesques, the inspiration for the Trevi Fountain sequence from La Dolce Vita and a whack o’ photos of pure tabloid genius.

As for the upcoming Nights of Cabiria I can freely and happily declare that it never fails to cascade me emotionally into what feels like another dimension. As a filmmaker, Fellini makes it all seem so effortless. His genius notwithstanding, he (nor we) would ever get there, I think, without some experience, or at least understanding of Judeo-Christian tradition (particularly, the Christian portion, and more precisely, that of Catholicism). The maestro was, of course, Italian and what is it to be of that heritage if one has not been touched, shaped, moulded, pounded and cudgelled by the patriarchal power that is the Catholic Church? (Doing the math on this, Fellini's childhood would have corresponded quite neatly with that of Pope Pius XI - Mr. Anti-Contraception and Pro-Sex-For-Procreation himself.)

Fellini knew all too well and continually explored the notion of redemption via false prophets. And I do not mean Christ, but rather, those within, and most often at the highest levels of any organized faith who seek to dominate and control by proselytizing distorted teachings to the weakest and most vulnerable of society.

Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is just such an individual and it’s no surprise that even the film’s title states clearly that we are to journey through the Nights of Cabiria. It’s the darkness of night that roots us in a place from where we are allowed find the light.

One of the picture’s screenwriters was none other than the iconoclastic Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom). In both life and his art, he knew a lot about sexual exploitation – most notably, the world of prostitution wherein the body becomes the sought after commodity through which money is paid to experience la petite mort. (Pasolini was the go-to boy for those in Italian cinema seeking an "expert" on the fine art of whoring and whoredom.) In Nights of Cabiria it is, finally, the “little death” that seeks to undermine our title character – the dashing of hopes and dreams that come from unspeakable and/or unwanted acts of cruelty perpetrated upon those hoping to achieve a higher state – a state of grace, if you will.

And so goes this simple tale of Cabiria, a waif-like, almost Chaplinesque figure of innocence (or naiveté) who works the world’s oldest profession to preserve a standard of living (owning her own home and having a bank account - vaguely and interestingly rather bourgeois values) that is achieved by a life of “sin”.

Her goal is to find love. What she gets in return is redemption. From the opening scene where a loathsome pimp steals her money and shoves her into the river, to the horrendous moments when Carlos (François Périer) the man she thinks loves her, contemplates murder to secure a life’s worth of savings, Fellini delivers a powerful drama. We see, ultimately, a woman who is abused and exploited at the hands of men within a society that is rooted in the abovementioned patriarchy of persecution - indelibly linked, as it is, to the “business” of spirituality, of religion – the monetization of faith.

Thankfully, through all this remains Fellini’s command of the filmmaking process and his faith in the title character. His beloved Cabiria is no fool, nor is she a pushover. She’s a tough cookie in a den of lions – a fighter, a wise cracker, a street-smart streetwalker who, when she accompanies a good Samaritan on the rounds to feed the poor, is still able to see in others a mirror image of what could become of her if she doesn’t remain wary, and most importantly, IN CONTROL.

Control is, of course, the continued plight of those women who work in the sex trade. Their buyers are men and often, their true exploiters are not always the Johns, but rather, a society that allows – through the demonizing and criminalizing of the profession – a systematic exploitation of those same women at the hands of pimps, gigolos and gangsters (many of whom are corrupt cops, lawmakers and more often than not, men). In one of the picture’s more harrowing sequences, we follow Cabiria and a group of other whores as they attend a religious miracle revival outside of Rome as the disenfranchised, seeking quick-fix redemption, are surrounded by the cheap hucksterism and circus-like atmosphere of the root of this exploitation – religion itself, or, if you will, the corruption and exploitation of faith.

It is finally faith that is at once shattered and just as quickly restored in the film’s final moments. Cabiria believes in the lies of the seemingly sensitive and very charming Carlos, but it is her will to survive and to persevere and finally, her belief in her own goodness and that of humanity that allows her to go on – to disappear back into the world and begin again.

None of this would be possible without Fellini. In fact, Nights of Cabiria is really the last of his great works in the neo-realist tradition of I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone (a film in which Fellini purportedly came to know a prostitute who provided him much of his inspiration for the Cabiria role) and The White Sheik (in which Cabiria appears as a supporting character). From La Dolce Vita and onwards, there would be occasional dollops of neo-realism, but more often than not, his work became increasingly surreal and fantastical. While there is considerable greatness in many of them, nothing really comes close to the overwhelming compassion of this earlier phase.

With Nights of Cabiria, I’d also argue that we see Masina’s finest work as an actress (somehow she truly does embody the spirit of Chaplin) and among a lifetime of indelible scores, Nino Rota’s music for this is at his most heartbreakingly eloquent.

Like I said before, the picture will have you soaring higher than you ever thought possible. That’s the real greatness of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria – it allows you the freedom to be weightless within the overwhelming spirit of humanity.

While “Nights of Cabiria” is currently out of print on the Criterion Collection DVD label, it can still be found for sale or rent.

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