Oh why oh why oh why did I postpone my viewing of this for so long? Well, probably to save me from the emotional TORTURE that it put me through in that final scene. But still, this was powerful filmmaking that caught me off-guard, despite the fact that I expected something tragic.
The film seems to paint a bleak portrait of life for its title character: Cabiria is victimised by almost everyone around her. Nights is particularly critical of men – every single case of exploitation, abuse or neglect is a result of a selfish or greedy subscriber to the patriarchy. The most sympathetic character aside from Cabiria, is that of Wanda (played with some sort of brash tenderness thanks to Franca Marzi) and indeed, Wanda and her fellow prostitutes provide us with ironically positive role models. In the cold landscapes that Fellini favours (be they ravaged fields or decadent mansions), the prostitutes gift the viewer and Cabiria with the film’s only real sense of community. It’s telling however, that this community is a precarious one, barely held together through its conflicts. And even here, Cabiria is very much an “outsider amongst outsiders.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly considering this is Fellini we’re dealing with, there’s also a harsh critique of religion. It’s revealed as offering little beyond false promises. The scene featuring the pilgrim’s exemplifies this: Cabiria begs for redemption, but her wishes remain unfulfilled. In the meantime, her fellow pilgrims’ demands highlight the negative effects of religious belief, as they end up deliriously causing havoc when their own expectations aren’t met. And, of course, there’s the notorious “man with a sack” scene where the Church’s failings are reinforced upon the viewer.
Cabiria’s life plays out like a series of struggles against the onslaught of despair. Nights opens by duping the viewer with a scene of idyllic romance… that swiftly veers into potentially tragic territory. Yet even after a near-death experience, Cabiria instantly picks herself up and stubbornly marches on, initially refusing to believe in the failings of the man whom she loved. The aforementioned “man in the sack” scene is especially notable with this in mind, for aside from offending the Catholic church, it also acts as the fundamental point where Cabiria’s faith in men (not to mention a capacity for human decency) is reaffirmed – thereby setting her up for the film’s excruciating finale. Although endearing and perhaps even admirable, Cabiria’s hope and naivety is nonetheless shown to be detrimental to her prospects in the world that she lives in… and perhaps that’s the saddest of all the conclusions that Fellini makes?
The way I’ve been going on thus far, one could easily get the impression that Cabiria is an entirely sympathetic character designed to emotionally manipulate the audience (and I’m not sure that she isn’t.) Additionally, she seems to be written as some sort of hooker-with-a-heart cliché that’s fairly offputting. The fact that the character succeeds (and on SUCH a level) is almost entirely attributable to Giulietta Masina’s hyperbole-isn’t-enough performance. Having recently viewed (and been impressed by) her Gelsomina in La Strada, I was curious to see if Masina would have the ability and range to divorce any memories of that former character with this portrayal. Needless to say, she dispels it and delivers an even more heartbreaking creation in its place. Fellini offsets some potential mawkishness by writing Cabiria as a loud-mouthed and temperamental showoff at face value… and Masina rises to the bait and then some. She’s vulgar, crass and very very stubborn – and yet even in these scenes there’s something lurking beneath the surface, an inherent kind-naturedness and innocence that Masina gradually nurtures until it climaxes in that mesmerising “magician scene” at the theatre (on a side note: does anyone else see a major influence on Mulholland Dr.’s most emotionally revealing scene here?) And of course, the film’s conclusion is a triumph for Masina as well, almost reaching the giddy heights set by the City Lights ending that influenced it. Her expressive features embody all the oppositions posed by the film, radiating both the experience and hope that define Cabiria.
For his part in dealing with such a potentially schmaltzy creation, Fellini tends to avoid sentimentalising Cabiria. Aside from directing Masina to a rough-edged tour-de-force and ensures that the character has plenty of opportunity to display her aggression, he also opts for fairly rough, gritty locales and the stylistic flourishes that would be on display in later films aren’t as evident here. Dare I mention neorealism? The film’s style is certainly not too far removed from 1940s De Sica/Rossellini. In addition, Fellini undercuts many of the film’s sweetest moments with an uncomfortable dose of dry cynicism, that’s perhaps a mark of a pessimistic world-view? Note the aforementioned magician scene, the high-point of Cabiria’s attractive vulnerability, which the director juxtaposes with reaction shots of a mocking crowd. Same goes for the scene where Cabiria joyfully throws herself into a mambo – initially it’s difficult not to share in her delight, but the constant cuts to unimpressed onlookers undermines that.
Nights of Cabiria is melodramatic in its content, no doubt about it, and it could even be accused of childlike sentimentality. But in spite of those criticisms, it’s still a surprisingly unpleasant character study and examination of society. And Fellini’s style is so appropriate and his observations so sharp that emotional manipulation becomes somewhat irrelevant in the grand scheme of this film. Moreover, when the vehicle of the viewers emotional involvement is Giulietta Masina providing a performance that’s a work of beauty in itself… well, it’s easy to forgive, right?