Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Pier Paolo Pasolini
Directed by Federico Fellini
Failure is not the end. This is a lesson that it’s tough for people to learn and understand. We’re conditioned to see failures & mistakes as signifiers of personal faults in people. The homeless are viewed with such rancor by the general American populace. Their financial ruin is seen as a quasi-divine punishment, while successful people are blessed by a benevolent god. Fellini’s early failure was the soil from which one of his best movies grew. The White Sheik, his first solo-directing venture, was not a tremendous success, received middling reviews, a few signs of the genius to come. Fellini extracted a supporting character from that film, Cabiria, a prostitute played by his wife, Giulietta Masina.
Cabiria (Masina) is a prostitute out with her lover Giorgio by the banks of a river. They begin playing chase, and he pushes her into the river, letting the current sweep her away while he steals her purse. She’s saved but in denial about Giorgio’s true nature is revealed. Later, Cabiria is outside of a nightclub looking for johns when movie star Alberto Lazzari comes out during an argument with his girlfriend. Lazzari sees Cabiria and sweeps her away to another nightclub where they dance, and he eventually brings her home. It looks like he’s going to take her to bed, but when his girlfriend shows up, he makes Cabiria hide all night in the bathroom. Cabiria’s life continues in this pattern until she meets Oscar, a man who seems genuinely devoted to her. Will this begin a change in her life?
The cruelty of humans, especially men, is a consistent theme in Fellini’s work. In La Strada, Zampano and Il Motto represented two distinct forms of cruelty. The former was brutish, a thug who took what he wanted, while the latter was snake-like, a charming but ultimately cruel figure towards the protagonist. This is the type of man Nights of Cabiria is concerned with, the sly fox. There’s a strange groupthink at work as well, as Cabiria aspires to change her life, but those around her mock the woman for making these attempts, framing the betrayals done to Cabiria as foolishness in her than a condemnation of the brutal system they exist within.
In America, there has been an ongoing discourse that’s reached some perilous peaks about personal responsibility. Even the office of the President isn’t immune to washing their hands of systemic problems by saying the individual is responsible for themselves. We can easily see this in how COVID-19 has been allowed to run rampant, price gouging in all sectors occurs, and cities have rapidly growing homeless populations. People are blamed for reaching too high, despite being born into a society that conditions them to want more, to desire to consume. Squabbles erupt between the masses, infantilized by the system, fighting like middle school children driven by hormones and incoherent ideology. You see all of this play out in Cabiria’s life, illuminating that time is a flat circle, going round and round with only the intensity of the cruelty amplifying with each rotation.
Fellini refuses to condemn Cabiria for being a romantic at heart. Even though cruelties are visited her, that willingness to risk her heart time and time again is a powerful decision, not a weakness. He also doesn’t let his protagonist off that easily. She is in denial, unwilling to believe Giorgio pushed her into the river, claiming she accidentally fell in, while her fellow prostitutes try to convince her he is an evil man. Cabiria goes through a cycle of denial that is probably familiar to many. She expresses outrage that he hurt her this way (“I gave him everything.”) and vows not to be taken in again when she finally admits he was terrible. But as the story continues, Cabiria lives in cycles of this behavior, fueled by sweet-talking men who can feign passionate love.
A recurring theme in Fellini’s work is that of brief happiness, the wheel of fortune. There are moments in everyone’s life of transcendent, sublime joy and instances of abject misery. He ponders how people hold onto the feelings of that joy to help them weather the suffering. The director doesn’t posit that he has the solution, but he’s interested in seeing it exuded through Cabiria. It could be read that Cabiria, being drawn towards symbols of the Catholic Church, is Fellini trying to send a message about religion being the solution to problems. He was a fairly devout Catholic, more from upbringing rather than conviction, in my opinion, but Cabiria does not find peace in the Church in the end.
Cabiria gets caught up in a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint Mary around the picture’s midpoint. There is some very heartwarming comedy in this sequence. Cabiria and her friends, having grown up in poverty, have never been inside a lovely church like this one and are incredibly impressed. However, they also aren’t sure how to operate inside this building, feeling awkward and out of place. Cabiria has a second spiritual experience when she stumbles into a magic performance at a theater. She’s called up on stage as part of a hypnotism act and put under his spell, told to express her heart’s greatest desire. This manifests in an imaginary lover who dances with her. The magician and the crowd expected to laugh at this woman making a fool of herself, and instead, her sleepy performance is met with stunned silence.
Cabiria is a person who, because of her profession and place in society, is easily viewed as immoral, rotten, unworthy, all the pejoratives we’ve heard before. Fellini knows these are lies, that she is an innocent, true believer in the power of love, no matter how brutally the world treats her. The final image of the film is just a perfect summation of these themes; Cabiria is surrounded by young people prancing about, playing their instruments, lost in the fervor of celebration. They are like a circle of fairies surrounding her in a protective air of love. Cabiria turns to the camera and lets a tear trail down her cheek. She makes eye contact with the audience, a little smile on her face, reminding us that despite what we have seen her endure, she will keep believing in love. Cabiria knows she is a dignified person, deserving of all the beauty in the world. The problem is with us, the world, and the systems stuck in believing cruelty is inevitable, not anathema.