Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - Nights of Cabiria (#18)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Favorites - Nights of Cabiria (#18)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Nights of Cabiria (1957/Italy/dir. Federico Fellini) appeared at #18 on my original list.

What it is • Cabiria (Giuletta Masina) is caught between two worlds, though it's clear where she ultimately belongs: she is a prostitute, living amongst the poor in a modest home. In an increasingly prosperous Rome this makes her an outcast, able to interact with wealth through her clients but unable to command it herself. She does own her little house, however, and is able to save up her money, aspiring toward marriage and middle-class comfort. Ironically, these aspirations will harm her more than any limitations: the film opens when a lover nearly drowns her to steal a purse and later a crowd at a magic show will laugh mockingly when, hypnotized, she guilelessly reveals her hopes and dreams. Throughout the movie, naive expectations will be raised only to be crushed by the disillusioning indifference or hostility of those - individuals, institutions, and social forces - more powerful or deceitful than she is. Just like its protagonist, Nights of Cabiria has an interesting place in Fellini's oeuvre, hovering between the lingering neorealism of his early works and the flamboyant flowering of his later, colorful dreamscapes. This in-between status is something Cabiria shares with La Strada, probably Fellini's most celebrated collaboration with his wife Masina, but Cabiria feels just a bit closer to his later works thanks to its setting. We are a dozen years out from the wartime rubble and the capital of Italy is already becoming a glamorous hotspot...for those who can afford the glamor.  Cabiria captures a fifties Rome which Fellini made internationally iconic in his next film, La Dolce Vita. There is an interesting relationship between these two movies: Cabiria, warm and earthy, suffering but full of heart; Dolce Vita, a bit more cerebral, living the "sweet life" but searching for a soul. Both follow a character's episodic ups and downs through Roman days and nights, but one film features a plucky, downtrodden female prostitute and the other stars an aloof, handsome male journalist. There's even a scene in which a suave man makes love to an old flame instead of the woman he picked up on the street - but in La Dolce Vita this scene is told from the john's point of view, whereas in Nights of Cabiria it is told from the streetwalker's. The endings also seem to reflect one another: Cabiria, heartbroken but still spiritually alive, tears and a smile together on her face as she is surrounded by a sea of humanity; Marcello, cheerfully lost as he cannot hear "the call of the angel" from across a shallow stream on a beach.

Why I like it •
I believe there are only nine films on this list that I saw for the first time in a movie theater, eight if you exclude a screening of Late Spring from a home video source (in an age of digital projection, I'm not sure that distinction matters). Of these, only two - Historias Extraordinarias and Lost in Translation - were seen in their first-run release (the former in a New Hampshire festival a year after its Argentinian debut, the latter at a mainstream multiplex in New York). The remaining six titles I saw in retro screenings decades after they had premiered - Out 1 in 2007, Day of Wrath in 2006, Stop Making Sense in 2004, Au Hasard Balthazar and (I think for the first time) The Adventures of Robin Hood in 2003, and yes, Nights of Cabiria in 1998. I was about fourteen when I caught the film with my mother at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. Aside from the Star Wars films (pre- and post-Special Editions), The Wizard of Oz and ubiquitous Disney re-releases, this must have been the first time I saw any classic film on the big screen, let alone one I had never seen before on video. Neither of us knew what to expect, but we were immediately absorbed by the distinctively Italian flavor (as much as the previous entry in this series, Cabiria may have initiated my fascination with that country's culture), the palpable black-and-white texture, and especially the alternately tearjerking and uproarious performance of Giuletta Masina. There was a transporting magic in the theater, a romanticism grounded in ordinary, resilient human experience. This was not only my first big-screen classic, it was my first Fellini. Well, is this recollection - a mix of number-crunching and nostalgia - any sort of valid response to "Why I like it"? As should be evident by now, every movie has made this count for both subjective and (quasi-)objective reasons, including those described in the "What it is" section. I am perpetually fascinated by the evolution of Fellini's work and particularly the relationship of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita. It's also interesting to consider that when I first saw Dolce Vita on a rented videotape (chopped up to fit a square screen, I'm sure), it left me cold. Later that night, I couldn't sleep; something drew me back to the TV, where I repeated the entire three hours. Only then was I able to tease out the poignancy peeking around the corners of the alienated surface. Nights of Cabiria, on the other hand, captivated me immediately when viewed in its full glory on the big screen. Many movies on this list are there partly because, as with Dolce Vita, I didn't get them on first viewing - because my journey into understanding deepened my appreciation for them. Cabiria is present for the opposite reason. The strength of that initiation has stayed with me ever since, evoked anew every time I re-watch the movie. Or maybe it's just that good on its own terms? Either way, Nights of Cabiria remains my favorite Fellini.

More from me • This may be the most neglected film in my top twenty - almost never featured on this site before. The biggest exception is a review of La Dolce Vita, which extends the contrast drawn here.

How you can see it • Nights of Cabiria is available for digital rental/purchase on YouTubeAmazon, and Google Play. The Criterion edition is out of print and used copies are surprisingly expensive, while Amazon's cheapest disc option is a made-to-order DVD-R. The film used to stream on Netflix, but is no longer even available for DVD rental (stuck in "Saved" limbo). Checking your local library - or ordering an inter-library loan from the nearest city - may actually be your best bet to locate a hard copy.

What do you think? • Is there a noticeable leap - and connection - between this and La Dolce Vita? When you watched the film for the first time, what were your hopes or expectations for Cabiria in the final passage? Do you prefer early, earthy Fellini or later, flamboyant Fellini?

• • •

Tomorrow: Star Wars (#17)

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