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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.