Gesticulating Wildly about Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria"
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Federico Fellini’s Wikipedia page describes his style as a blend of fantasy, baroque, and earthiness. This is almost a good gist and Cabiria includes, in order of most to least appearance, earthiness, fantasy, and baroque; however, I cannot describe his filmography without including some mention of the influence of the divine, the spiritual, and the philosophical. Fantastical, ornate, earthy things are the end products of an inspiration within the soul, planted from the wonderment of experience and raised from the ground by glimpses into the transcendent. I imagine Fellini’s artistry as having been shaped by the hands of Italian language, history, culture, landscape, and musical tradition. His artistic influences feel more cosmopolitan: one stumbles on Germanic and Russian literary tradition throughout Cabiria.
Again referencing Wikipedia, Nights of Cabiria is described as a prostitute’s search for true love. I don’t deny that the romantic love suggested by this kind of description is untrue; however, I see Cabiria’s quest as one searching for meaning and grace through the practice of humanism in individual relationships: romantic love is simply the most intimate and, therefore, strongest realization of this practice.
(The version of the film I have been privy to includes the charitable Man with the Sack sequence [which proves to be very important].)
Giulietta Masina was born in 1921, one year after her future husband, Federico Fellini. She died in 1994, five months after Fellini. One tips a hat to the possibility of predestination: that these two artists would love and create together and be born of the same culture is, indeed, stranger than fiction. That they were likely each other’s artistic and intellectual partners is something to ponder in earnest.
I think immediately of two things that distinguish Masina’s acting: the first is her command of the Italian language; the second is the visceral and, dare I say, earthy nature of her physicalization and vocalization. To call the Italian language musical is a boring cliche; however, Masina’s delivery freshly revives the hackneyed descriptor. Most scenes are marked by the raw, wave-like enunciation and delivery of her speech.
Masina had a background performing dialogue over the radio and I suspect this opportunity was granted to her on a casting director’s immediate recognition of her obliterating talent. I further suspect that said talent was developed and refined through the experience of performing dialogue in the auditory medium. One might suppose an acting technique with this foundation would lead to overacting and inauthenticity when put under the microscope of a moving picture, but this is not the case. We instead find an artist in special command of the musicality of her speech.
It’s a unique actor or actress that is marked by melodic delivery of language. Ian McKellen is, like Masina, separated by this trait. He mastered the rhythms of the English language and its speaking quality through his own vocalization, which allows for phrases of varying emotion and dramatic import to carry equal weight in memory. (“You shall not pass!”; “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”; and, “End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass... And then you see it….White shores... and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” These are a few of my favorites from his Gandalf.) His delivery is marked by definitive tempo: one can almost notate his pattern and changes in speed and dynamic. McKellen is able to use this tool to raise the quality of his performance and his artistic effect without cluing the audience in on his manipulation. And, even for those who do catch it by dint of observation, training, and/or experience, it is perhaps even more beautiful.
Likewise, Masina has the same power of intoxicating speech and it separates her even from her charismatic equal in the film, Amadeo Nazzarri. And when he isn’t on screen, she is utterly dominant and her superiority announces itself with her first brash, symphonic cries of, “Giorgio!” Masina’s voice is huge, low, and coarse so her most dramatic moments are marked with a Santuzza-like power while her softer, more tender moments are all the more magnified when her characterization and vocalization drop down from their fullness. The Italian language, with a stronger emphasis on elongated vowels and clipped consonants, lends itself to Masina’s inherent sensibility, which is to let emotion and feeling flow from her toes to her crown. It is a smooth transition, then, to let this energy slip into speech patterns which feel more connected to the body and derived from emotional primacy than all other languages.
In discussing Masina’s physicality, it’s worth noting that the setting and story of Cabiria serve to allow for the possibility of overacting (which I’m not accusing her of). The landscape is vast: we often find Cabiria in broad wasteland or majestic nature. In fact, she is most often seen outdoors. This gives much freedom and, perhaps, necessitates dramatic gesture.
To the degree that Masina planned out her gesturing, I do not know. What I see on camera, is an organic physical manifestation of exact and intense emotion. She has physical traits that allow for this kind of acting: her eyes are big; her smile is radiant; her athleticism promotes her ability to deliver the kinesthetic movement of her character with coordination and power. She is not of a particularly aristocratic appearance and this benefits her for the role of Cabiria: her nuclear energy rippling through her relatively small build and frame gives the impression of an unkillable spitfire, which matches the resilience of Cabiria’s psychological temperament in her Job-like journey.
In sum, Masina wears her emotions on her sleeve but manages to do this artfully. That is to say her embodiment of Cabiria is marked with understanding, sincerity, and mastery of craft. She is the vessel through which everything else in the film must pass if it is to emerge gilded, which it does through the magic of her skill and talent. She, more than Fellini, is the sorceress of enchantment that marks Nights of Cabiria.
The Character of Cabiria
Cabiria, the character, shares traits found in traditional hero mythology. Cabiria is in a position that would engender a certain kind of cynicism and/or nihilism in most of the population: orphaned, poor, prostitute, abused, taken advantage of in vulnerable states, left without a romantic partner. This is a recipe for a murdered morality. And, yet, in Cabiria we find a conscientious woman (consider how proud she is of her home and the effort she puts into its maintenance and comfort); a woman who gives her soul over to her closest friend, Wanda, and is ready to give it over to Donofrio; a woman who seeks moral and spiritual truth and redemption; and a view of the world and an approach to life that is open, earnest, hopeful, and unafraid to display joy.
This last trait is marked by her dancing scenes, which are also windows into her authenticity and spontaneity. The power of music to sway her into coordinated movements of emotional expression comes about as naturally as the opening of a morning glory in sunshine. I am not sure if Fellini meant for the following or not, but it struck me as particularly potent that the act of Cabiria dancing--not so much the dance as the beauty of emotion that inspires it--is the most sensual thing that happens in the movie (no small achievement for a film featuring sex workers and an actress named Dorian Gray).
Her first dancing sequence comes in the context of being surrounded by prostitutes dressed to elicit a lustful reaction; however, it is Cabiria’s joy and comfort within herself as she dances that emerges as the most desirable thing in the scene. Later, when Lazzari whisks her away, her dancing in the club is more captivating than the half-naked women seductively, exotically displaying themselves only minutes before.
Fellini isn’t making this happen; in fact, I am rather certain Cabiria’s dancing was meant only to show the joy bursting at her seams. It seems to me to have been a happy accident that this joy, in concert with Masina’s huge smile and energy, emerge as the magnet of our desire. Depending on the veracity of my statement, this says something about physical prowess as a branch on the tree of the ideal partner rather than the reverse. Or maybe I’ve misstated the dynamic; nevertheless, I find it interesting that a soul of the radiant quality Cabiria/Masina display is the thing which I find most alluring even in the face of younger women, more beautiful women, more revealing women. And I suspect that in the heart of most men this is also the case, which exacerbates the tragedy of Cabiria’s later betrayal.
I move back to the beginning of this section to uncover a few examples of the kind of character we are privy to experiencing in Nights of Cabiria. It is, indeed, the heroic. A hero, of our tradition, displays a deeper understanding for human behavior than a non-hero. Cabiria shows uncanny understanding in her accidental mix-up with film star Lazzari and his tempestuous relationship with Jessy (played by Dorian Gray, the most ridiculously wonderful stage name I've encountered). Cabiria happens to be at the right place at the right time in order to win a position as Lazzari’s balm following the wound of what appears to be another scorching argument and break-up between his significant other, Jessy, and himself.
Lazzari is, naturally, a little shaken up by the honest and enthusiastic Cabiria. Certainly, the definitive moment for her, also capturing his imagination, comes when he asks her to recall her favorite movie of his. She does this with an accompanying acting out of her favorite scene and it’s a genuine performance. Lazzari isn’t moved because she has exclaimed her love for his movies or that they’ve hit her in a way that she’s able to re-enact them (though surely this was nice for him); instead, it’s her pure and enthusiastic portrayal, which at the same time reveals the light within her. Equally charming is Cabiria’s grave concern that her colleagues won’t give her the benefit of the doubt should she report back to them her success with Lazzari. So good-natured is Cabiria, Lazzari doesn’t give a second thought about signing a card for her and even remembering to grab it when rushing her out of the mansion upon Jessy’s unexpected arrival and stay.
But the significance of the Lazzari sequence is Cabiria’s recognition that she is witness to true love and it is not her place to interfere with it, in spite of her own desires and the difficulty and temporary discomfort it requires of her. One can say that her life of discomfort moulded her to be able to handle a night sleeping in a bathroom; however, even if that were the case, it would not have prepared her to act selflessly and with enough emotional distance to be able to contemplate the significance of what was playing out before her, which was nothing less than the attempt at forging the deepest, truest, most meaningful relationship available to Lazzari and Jessy. It would have been easy and understandable to have thrown herself against the bathroom door, announced her presence, doomed Lazzari, had a bed to sleep on, and received payment for her services. She has an awareness outside herself, however, and I am making the claim for its heroism because this kind of consciousness serves the betterment of others at the cost of one’s own immediate desires and comforts.
The Divine, The Devil, and Cabiria
Nights of Cabiria is the Faustian tale with Margarita as the main focus. We see a version of this in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. We might also see it in Anna Karenina--this the most tragic, because of the devil’s victory (I mean this metaphorically and certainly there is much less emphasis, if any at all, on Tolstoy’s part in painting his story in the form of religious imagery where good and evil take shape in living form and interact with the people on whom their battle is waged). I believe Fellini uses the narrative tool of placing Cabiria’s soul between the forces of good and evil to reveal the nature of its core. If he is making a point, it’s that a person’s station in life does not place a limit on the capaciousness of their heart.
The movie explodes with a sinister bang: Giorgio throws Cabiria into a river and steals her money. Giorgio was Cabiria’s supposed lover and Cabiria believed the love was true. And so we can think of this first exchange as a summation of Cabiria’s life to this point: a series of run-ins with the sinister and the malevolent. The scene with Lazzari is the first on-screen glimpse into the potentiality of love in the expression of man and woman. Perhaps worth noting is that this love between Lazzari and Jessy is kept afloat by forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation. The subtle moralist in Fellini might be telling us that this is the nature of love, among other traits. And it might be the case that the aforementioned behavior of Cabiria bearing witness to this scene was loving in the sense that she maintained the capacity to understand. I like to think of the Lazzari scene as a comedic musical trio on the theme of love.
The first entrance of the divine comes quite unexpectedly. The scene following the Lazzari episode cuts to the prostitutes gathering point at night. A discussion on the topic of repenting at the feet of the Madonna takes place between Wanda and Cabiria. Wanda is hesitant to answer Cabiria’s question demanding specificity for what Wanda wishes to be forgiven. At this time, and quite mysteriously, a wandering church procession moves by the group, intoning in responsorial fashion. They are peaceful and spirit-like in their fixed path, fixed expression, and mezzoforte dynamic: constant as the eternal, perhaps. Cabiria moves towards them almost transfixed and at the moment we think she might follow their course, she is presented with a business opportunity (which she accepts).
The following scene finds Cabiria walking home through the outskirts of Rome after a night of work. The second entrance of the divine reveals itself to her in the form of human charity. The depiction of this charity marks it as very different from a 21st Century understanding. Cabiria stumbles upon the Man with the Sack, who is distributing goods and food to the homeless who live in dugout caves in these Roman outskirts. He is somewhat quiet; he is tender; he does not present himself in a grand way; he is clearly known among the homeless and they greet him with a warmth and gratitude that surpasses his own humble nature. Cabiria has an exchange with him, asking if he would be able to take her into town with his car. He agrees but makes it clear he needs to finish his business with the homeless first.
Cabiria recognizes a former prostitute, Bomba, in one of the caves. Bomba provides a glimpse into a possible future for Cabiria when her looks run out of magic and also provides a portrait of the uglier side of mankind when explaining the treatment she receives when not dressed up to advertise herself sexually. Bomba gives us information about the habits of the Man with the Sack: he comes by every 7-10 days with necessities and sometimes even throws in a trinket beyond the immediate needs of clothing and food. It’s clear the vagabonds are extremely thankful for him and, in fact, rely on him.
Cabiria is in a state of absorption during the scene and when the man drives her to the train station, she inquires about his charity. It’s clear that he feels a vague but thrusting sense of duty to perform his act of giving to the dispossessed. He reveals the genesis of his practice came about first through small acts and evolved into the larger project of providing weekly relief for what looked like 20-30 people. Cabiria encounters, then, unconditional, divine love acted out by human flesh: it gives because it must; it gives tenderly and graciously; it gives with as much distance from ego as can be managed; it gives not in the spirit of condescension. This is charity. This is the act of loving. This is realized potential for grace in the human spirit and in human behavior.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The next entrance of the divine, with no disguising, comes when the prostitutes and their friendly pimps journey to the Madonna at the Piazza for repentance. I’m not familiar enough with Italian Catholicism to know exactly what inspired the community event but the scene suggests that this church/holy day is specifically geared toward seeking maternal forgiveness and comfort from Mother Mary (a Marian Feast Day, perhaps).
Cabiria consults Wanda and is stunned and saddened that Wanda denies her earlier sense of contrition. Soon after, Cabiria gets a taste of that which may be blocking Wanda from the repentance she sought earlier.
Cabiria comes face-to-face with the cavern of self-reflection under the even larger capacity of spiritual forgiveness and redemption. She sees the journey into the abyss must occur and it requires total vulnerability: a giving up of one’s soul and emotional control for the possibility of redemptive healing through the transcendent experience of delivering oneself into such a state. Looking into that pit, Cabiria senses the stabbing sensation that accompanies a full embrace of the worst parts of herself and this is, indeed, the very thing which sent Wanda backpedaling. The terrible power of otherworldly forgiveness is demonstrated around her during this inner turmoil as fellow members of the congregation fall on their knees, screaming, crying, begging the Madonna for Her healing, Her forgiveness, Her guidance. Cabiria trembles at the possibility of her healing, at the degree to which her heart needs to open, at the sight of fellow man and woman having an ultimate experience in front of her, at the power of it all.
In the end, she jumps in and lets her spirit free fall to the depths. And from the bottom sends out the call, “Madonna, help me...to change my life. Bestow your grace on me too. Make me change my life.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
Whatever this was, spiritually and/or biologically, Cabiria is changed. In the following scene, two inner ideas go to battle against the exterior world. The first is her newly realized path, which does not have a definite mode of transportation but does lead to the changed life, the higher moral life, the life which enjoys and distributes more grace and love inspired from a soulful connection to the earth, the people, the unknowable powers beyond. The second idea, or massive problem, is her witnessing of fellow prostitutes and their pimp (and the pimp’s uncle) having gone through the motions of the same experience--and perhaps having lived through the same self-reflecting drama--and not at all absorbing it with the altering power that has affected Cabiria.
How, she wonders, could they go about life in the same way after having dared to beg the supreme power for healing, forgiveness, and redemption? For her, a soul willing to be honest with itself and to contemplate itself beyond present moments, the nonchalance of their behavior following the pilgrimage to the Madonna is at best confusing and empty and at worst purposefully capricious and pathological. Cabiria announces to her colleagues she is up and and leaving, selling the house, changing her life.
She’s even dissolute with God in this moment as she mocks a band of nuns processing 30-40 yards away. But the mocking ceases and she becomes contemplative when they, like the earlier responsorial processional, remain constant in their path, moved by something greater. Their constancy juxtaposed to the inconstancy of her peers looks very much like a sign-post.
* * * * * * * * * * *
But the devil never rests.
Cabiria wanders into a theater on a subsequent night and waltzes into the seedy arms of darkness. A hypnotist asks for volunteers and seduces Cabiria into participating in his act. In the first display, the hypnotist transfixes a group of men into the idea that they are aboard a row boat in the midst of a great storm. They demonstrate obedience and organic panic under imagined circumstances which propels the exotic form of entertainment. They are thoroughly entertaining, a little humiliated, and dismissed. They are the opening statement for the hypnotist’s grand reveling in the dissecting and pricking of the exposed soul.
Cabiria is brought on stage, and with a grin from the depths of hell, the hypnotist removes his top hat underneath which are horns of the beast.. They are not organically sprouted from his head, merely a costume piece; nevertheless, the true identity of his character is revealed in the moment. He is very tender to Cabiria as her profession and station is made clear to an audience that subsequently heckles her. When she is less on guard, having been exposed, he hypnotizes her into the imaginary circumstance of an innocent love scene.
The Woland-esque hypnotist describes the viridescent circumstance of two shy lovers strolling down a flowery path. Cabiria takes the arm of imaginary Oscar, who professes his romantic interest, having seen her behaving sweetly with her mother at church. He asks to dance and a band strikes up Lippenschweigen. Imaginary Oscar and Cabiria waltz. Cabiria tells the visage of her hypnotic delusion he ought to have known her when she was 18. Her hair was black and long. Satan responds, “You’ll always be 18 to me.” Cabiria’s heart flutters at the remark and she reveals an ardent, innocent sweetness and joy, “You really love me?” The audience is silent and the devil himself is overwhelmed at the full display of Cabiria’s soul: beautiful and at the same time unholy for its purity being paraded for the purposes of entertainment. The grand deluder ends the scene having revealed the innermost part of Cabiria to the world.
* * * * * * * * * * *
I interpret the rest of the film as forces of evil playing on the soul of Cabiria in a battle to kill the divine that inhabits her. Outside of the theater she meets a man named Oscar who behaves in the same tender and sentimental way the hypnotically inspired Oscar behaved. I felt this was a sign the devil wished to play out his trick in the real world, like a serial killer who takes pleasure in the subtle manipulation and conquering of his victim’s mind and spirit. This killer plays out his fantasy both for the flash of ecstasy such domination brings and for the defeat of his spiritual rival. Oscar-in-the-flesh woos Cabiria and a few scenes between them pass before he proposes marriage to her. So spiritually aware is Oscar Donofrio he does not demure at the knowledge of Cabiria’s history, “because what matters is that I know your inner self.”
Cabiria is ecstatic, the soul of the 18 year-old still alive and jubilant at the affirmation of her internal question, “Do you really love me?” despite her disqualifying profession. She sells her house and has a wrenching goodbye with Wanda, who, to her credit, is aware of the gold that emanates from Cabiria’s essence. Donofrio is different when we see him next: nervous, quiet, sweating. The two of them are at a cafe and Cabiria tells about the financial gains she’s made from selling all that she’s most proud of. Donofrio is hardly responsive but continues to insist they walk in the forest by the cliffs overlooking a bay.
During the walk, Cabiria expresses joy and wonder at the flowers (harkening back to the scene with the hypnotist) and comments on the strange light of the sun as it glows over the bay: Donofrio’s final act will be played out on the soul moved by earth’s bounty and in front of the force which produces the strange light. Cabiria prods Oscar and it is quickly revealed he had plans similar to Giorgio, if not much worse: to throw her from the cliffs and take her money. Before he can murder her she gives up her money and in despair hollers out for him to end her suffering: “Ammazzami! Butta mi giù! Non voglio più vivere!” She screams and feels the pain and desire for life’s end from her guts, from the same core which holds the 18 year-old girl with the long black hair standing softly by her mother at Mass. Oscar takes the money and runs away, leaving her groaning in despair, clawing and clutching at the earth in primal convulsions of emotional pain.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Before I briefly reflect on the final scene, which is as rich in imagery and emotion as the best collections at the Met, I would like to give a few possible ways to interpret and absorb all that led to this point.
I remain relatively sure Fellini directed a movie in the tradition of the Faustian tale. I am not smart enough to handle and take apart the Wilde quote about every piece of fiction being either a Jesus story or a Faustian story, but to the degree that is the case I find Faust written all over Nights of Cabiria. It is a theme and variation version of the story where Margarita receives the spotlight.
It seems there is a fundamental truth to the idea that when forces of good and evil play out on individual souls, we--throughout time--tend towards understanding the feminine experience as one more vulnerable to having her innocence, her essence plundered. It’s true that there are reversals of this: The Idiot places Prince Myschkin in the role of the innocent and maybe The Silence of the Lambs is an example of a piece where the woman assumes the role of Faust, the seeker of knowledge. On the whole, however, it is a naturally occurring tragic story for a man to seek and err and a woman to produce the best of herself only to be brought down by malevolence. Of course, this pretty frame I’ve drawn just so happens to fit Nights of Cabiria. To prove myself, I’ll list a few other examples that waft in the direction of my hypothesis: Rigoletto, A Farewell to Arms, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There are many more I am sure I can make an argument for and if necessary could flesh one out for the above examples (leave a comment if you’d like that for any of these). The point is, I believe there is something within us which sees masculine exploration in murky waters as valuable and also sees feminine vulnerability and dedication, the voluntary kind of the sort Marya displays in War and Peace, as equally valuable; therefore, the failure of these acts of bravery, or worse yet, wickedness taking advantage of these things produces an overwhelming effect. These kinds of stories come with the pain of one being excessively punished for doing an honorable thing, which might be the/a seed for tragedy (I believe Aristotle thought this to be the case in his evaluation of Greek drama).
With this frame in mind, I don’t think it’s a mistake to view Oscar Donofrio as a Faustian type. He is a seeker of truth, sincerity, and higher experience. When he meets Cabiria outside of the hypnotist show, he tells her the effect produced on his soul by her loving display: “We can all be cynical but when purity and innocence present themselves to us we drop the cynicism.” The light has touched him and Cabiria’s glowing heart compels him toward her and fills him with the desire to be its protective knight: “Some things cannot be touched by human vulgarity.” Both in the things he says and in the nobility of character he displays, we find a person of the same pure and innocent caliber that marks Cabiria. If pure and innocent aren’t satisfactory descriptors for their whole personalities, maybe it is acceptable to say that their vision and understanding of the things in life that provide meaning are very similar. I characterize that which they develop in themselves and that which they seek in others as openness, tenderness, earnestness, and a great capacity for the act and feeling of love.
I don’t want to rule out the possibility that the forces of evil who picked Cabiria out of the crowd to be used as a proxy battlefield in the war between good and evil did not also do the same with Donofrio. The difference between the two of them is, in the end, wickedness envelops Donofrio in black obscurity while grace protects the light in Cabiria. Donofrio is confronted with Cabiria’s past, difficult to swallow for even the best lover, and the temptation to do away with her grows stronger at the prospect of financial gain: why would he consciously lower himself to her subhuman level when he could dispense with her and raise himself through doing so? After all, he is capable of the best human displays of affection so why should he waste them on one who sold the most intimate parts of herself, thereby removing the full spectrum of her humanity? One imagines Oscar toiling with these questions, steadily pushed by the spirit on his left shoulder. It is the process of entertaining the thoughts for too long, allowing the thoughts to construct wicked arguments, and carrying out the accompanying acts which lowers her more than anything she might have done to lower herself.
* * * * * * * * * * *
In the final scene, Cabiria rises from the ground where she was left by Donofrio. It is night. She makes her way out of the forest and onto a road to who-knows-where. A band of youths stream out of the forest and onto the road: they are playing music, they are dancing, they are singing. There are happy couples in the group. The boys playing the music encircle Cabiria and sing to her and give her happy smiles while interacting with the rest of the group who form a kind of platoon with Cabiria in the center. One of the girls, about 18 years old with black hair down to her shoulders, gives Cabiria a smile and says, “Buona sera.” The music swells with warmth and size, delivering to us the sweet emotion of Cabiria having found herself protected and comforted by divine grace in her lowest moment, for these are surely angels who walk with her, play music for her, and protect her.
Earlier in the film a wandering monk named Brother Giovanni bumps into Cabiria in the outskirts of Rome: “Are you in God’s grace?” he asks her. She isn't so sure. Surrounded by these angels, however, Cabiria cries and smiles and humbly looks into the camera for a moment: she knows the answer to the question now and she walks on in an elevated state of humble reflection and appreciation. Even after having encountered the worst the world has to offer, she is still capable of receiving and giving the best.
Notes: Things I Did Not Cover
-the character of Wanda
-a deep dive into Fellini's artistry
-grand comedic displays
-more on the Brother Giovanni scene
-the Wanda-Cabiria relationship
-other great acting performances
Note: I'm aware I made the Margarita/Faust comparison twice and am risking redundancy in the hope of clarity. I'm being very free with the Karenina and Button examples, I know. Challenge me, if necessary! I'll respond in earnest.
Note: A new project with more artistic discussion https://zeitgeistweekly.wordpress.com/