Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria

Michael Cooley — HSU-OLLI — 17 September 2014

:30

Character transformation is an important and frequent component in literature and film. The first question to ask about transformative works is, Who or what was transformed? Very often the reader, or a member of the audience, becomes deeply affected and influenced by a great work of art, myself included. Often, a work transforms the artist, as happened with Federico Fellini and his wife, Giulietta Masina.

1:00

Of course, it's the characters we look to when studying a motion picture. For example, although Toshiro Mifune's performance in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon jettisoned him into international stardom and celebrity, the character he played was obstinate and unrepentant from beginning to the end. It was the woodcutter in that movie who was fundamentally changed. His long walk in the woods was only the start of his journey. His transformation was steady and measured while, from one scene to the next, he carefully pondered and probed his inner and outer worlds. One of the great transformative roles in American cinema is Marlon Brando's Terry Malone in On the Waterfront. Terry's awareness about the corrupt, dirty world in which he lived grew from c'est la vie to a fierce determination to do something about it. In Nights of Cabiria, however, the character's transformation comes in a single, defining moment—at almost the very last frame.

:30

Nights of Cabiria, the 1957 winner at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Picture, was directed by Federico Fellini. The central character was played by his wife, Giulietta Masina. It was their second acclaimed pairing: La Strada had garnered an Academy Award the previous year. Her touching and sometimes Chaplinesque performance as Cabiria, a kind, naive, but ultimately resilient streetwalker, earned the Best Actress award at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.

1:30

Fellini learned his craft while working with the likes of Roberto Rossellini (Ingrid Bergman's great love of the 1950s) during and after the Second World War. From that wreckage rose neorealism, Italy's great post-war contribution to world cinema. The large studios—those that survived—could make ends meet only with American help: American producers and, later, American actors. But small companies using hand-held cameras, inexpensive film stock, neighborhood characters rather than professional actors, the streets and alleyways of Italy rather than sound stages, and dialog produced in the studio rather than in the field, created a fresh, if often tragic, vision of the world in which they lived. Fellini's early films followed suit but looked to a more controlled production style and used professional actors in the lead roles. By the mid-fifties he, too, began to use Hollywood stars: Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart in La Strada, and Broderick Crawford in Il Bidone, a role intended for Humphrey Bogart. For Cabiria, he employed two European stars, French actor Francois Perier, and Italian matinee idol Amedeo Nazzari, who was sporting enough to play himself in the movie.

:30

Although Fellini continued to use—at least through Cabiria—scarred, poverty-ridden, and depressed Italy as backstory and backdrop, he infused the desperate landscape with a glimmer of hope, blended the follies of life with frolicsome characters, and imbued the dismal postwar-Italian landscape with humor. Hints of a carnival atmosphere, in deep focus, often inhabit the corners of the screen. Staginess and theatricality coexist with harsh reality. His wife's performance was the perfect embodiment of the two extremes.

1:00

However, on this point, there were and are criticisms. Bosley Crowther, a film critic for the New York Times, wrote in 1957 that the movie conveys "a sordid atmosphere," and that there's "something elusive and insufficient about the character of the heroine. Her get-up is weird and illogical for the milieu in which she lives and her farcical mannerisms clash with the ugly realism of the theme." I call that poor observation from one who simply misunderstand both film and character and, obviously, one who had not yet had the benefit of hindsight into the brilliant career of a man who would become one of the great pillars of twentieth-century cinema. That aside, the very dichotomies cited by Crowther lend charm to the movie and, especially, to Masina's performance.

1:00

Giulietta Masina appeared in seven of her husband's films, Cabiria being the fifth. In 1952 Fellini featured her in a single scene in The White Sheik. Not only did her performance convince Fellini's producer, Dino De Laurentiis, that she was right for the role of Gelsomina in La Strada, she had been cast in The White Sheik as a prostitute having a heart of gold—a hooker named Cabiria. From Masina's performance in that scene and the inspiration derived from it came Fellini's first two great international hits. He later commented that the first Cabiria had altered the careers of both husband and wife.

1:00

In the same 1957 review, Crowther wrote that the film "...aimed more surely toward the development of a theme than a plot. Its interest is not so much the conflicts that occur in the life of the heroine as the deep, underlying implications of human pathos that the pattern of her life shows." This is a correct assessment and leads back to the thesis of transformation. Although Cabiria moves steadily through a timeline, each scene is an event in itself. In a way, it's a collection of short stories about Cabiria's life, each beginning with hope and ending in disappointment. The pilgrimage sequence, for example, begins with anticipation of a miracle, but ends unhappily. We do, however, begin to see a transformation in the latter sequences. She becomes calmer, her attire less clownish and more conventional. Even her eyebrows, which look to have been inspired by the French accent marks, acute and grave, become elegant arcs. Cabiria is now more a lady than a whore. But then the unthinkable happens. It's in Cabiria's response that we see life-changing transformation.

1:10

From the beginning, critics called Masina a female Charlie Chaplin. They knew Fellini was a great fan of "The Tramp" and later learned that the movie-star scenes were inspired by City Lights. It's easy to see Chaplin in Masina's large, expressive eyes, in her physicality, and her expert mixing of the tragic and the comic. But I would argue that additional factors influenced her style. There's a strong hint of Japanese theatricality in her manner, of the samurai films coming out of Japan at the time, and perhaps even of Toshiro Mifune who'd made such a splash at the beginning of the decade. When Cabiria runs, her butt lowers a bit toward the ground, her knees bend slightly and part from one another, her feet point outward, and she moves forward in short, quick strides, in manner familiar to Kurosawa fans. Cabiria even keeps her hair in a short ponytail high on the back of her head reminiscent of a samurai's knot. Her high, dark eyebrows and pale face resemble the traditional Japanese style of classical womanhood.

1:30

Masina dominates virtually every scene, but doesn't dominate the screen in the way innumerable sultry Italians did; the tall, dark, statuesque, and buxom Sophia Loren comes to mind. Masina was 5' 2" and blond, somewhat squat and short-legged, small-breasted. Her large head, round face, big goo-goo eyes, and button nose remind us of an infant—perhaps a terrible two-year-old exhibiting her mercurial energy and alternating moods. Reviewers have variously described Cabiria as "a waifish, wide-eyed spark plug with a childlike belief—in the face of all evidence—in the redemption of romance"; "Part Kewpie doll," another reviewer wrote, "part waif, with those huge Keane-kid eyes and just a touch of Bette Davis as Baby Jane"; and that, although she wanders the streets in "her ankle socks and ratty fur, she's hardly streetwise, though she fancies herself so." Jay Carr of the Montreal Gazette wrote that Cabiria is "a survivor who preserves the integrity of her heart from the ugliness of her circumstances. Her unquenchable little smile counts for a lot more than the teardrop running down through the mascara on her cheek."

1:30

When I first saw Nights of Cabiria, the print was dark and indistinct. Nino Rota's music was muddied. The Criterion Collection's restoration glistens like a diamond. Seven minutes are restored—a scene now referred to as "the man with a sack." Fellini had heard the story about such a person patrolling the outskirts of Rome carrying sacks of foodstuffs he distributed to the homeless poor, many of them old, retired whores who now lived in caves. But Fellini had to fight over the scene with De Laurentiis who thought it slowed the movie's pace. The producer was so convinced that it should not be seen at Cannes that he ordered it removed from the negative and took it home. The footage had been lost for forty years by the time the negative showed up at a theater in France. After seeing the restoration, Janet Maslin, Crowther's successor at the Times, summed up the movie as "a cinematic masterpiece." The final shot, she wrote, is better than "all the fire-breathing blockbusters Hollywood has to offer."

:30

Fellini once said of Cabiria, "I myself have worried about her fate..." When he received the Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars in 1992, he looked at his wife and asked that she not cry. She was already crying but, in Cabiria-fashion, smiled through the streaked mascara. I'd say Cabiria's transformation was complete and that she had done pretty darn good for herself.

:30

Federico Fellini died from a stroke not quite three years following this last of five Oscars and one day after the couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary. Giulietta Masina died five months later of lung cancer. They were both 73.