Monday, August 30, 2010

#49: Nights of Cabiria

(Federico Fellini, 1957)

Nights of Cabiria is a quiet masterpiece, the kind of film that can make you fall in love with a character, only to have your heart ripped out. It's also a great example of a comedic (or at least naive) character stuck in a serious genre, in this case the melodramatic tragedy. This is a style that would go on to spawn the greatest comedy of them all, The Big Lebowski. Like the Dude, Cabiria seems trapped in the middle of someone else's movie, constantly being teased by the possibility of acceptance, or at least pleasure, only to have her rug consistently peed on. Through it all, of course, Cabiria abides.

The final moments, in which we slowly realize that all the embarrassment that has come before was only the appetizer for the giant shit sandwich Cabiria is about to eat, are so heartbreaking, so cruel, that I almost hated Fellini, not just for what he was doing to me, but what he was doing to his character. The redemption of the final moment, in which Cabiria joins a marching band of children and manages a knowing smile at the camera, makes the previous injustice even more tragic. I was worried at first that Fellini had told the story in order to punish his prostitute for the sins she had committed. But upon further reflection, and after reading some of his thoughts on the film, I think he ended the film this way to show that even the most intense tragedy could not ruin Cabiria's unwavering optimism, the naive humanism behind her cynical and rough exterior. In fact, Fellini said later in life that Cabiria is the only character he ever created that he still worried about.

I often wonder why we need to tear down people in order to believe their convictions are true. The most obvious example of this, of course, is Job. Every athiest's favorite book of the Old Testament, Job tells a truly defeating story of God's complete disinterest in the happiness of man, as he is essentially willing to destroy several lives in order to simply prove he's not a chump to the Devil. Convictions are easy, people say, until they are tested, but does that mean we have to be tested in order to be proven good people? Why does my grandparents' generation get to be called "the greatest generation" simply because they had a war break out while they were fighting age? (There are more reasons I hate that label, but it's probably best I don't go off at this point.) Quite frankly, I would not have minded if Cabiria had had everything go right for her over the course of the movie, and simply maintained her optimism. I would have taken her at her word. But, of course, the fact that I wanted everything to go right for her (which would have made for quite the boring movie... which is I guess Pretty Woman) demonstrates how much I care about this character.

One character Cabiria really reminded me of was Mia Farrow's character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, one of Woody Allen's most powerful films (and his personal favorite). Like Cabiria, Farrow's character has a terrible life, though in her case it's living poor with an abusive husband she is unable to leave. Both characters also have seemingly romantic, initially dream-perfect relationships that turn out to be too good to be true - though obviously in Farrow's case it was never really "true" in the first place, since she is courted by a movie character. The most compelling parallel is in the final moments of both films, where Cabiria and Farrow's character both retreat to entertainment in despair after learning that the lovers who had led them along had deserted them, Cabiria to music in the street, Farrow to the movies she has always loved. I had previously taken the latter ending to be more about the transformative power of movies, but most likely it was referencing the earlier work, and by extension commenting on the unwavering optimism of a dreamer (not that Fellini himself didn't believe in art and wouldn't agree with the idea that cinema, or music, can be a savior). And by the way, Farrow's name in the film? Cecilia.

Cabiria's evolution and core nature as a character is so important because it is very much where Nights of Cabiria begins and where it ends. Even more so than La Strada, which after all was as much about the strong man as it was about Gelsomina, the film is a true portrait of one character, one with which Fellini clearly identifies. His wife, Giulietta Masina, fell into larger and larger roles in his films once he realized what a passionate and expressive face she had, and while she wouldn't be mistaken for one of cinema's true beauties, there are few people in history who have been loved more by the camera. Her face could tell an entire story, and essentially does just that in the final moments of the film.

But just as later films would be inspired by Fellini, earlier films no doubt inspired him. Like her performance in La Strada, Masina is channeling the great silent film stars with her performance, most notably Charlie Chaplin (one French critic, according to Fellini, even went so far as to call her the feminine Chaplin). She also has moments in the film of pure comedy, like when she runs into a glass door she didn't know was there. The moment should be so cliche or at the very least expected by now that it shouldn't merit a mention. But the way Masina plays it is so perfect and real in that exaggerated way that only great physical comedians can accomplish that I actually laughed out loud. When combined with her unfailing ability to fascinate in front of the camera, her performance here is every bit as spectacular as her very different portrayal of Gelsomina in La Strada.

Really, it's no wonder Fellini so quickly fell into his own mind after making a series of films about outsiders and loners. As an artist in love with entertainment, when success was achieved it was only that much easier to look at himself and see his fascination reflected back at him. Nights of Cabiria is one of those early films - one writer called it the "crown jewel in his pre-Felliniesque work" - but like I Vitelloni and La Strada, it might actually surpass in emotional and poetic impact those later masterpieces.

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