Friday, April 26, 2019

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Le notti di Cabiria, Italy / France, 117 minutes
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Photography: Aldo Tonti
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Leo Catozzo
Cast: Giulietta Masina, Francois Perier, Amedeo Nazzari, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Dominique Delouche

It's possible that Giulietta Masina's greatest turn was as the lifelong partner of director and cowriter Federico Fellini. Her face is wonderfully expressive and she has a natural rapport with the camera, a trait common to all the greatest stars. But as an actress her range is limited. In her best roles—here and in Fellini's La Strada—she plays characters so simple and unaffected it sent me to check status of the term "mentally retarded" (the preference now appears to be "intellectually disabled"). She's not that, but the prostitute Cabiria (Masina), in spite of believing herself in the know, is almost pathologically trusting, innocent, easily fooled, always wearing her heart on her sleeve. The role in other hands (and/or written differently, like maybe think Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) could call for a lot of skill to balance someone as apparently guileless with someone who nonetheless manages to survive—without a pimp, in fact, because the whole idea of one outrages Cabiria's sense of her own independence. It's admirable, but more naïve than anything. You might find yourself wondering how she gets away with it, but watch.

Fellini finds another way to tell the story of such extremities of the life. He torques up the movie magic glitter, even inside the neorealism frame he hadn't abandoned yet, with full support by Nino Rota's perfect score, and focuses on making a clown movie, which can also be seen as a variation on Chaplin's City Lights (with lots of elements from Modern Times as well, such as an evocative reverse shot at a key moment down the long roadway the Tramp and his girl walked, saying, "Buck up, never say die," etc.). Here's Wikipedia's groupthought: "The comedy that clowns perform is usually in the role of a fool whose everyday actions and tasks become extraordinary—and for whom the ridiculous, for a short while, becomes ordinary." Masina's face and manner are custom-built for it, with a dopy infectious grin and tilt of head and a love of physical motion for its own sake that is completely endearing. Like City Lights, like freaking Jerry Lewis once in a while, Nights of Cabiria is episodic, surprisingly gritty, playful and slapstick silly yet capturing indelible emotional moments, and in the end delivers up one of the great movie finishes. It's like a slice of three-layer chocolate cake it's so sweet and well done.

But as good as the ending is, I had actually forgotten how charming it all is. As a general rule it stays close to its "nights of" guideline, with many scenes ending at dawn as Cabiria trudges home from another adventure. They generally start in the same place, a rowdy prowling ground in some dark corner of Rome for other prostitutes, cross-dressers, and gays, and they proceed from there.

In one, she ends up as the date of a famous movie star, Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), who picks up Cabiria in the street after she's seen him fight with his glamorous girlfriend, growling and slapping her around. Unfazed by the scene, or really more dazzled by finding herself in the company of a famous movie star (and also wanting to stick it to a doorman she doesn't like), Cabiria hops aboard his swanky car and spends the evening as the most unlikely prostitute ever, behaving more like a kid brother you can't get rid of. They go to an exotic nightclub with arty African dancers. Cabiria defiantly but awkwardly acts out class differences. Eventually they wind up back at Lazzari's place, she gushes over her favorite role by him, which he tells her wasn't him, and they're eating a cold supper when his girlfriend comes back to make up. Cabiria has to hide for the night until the girlfriend is sound asleep and Cabiria can be sneaked out, near dawn.

Another night she ends up in a parade of hysterical Catholic pilgrims at a shrine beseeching the Virgin Mary for miracles. It's an intense scene, filmed at an actual shrine and event, actors and crew mingling with penitents. There must have been something in the air that year because a similar scene of rabid pilgrims on the march is seen in The Seventh Seal as well, and it's equally intense. (It's also interesting to see directors Fellini and Ingmar Bergman tackling similar subjects in ways so characteristic of each.) Typically enough for her, Cabiria is spitting mad when she realizes no miracles happened in spite of all the intense praying. Her feeling seems to be that it turned out to be just one more fraud perpetrated by The Man.

Eventually one night Cabiria wanders into a stage magician show that features hypnotism, and then finds herself a volunteer subject, mesmerized and humiliated. You really have to work the old suspension of disbelief for this part but it's a scene as entrancing, so to speak, as it is harrowing to witness. The result is that a man from the audience seeks her out after and woos her. He seems to be bumbling and mild-mannered but of course he's a rat, and here's where movie magic pays the debt it owes to neorealism in terms of harsh reality intruding. You didn't think Cabiria was going to get away with this forever, did you? Maybe you even wanted to see her come down a peg or two. And so she does, much like the Tramp in City Lights. It's a long bleak road ahead. Fortunately there's a light ahead and reason for hope—not restoration, not redemption, but reason to go on. Featuring one of the most artful mascara teardrops of all time. That's how I figured out it's a clown movie—and one of the best.

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