The Loss and Recovery of the Romantic Spirit: Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria”

This week, I’m continuing with Federico Fellini’s film “Nights of Cabiria.” For my thoughts of “8 1/2,” “La Dolce Vita,” “I Vitelloni,” and “La Strada,” click on the links. 

Director: Federico Fellini

Writers: Federico Fellini (story), Ennio Flaiano (story), 3 more credits »

Stars: Giulietta MasinaFrançois PérierFranca Marzi |See full cast and crew »

How did Italian cinema manage to become so big when from Rossellini to Visconti and from Antonioni to Fellini, no one recorded sound with images? A simple answer: the language of Ovid and Virgil, Dante and Leopardi, spoke through the images. –Jean-Luc Godard, Historie(s) du Cinéma

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.- 1 Peter 4:8

Recently I met a girl I like. I tell you this not as a half-hearted effort to brag or to have you, dear reader, congratulate me, but because it was such an odd sensation to have feelings, no matter how shallow or fleeting, for someone again after so long. After some painful relationships and breakups, I wondered if I could. But then suddenly a pretty girl flicks her eyes at me, has a nice smile then without even knowing what happened, my guard gets let down a little bit. I have no illusions about any future with this girl in that nothing will probably come of this chance encounter. But it made me realize something not only about myself but everyone: it seems that the human heart desires, even more than sex or money or fancy dinners at fancy restaurants, love above all else. To be loved and to love. It’s a simple, maybe obvious observation but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Cabiria, the main character in Federico Fellini’s perfect film “Nights of Cabiria,” like all of us is in search of love . Yes, she’s a prostitute, and maybe in some people’s eyes that makes her unworthy of love. But she came to prostitution not by choice but out of necessity in that it pays the bills. The movie opens with Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) standing on a riverbank with her boyfriend, Giorgio. They laugh and seem perfectly happy. That is until Giorgio pushes Cabiria into the river and steals her purse full of money. Cabiria can’t swim. She almost drowns but is saved by the locals.

Afterward, Cabiria is angry at everyone. She yells at Wanda (Franca Marzi), her best friend, as a defense to her tremendous pain. Despite her rough, angry exterior, however, Cabiria is extremely delicate. She yearns to find someone to make her whole and save her. Her life is a tough one. Despite owning her own home in a ramshackled neighborhood of Rome, she has no one, must have sex for to make a living, and wants desperately to run away from her life and be loved.

Guilietta Masina, who was married to Fellini throughout their lives and plays Cabiria, is a remarkable actress. She has big doe-eyes and round cheeks that signal childlike innocence, an awkwardness and clumsiness of movement that is reminiscent of Chaplin’s Tramp but also a husky, deep voice that is in sharp contrast to  her small, fragile figure. What amazes me most about Masina’s performance is even when she is yelling and screaming at everyone around, the audience can see her delicate humanity shine through her eyes alone. It is a one of the more humanistic, beautiful performance you’ll see.   

“Cabiria” settles into an episodic structure that Fellini would later expand on with “La Dolce Vita.” There is an episode where Cabiria she goes to a nightclub with a movie star and in a Chaplinesque scene, fights with a curtain who puts up quite the struggle. There are also a few episodes involving the Catholic Church, including going to one church to see a vision of the Virgin Mary. One scene that was cut from the original  stands out in the early part of “Cabiria.” A man with a sack walks around caves outside of Rome and gives clothes and food to the homeless, including a old prostitute Cabiria recognizes. Cabiria is clearly moved by the man’s selfless mission, and after he gives her a lift back to Rome, she reveals her real name — Maria Ceccarelli — for the first and only time in the film, leaving him with the words, “Thank you, thank you for everything.” Seeing this man gives Cabiria a slight opening of hope for the rest of the film, which she had not found to date.

I don’t know what to say about the last 1/2 of the movie, except that it completely broke my heart and had me near tears throughout. In one transformative episode, Cabiria attends a magic show and is hypnotized by a magician into believing that she’s being courted by a handsome man named Oscar. After her trance finishes, she is laughed at by the men in the audience and feels humiliated. Without wanting to be, Cabiria is vulnerable and shows her true feelings. But outside a man stops her and says his name is Oscar and that he was so moved by Cabiria that he wants to take her out on a date. Cabiria is reluctant at first but slowly lets her guard down and soon she sells her home so she can move with Oscar to the countryside and get married.

Watching these scenes reminded me of my own defenses toward love and acceptance. Like Cabiria, in many ways being single is not the curse it is made out to be in most mainstream society. I find joy in my independence, in making my own choices without the need of another. But there is something that always lingers, a slight loneliness that hides behind the busyness of everyday living. This romantic, absurd notion of love seems to idle in my soul like a winter cold that just will not go away. And above where I talk about feeling something about a girl I barely know, it is really about that silly romantic notion that will never leave and the hope that maybe it will be fulfilled and I’ll meet someone who I can let my guard down and just be.

And then we get to our ending. It was almost too much to take for me. Cabiria, fully trusting Oscar at this point, takes a walk with Oscar. Oscar is asking strange during the walk. Oscar, it seems, has found the temptation of Cabiria’s money, which she got from selling her house, too much. He means to murder and rob her. Cabiria figures this out and begins to cry and yell in despair. Oscar steals the money and runs away. Cabiria lies in the leaves for hours in depression.

Then we get the famous ending. I love this ending. But at the same time, it feels like an empty consolation prize. Cabiria was treated unkindly by a man she loved. Her heartbreak was visceral and hurt as I watched it. It was the same feeling of heartbreak we’ve all experienced when we put our faith in someone who didn’t deserve it. It’s the same heartbreak that has left many of us  defensive and weary of romantic love. Plus she has sold her home. She has nowhere to go.

But as Cabiria walks away, a group of children begin to play music around her and dance and sing (begins at 4:25.) Cabiria, with mascara running down her face begins to smile, and then she glances at the camera before looking away from the camera and glancing again at us, the audience. I’m not sure what that glance means. The father of film criticism, Andre Bazin, has his own thoughts on it:

Masina turns toward the camera and her glance crosses ours ….The finishing touch to this stroke of directorial genius is this, that Cabiria’s glance falls several times on the camera without ever quite coming to rest there….Here she is now inviting us, too, with her glance to follow her on the road to which she is about to return.

Bazin’s interpretation seems correct. Despite all the pain, we as human beings continue to move forward or die. Cabiria has chosen life at the end instead of death. And she invites us, the audience, with our deep wounds concerning love and loss to choose to return to life as well. It will never be easy, I suppose. But what choice do we have. 

One thought on “The Loss and Recovery of the Romantic Spirit: Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria”

  1. Pingback: The Auteurs: 5 Essential Federico Fellini Films | Magical Reelism

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