Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria)

Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini, recently re-released in a
restored version, stars the great
director’s wife, Giulietta Massina as
the Roman prostitute, Cabiria, whose fortunes and misfortunes in the mid-1950s,
must now seem to us to come from a world as long gone as Dante’s or Manzoni’s.
All is now changed, changed utterly, since the time only four decades ago when
the lines were drawn so ineradicably between respectable society, in which both
love and security were at least theoretically obtainable, and the demi-monde
inhabited by Cabiria where they were forever out of reach. We have gained much
since that time, but also lost much. And part of what we have lost is the
clarity and honesty of moral vision that comes from dealing with life and love
on the elemental level that Cabiria does.

For she lives in a world of basic appetites, where each must look out for
himself — and, even more, for herself. This is something as close to the
state of nature as described by Hobbes as we can see in our world and our
century. Fellini’s brilliant juxtapositon of it with that of Cabiria’s client,
the film star Alberto Lazzari and his girlfriend Jessie who are insulated by
wealth from honesty of feeling, help establish the fact. In the opening scene,
Cabiria frolics with her boyfriend, Giorgio, dancing by the waters edge and
swinging her purse over her head, an image of happiness and freedom. Giorgio
snatches the purse and pushes her into the water, where, not being able to swim,
she would soon drown but for being plucked from the water by some boys swimming

The urchins show a rough and ready sort of compassion. They will save her so
long as the price is not too high, and this casual kindness is one of the things
that saves the film from mere cynicism, though it depicts human nature at its
worst. Because the point is not, oddly enough, the perfidy of Giorgio and,
later, the egregious Oscar, but rather the insane, the irrepressible optimism of
Cabiria. Treachery and greed and betrayal are simply givens of her world, not a
cause for self-pitying
Hardy style. That is simply how things are. But somehow she goes on hoping and
believing, and what we remember of the film is its images of hope and
belief — of the religious processions, or of the man with the bag of food
that he distributes to the homeless living in caves outside the city (a
sequence, by the way, restored to the film after having been cut from its
original release). Or the most famous of its scenes, the final one of Cabiria
smiling through her tears, the very image of the Will to Believe.

It is, for all Fellini’s anti-clericalism of the period, a very Catholic
theme. Goodness and happiness here are not to be found in romantic but in
unselfish love, though Cabiria’s confusion of the two is fundamental to her
nature — and perhaps to that of most people. The heartbreaking scene in
which a stage hypnotist reveals to a predator Cabiria’s deepest
secret — that beneath her tough exterior she still treasures the girlish
hope of one day being able to say to a suitor, “So it’s really true? You really love
me?” — presents us with a vulnerability that is instantly recognizable as in some degree our own. And its exploitation by the loathsome Oscar inspires us with pity and terror.

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