Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Nights of Cabiria

Charity and Duality

The Nights of Cabiria [Le notti di Cabiria, 1957]: a continuation and extension of all the Fellini films that precede it — or an artistic dead-end? In the first half of the film I was surprised during two recent revisitations to find myself leaning toward the latter for the first time, knowing full well that this rut, if rut it be, gets overcome in the next film, but as the second half plays Fellini at once doubles down and excavates new episodes that lift the film into an apotheosis of his first era. (As such, the subterranean caves of the homeless stragglers become a perfect metaphor for this strategy.) Like La strada and Il bidone, The Nights of Cabiria employs a circular structure that links beginning to end — but unlike the previous films, Nights also links all the films from Variety Lights through itself in a ring-shaped cycle of return — a parade, or (significant term) pageant, if you will, later materialized in the final moments of 1963's 8-1/2.

Pier Paolo Pasolini tweaked the dialogue to perfect a certain demi-monde dialect, so it's not surprising we find the empty lots of The Nights of Cabiria echoing throughout the landscapes of his early-'60s debuts Accattone and Mamma Roma. The ravaged sun-baked setting and shack-home of Cabiria Ceccarelli (Giulietta Masina) themselves call to mind the shores of La strada's open and close (where Masina as Gelsomina resides). Cabiria too is taken advantage of at beginning and ending: her purse stolen by Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi) with our lady kicked to the water and left to drown, her wad of cash snatched by "Oscar" (François Périer) before being knocked down a gulch. Cue Broderick Crawford at the end of Il bidone. A parade of children will 'resurrect' Cabiria, as troubadorean pageant — not dissimilar to those parades of I vitelloni or that of the charity cult earlier in Nights. Although whereas in former works (and earlier in Nights) these take the form of religious processions, the finale of this film flips the script into pagan territory. The Church after all is portrayed here as a hypocritical institution, interested seemingly only in empty promises in exchange for money, another manifestation of kitsch akin to that found in the Piccadilly club (so memorably portrayed later in Fellini's œuvre in Roma), in contrast to the authentic Christian charity exhibited by the wandering philanthropist and Cabiria's inherent spirituality and devotion. (Her Christian name, we learn, is Maria, in contradistinction to the "variety lights" proclamation of same inside the church that hosts the healing event.) The variety show, the nightclub, the splendid house on the hill, the adoration of celebrity (which finds its precursors in the photo-roman's principal in The White Sheik and the star-of-stage in I vitelloni), the sleight-of-hand charlatanism. The prayer of contrition is posted in the confessional... "Make me change my life!" exclaims Cabiria, in bona fide desperation. Later she laments, "We haven't changed! Nobody's changed!"

The last half-hour, the courtship by "Oscar D'Onofrio" (the stage magician hypnotizes Cabiria into a vision of meeting a soulmate by the name of Oscar; the so-called accountant — counter of money — happens to have been in the audience, hence his expression of admiration to Cabiria after the show) in fact strikes me as a throw or reset to a whole new featurette that begins and ends 'like a Fellini film.' Herein is the radical twist of Fellini's project — at once a self-reflexive gesture, and then also a breakthrough in film narrative form. Dualities: prostitute and saint, makeup and reality (see the sudden and miraculous appearance of Cabiria's clown tear in the final shot), cruelty and charity. Besides Cabiria, the most complexly sympathetic character in addition to the philanthropist (who rejects the hand of one of his 'parishioners') is the movie star Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), whom she nevertheless mistakes for an other co-star in a film led by Vittorio Gassmann — or, to Cabiria, "Vittorio Sgamann." When he locks her in the bathroom her inclination is to gaze through the keylock outward, the light from the other room burning upon her left-eye. This is at once a reappropriation of the gaze that so often brands her, as when she's in the Piccadilly with the 'exotic' Black dancers, themselves objects of curiosity, and an articulation of Cinema in which she and all of us are willingly complicit.

The Nights of Cabiria marks the end, and decidedly not a dead-end, of something, in both the Italian cinema of the 1950s and in the work of Federico Fellini. From here forward, a new adventure awaits.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021


A Different Kind of Hangout

Au Chardon Bleu, or The Blue Thistle, acts as the center of Varda's 1976 film portrait of the street where she and Ciné-Tamaris resided, Paris's rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement, it's namesake the early 19th-century inventor of the copper-plate positive photographic process. The proprietors, "M. and Mme. Chardon Bleu," peddle bric-à-brac ranging from spare buttons to bespoke perfumes to hair-dye from the storefront that seems like an antique closet — the stuffed sarcophagus of the missus, who seems perpetually distracted if not in fact worryingly distraught. There's not enough room for her life. She only steps out onto the sidewalk come evenings. Nurith Aviv's camera is positioned in a tight corner, alternating 'wide' shots with close-ups, capturing the shopowners and their clientele, sometimes cadging reverse-shots either pre-planned or quickly set-up to match in a cut. 

Daguerréotypes presents the routine (in the two senses of the word; read about Mystag below) of commerce on the bustling street, an ever-shifting zone of pedestrians that stretches some seven eccentric blocks: a hairdresser's split in two, one side hosting the coiffeurs pour hommes, the other the coiffeuses pour dames; countless storefronts where items aren't only purchased or replaced but quite often repaired (brandish your coins, things aren't quite so disposable in 1976); interactions that catch the participants up on local matters, colored not infrequently by a closing note of incredulity ("How's M. Otto?" "Oh, he had an electrocardiogram..." "Mm, it's this weather...").

The quotidiana of Au Chardon Bleu mixes with the "super-magical" in the way of Mystag the Magician's routine, entertaining the locals and allowing Varda the chance to follow some of the entertainer's volunteers' daily lives on the rue Daguerre. He's so practiced that even in close-up the camera can't spoil the tricks. But the greatest maneuver of all is affection — someone says, or maybe I dreamt it: 'The idea that attraction can just happen naturally! Of course you fall into intimacy...'

(Note that the final four frames here originate from the short films, or "boni" in Agnèspeak, that the director made for a French DVD release in 2005, prior to their inclusion in Criterion's The Complete Films of Agnès Varda. They are Rue Daguerre, Pain peinture et accordéon [Bread Painting and Accordion], Daguerreotypes, objets photographiques [Daguerreotypes: Photographic Objects], and Fête de la Musique.)


Other writing on Agnès Varda at Cinemasparagus:

La Pointe-Courte [1955]

Ô saisons ô châteaux [O Seasons, O Châteaux, 1957]

L'Opéra-Mouffe, carnet de notes filmées rue Mouffetard par une femme enceinte en 1958 [The Opéra-Mouffe: Diary Filmed on the rue Mouffetard in Paris by a Pregnant Woman in 1958, 1958]

Du côté de la Côte [Around the Côte, 1958]

Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald, ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires) [The Fiancés of the Pont Mac Donald, or: (Beware of Dark Glasses), 1961]

Cléo de 5 à 7 [Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962]

Le bonheur [Happiness, 1964]

Elsa la Rose [Elsa the Rose, 1966]

Les créatures [The Creatures, 1966]

Uncle Yanco [1967]

Black Panthers [1968]

Lions Love... and Lies / Lions Love [1969]

Réponse de femmes à une question produite par Antenne 2 pour le magazine 'F. comme Femme' [Women's Response to a Question Put Forth by Antenne 2 for the Magazine-Show 'F. comme Femme', 1975]

Daguerréotypes [1976]