Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) is Federico Fellini’s classic visual study of romantic resilience and faith in human nature. The film is also a lyrical take on themes that embrace a tragic-omic view of human cruelty and envy. The latter is what the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, has called the “mass man mentality”. This is very predominant in Cabiria’s circle of acquaintances, for none of them want to improve their lives, yet mock Cabiria for her higher aspirations.
Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is a prostitute who has not given up the hope of attaining a better life for herself. The film follows her often-comic exploits through Rome and her squalid neighbourhood outside the eternal city. While Cabiria associates with the likes of other prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers, she manages to convince the viewer that she is not one of them. Cabiria remains an outsider, even within her own kind.
This is perhaps the great strength of the film, and helps provide a gripping portrayal of fate and personal choices. Admittedly, at the start of the film it is rather difficult to embrace Cabiria or any of her low-life friends. Her friends are callous and vulgar. Like sophomoric youngsters, they ridicule each other without mercy. They are also willing to use each other for personal gain. Yet as the film progresses, Cabiria begins to demonstrate her feistiness in revoking the moral choices and thus the lives of those around her. With a characteristic Felliniesque romantic score by Nino Rota to accompany Cabiria as she gets embroiled in awkward situations, we watch her tirelessly fighting her circumstances.
The film begins with a long shot of two lovers running in a field. When they reach the banks of the Tiber River the man takes the woman’s purse and runs away. Cabiria falls into the river and begins to drown only to be saved by several young boys. Someone recognises the woman that the boys are trying to revive and refers to her as, “a well-known night bird”. This simple line of dialogue is important because it tells the audience something significant about Cabiria. When she returns home, one of her friends tries to make her understand that Giorgio, the man who took her purse, and who she has only known for a month, indeed robbed her. Initially, Cabiria is under the false impression that she fell into the river. She is reluctant to believe that he would do such a thing to her. This scene introduces the viewer to Cabiria’s innocence: “I gave him everything”. Then she swears that she will never be taken in again: “Eternal love, he swore – the contemptible cobra!” Later we discover the importance of that early scene in the film, for it sets the mood and scope of Cabiria’s mishaps and tortured life.
The film traces Cabiria’s miserable life externally, as we witness what happens to her in the world that she inhabits, but also inwardly, as we are made privy to her moral/emotional predicament. In this respect, Nights of Cabiria can be called an odyssey. Fellini’s camera follows Cabiria around much like a dog its master. This is not an exaggeration, for a great number of the shots are long and gentle, thus allowing Cabiria and her environs to dictate the course of the film’s action. Because there is little abrupt editing, as has become so prevalent in subsequent filmmaking, Cabiria’s life does indeed seem like an uninterrupted odyssey. The viewer gets to know Cabiria’s inner life.
Besides the opening episode, the film revolves around another four events/themes that are smoothly intertwined to give us the coherent form of storytelling that characterises Nights of Cabiria. One of these episodes has to do with Cabiria’s brief happiness, as she spends a portion of an evening discovering how the other half lives. Cabiria befriends Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), a famous movie actor who has been abandoned by his lover. Cabiria is then taken to Lazzari’s plush mansion, where she is offered lobster and caviar. Throughout this sequence of discovery, Cabiria’s countenance seems to glow like that of a child receiving a present.
Cabiria’s next adventure revolves around joining a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Virgin Mary. She goes there with her rough and ready friends. They all decide to make an offering to Mary in return for granting their respective wishes. Cabiria wishes to change her circumstances. This is an attempt to embrace divine transcendence: “Help me change my life. Grant my prayer, too. Change my life.” This miracle sequence is essential to the flow of the film because we get to witness Cabiria’s desire to move out of her seedy surroundings. This is also a funny sequence because Cabiria and her friends have no idea what to do inside a church. This sequence is entirely intended to showcase the need of miracles for those on the outside looking in. When her miracle is not granted, Cabiria begins to curse her fate.
Her disappointment takes her to another central sequence of the film: the hypnotism scene. Cabiria finds herself in a magic show in a theatre. The magician calls her on stage and tells her that he will hypnotise her. Once hypnotised, she is then asked to imagine her greatest desire coming true. Of course, what Cabiria wants most is to be loved. Then the magician conjures up an imaginary lover named Oscar. This whole sequence turns out to be a tease, she realises, once the hypnotic trance is over. This scene is thematically tied to the following scenes because it further showcases her innocence.
Outside the theatre she meets a man who calls himself Oscar D’Onofrio (François Perier). The man tells her that he watched the show, and that he does not think it a coincidence that their paths crossed. As they begin to date, Cabiria becomes puzzled that Oscar does not want anything in return. Cabiria is ecstatic with excitement. She meets a priest named Father Giovanni who tells her to be in God’s grace and that good things will happen to her.
Oscar promises to marry Cabiria. She sells her house and takes her cash from the sale and her bank holdings to Oscar so they can pool their money together in their new life in marriage. Cabiria is then led to a cliff, where Oscar wants to show her the sunset. There she realises that he wants to kill her. Oscar tells her that he doesn’t want to hurt her, but does take her money and runs away.
In the last scenes of the film Cabiria is seen walking alone on a road crying. She joins in a group of young people singing and playing instruments. She walks along with them and sheds a single tear that is black with mascara. This makes her look like a clown. Then Cabiria smiles and gives a pronounced nod at the camera, as if to assure the viewer that everything will be alright. She has not given up hope.
Fellini is quoted in Charlotte Chandler’s book, I, Fellini, as saying that Nights of Cabiria is an exploration of loneliness, and that Cabiria has to look inside herself for her salvation (1). Nights of Cabiria is very much a study of the strength of will and resilience in light of the resistance that life and the world place in Cabiria’s path.
What is most endearing about this film is that Cabiria handles her misfortune in a childlike manner. She is quick to bounce back from defeat. Fellini does not convert her strife into a political manifesto. Nights of Cabiria is merely a depiction of one person’s circumstances, whether created through her own doing or by bad luck, and how Cabiria must continue to struggle for the attainment of a dignified life.
Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (1957 Italy/France 117 mins)
Prod Co: Dino de Laurentis Cinematografica/Les Films Marceau Prod: Dino De Laurentis Dir: Federico Fellini Scr: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini, from the novel by Maria Molinari Phot: Aldo Tonti Prod Des: Piero Gherardi Ed: Leo Catozzo Mus: Nino Rota
Cast: Giulietta Masina, François Périer, Amadeo Nazzari, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Aldo Silvani