Nights of Cabiria

July 5, 2011

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers. The YouTube clip shows the very end of the movie, and what I write underneath also gives away everything. Needless to say, I recommend this movie unreservedly (it is my favorite movie along with only 3 others that I can call my ‘favorite’). So watch it, then come back and read this entry.

What is it about the celebrations at the end of Fellini’s movies that are so moving? Is it, partially—precisely—that they are so unwarranted? Only after everything is lost does Fellini think the party should start.

I’ve been haunted by that image of Cabiria’s teary eyes looking into the camera right before the movie ends. It resonates so deeply. And much like the rest of the film, it touches the viewer without words, because her actions, body language, and facial expressions say more than any line of dialogue ever can.

At one point she is in a ritzy district of town and walks down a lane. Coming opposite are two tall, obviously wealthy, cultured ladies, their backs to the camera. Cabiria’s short frame is dwarfed by comparison, and on her face, an expression of ‘I’m just as good as you, I can play with the best of them’. But right after she passes them, the facade drops, and you can see on her face all her insecurities and doubts. What a great scene.

This reminds me. Somewhere I heard an interview with an actor who said his best lesson in acting came when he realized that to play a drunk person is not about falling all over the place, but instead it’s about trying your best not to fall all over the place. To show the effort in not falling… because a drunk person is all the time trying to convince people he isn’t drunk.

Likewise, how easy it is to create a character who is naive. But how much more believable it is when that character is trying her best not to be naive, to project a facade of world-weary toughness as Cabiria does. This detail is what makes her character work, what makes you believe that she can actually exist, despite her cartoony proportions.

The attention to detail here is stunning, to the subtleties of every character in the movie, and not just the main ones. In one scene, Oscar the swindler spits out a toothpick before meeting with Cabiria. In another, towards the end, he is wearing sunglasses, a sure sign that he’s ashamed of what he’s about to do.

A scene that was cut: Cabiria finds herself on the outskirts of town, among the poverty of the homeless. But Criterion included it in their version, which was a wise decision. It should never have been cut, because it lends so much more power to the movie as a whole. Here we can imagine Cabiria’s likely fate after the movie ends, after she sold her house and had been cheated out of all her money. Knowing this makes the scene so much more powerful on repeat viewings.

As are many of the foreshadowings of the movie. The push into the river at the beginning is a parallel to the movie’s final betrayal.

Likewise, will the viewer be betrayed? This is what I wonder when Guilietta Masina looks into the camera. For it is Guilietta Masina looking into the camera, and not Cabiria. Or, rather, the possibility that it is both the character and the actor in that one moment, joining the viewer in empathy, is poignant.

She has no right to be smiling here, but she does. Cabiria looks at the audience as if to say ‘It’s okay. Everything will be fine’. The gall of her to be comforting us! Meanwhile Masina is saying ‘It’s okay, it’s just a movie’. But will it be okay? Will Cabiria be okay after the end of this movie? Likewise, will we the viewers be okay out in the world once the fantasy of the movie has ended?

Some say this is a hopeful ending, but I am not so sure anymore. You can see it as naive hope in the face of the cynicism of the world.

Or maybe the ending is a dare. Maybe Fellini is daring the viewer to do exactly that: to interpret the ending as hopeful. Because to feel hopeful after what we’ve been shown is to put yourself in Cabiria’s shoes: naive and willing to imagine a better future despite all evidence to the contrary. Will we dare to take on Cabiria’s fate?

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