Reflecting humanity through the struggle of a woman: Federico Felliniby Sharad Raj April 19 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins, 17 secs
Much before he made 8 ½, Federico Fellini, the Italian master, had honed his neo-realist pursuits, writes Sharad Raj.
Nights of Cabiria (1957), is Fellini’s elegant turn towards the metaphysical. A slight bend in the curve, it is a sublime masterpiece suspended between matter and spirit. The great French film critic, Andre Bazin calls it the, “voyage to the end of neo -realism’.
The film won the maestro his second, of the four Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and the leading lady of the film received the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Fellini presents an emotionally enriching tale of a streetwalker in Rome. Cabiria, despite her profession and squalid existence, lives in hope and longs for love.
Like any artist, for Fellini also, love is the panacea for her travails. But for a great artist transcendence does not lie in acquiring what is not there but in accepting life’s reality, albeit with a smile. Isn’t it socially preposterous to believe that a sex worker will have the luxury of love and hearth? Cabiria is tragically wedded to her fate and there in lies her deliverance.
She goes through a series of disappointing episodes in the course of the film. Her lover, Giorgio, who runs away with all her money, pushes a happy Cabiria into the river. Alberto Lazzari, a movie star picks up Cabiria after a fight with his girlfriend. Cabiria is astounded by the opulence of the star’s mansion. Just when the initial awkwardness begins to thaw, Alberto’s girlfriend arrives and Cabiria is shuffled into the bathroom.
She then visits the Madonna with her friends to confess her sins in exchange for forgiveness. But nothing happens. Cabiria blames her fate when the miracle is not granted. Her disappointment takes her to a magic show in a theatre. The magician hypnotizes her and conjures up an imaginary lover, Oscar.
Outside the theatre she meets a man who calls himself Oscar. The man tells her that he watched the show, and that he does not think it a coincidence that their paths crossed. As they begin to date, Cabiria is puzzled that Oscar does not want anything in return. She is ecstatic with excitement.
Oscar promises to marry Cabiria. She sells her house and takes her cash from the sale and her bank holdings to Oscar so they can pool their money together in their new life in marriage. Cabiria is then led to a cliff, where Oscar wants to show her the sunset. There she realizes that Oscar wants to kill her. He tells her that he doesn’t want to hurt her, but does take her money and runs away.
In the last scene of the film Cabiria is seen walking alone on a road crying. She joins in a group of young people singing and playing instruments. Cabiria smiles and gives a pronounced nod at the camera, as if to assure the viewer that everything will be all right. She has not given up hope.
Fellini abandons causality and delineates the narrative of Cabiria’s hope and disappointment through several episodes from her life. He manages to connect these events using emotional motifs of cynicism, hope, joy, disappointment and anger. Fellini attends to the inner world of Cabiria’s pain and turmoil as opposed to focusing on the social structures responsible for her oppressive existence.
However, the social aspect of Neo-realism comes into play, as it is Cabiria’s low social status that ensures her repeated disappointment. The men in her life cast her aside in search of their own fulfillment. Therefore, Nights of Cabiria does examine social structures, but with an emphasis on their psychological effects. In doing so it uses Cabiria as an example of women’s yearning for commitment in a society where men are rarely content with their relationships. Nevertheless, the film neither proposes change, nor imposes a moral. It attempts to reflect the mental condition of humanity through the struggles of women.
Episodic structure apart, it is in the brilliant last scene of the film, which the voyager Fellini uses to cross over from the sensory to the supra sensory. To begin with Giulietta Masina’s Chaplinesque act is a case of transcendent characterization. The comic alienation that her character provides, hints at a movement from the unconscious to the conscious realization of her narrative trajectory. When Cabiria looks out of the film her gaze seems to perform reawakening of hope and recognition of events as they happened. The self-reflective look into the camera, at us, seems to say that the show must go on.
Finally, the co-existence of spirit and matter in the film is evinced by an exclamation from one of the youngsters, “we are going to lose our way home.” The statement is both a wish and warning for Cabiria. It reminds us of Cabiria’s material vulnerability, as she has no home to go to and her spiritual desire to find a place for belonging.