Saturday, December 19, 2009

Nights of Cabiria

Director: Federico Fellini
Italy - 1957 - Italian with English Subtitles

Written and directed by Federico Fellini, Nights of Cabiria stars Giulietta Masina as Maria "Cabiria" Ceccarelli, a waifish, aging streetwalker in Rome who makes up for her small stature by wielding a quick temper and sharp tongue. Her tough demeanor belies a vulnerability and strong desire to find someone to love her that will take her away from her current life. Though she proudly tells everyone that she owns her house and has money in the bank, she just wants to go back to a time when her life was simpler, and innocent. Unfortunately, we see Cabiria only experience heartbreak, as evidenced by the first scene of the film when her boyfriend of a month takes to a river, then promptly punches her in the gut, takes her purse and shoves her in the water to drown. Throughout the rest of the time we spend with Cabiria, she meets a couple of men, including a famous movie star and a man who works as an independent missionary. Throughout her experiences, Cabiria is somehow able to eventually recover from the failures in her life and moves on, though it becomes harder as time goes on.

While watching Nights of Cabiria, I went through a wide variance of emotion. When we are introduced to her, it is clear that she is a tiny spitfire, who is quick to give someone a severe verbal pummeling, whether it is deserved or not. It actually took me a little while to get used to the constant yelling that everyone seemed to be doing to one another, but similar to a film like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where 3/4 of the film is spent with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton yelling at each other, one just has to realize that it is essential to the character development in the film. However, Masina is able to flip the switch from tough to vulnerable with a simple repositioning of her eyebrows, or a flash in her eyes; suddenly her entire body language changes. She is Cabiria.

By the time Fellini and Masina filmed Nights of Cabiria, they had been married for 14 years, and had collaborated for several films, including La Strada, but despite the grittiness of the subject matter in Cabiria, Fellini is able to inject beautiful imagery, which makes the experience seem dreamlike. In one particular scene, Cabiria, disillusioned and frustrated after visiting a shrine to Mary, mother of Jesus and not witnessing the miraculous turnaround in her life that she expected, comes across a vaudeville show featuring a hypnotist. After cajoling and pressuring her to volunteer, the hypnotist puts her under and starts asking her questions about her true love and what she wants in the future, but after Cabiria begins to bare her soul, the hypnotist realizes how awkward it is for her, and the mesmerized audience and puts it to an end. Between Masina's performance of this scene, and Fellini's exquisite lighting setting the mood, I found myself not only breathless, but practically weeping. I don't think I have felt so much during a film since the first time I saw the film Bicycle Thieves directed by Vittorio De Sica, another Italian classic. Though the imagery throughout Nights of Cabiria is noteworthy, whether in its starkness or lushness, the acting, directing and cinematography are backed up by a truly good story, as difficult as it may be to witness.

Nights of Cabiria won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1958 and a slew of other awards for both Fellini and Masina. After I started to catch on that this film was not going to be an entirely pleasant one to endure and the dread and cynicism I felt (not unlike those that Cabiria struggled with daily; I'm sure this was not unintentional...) became a constant underlying feeling, I found that I could not look away, even for a moment. Even more compelling was an almost desperate need (after drying my tears and getting over the feeling I had been repeatedly punched in the gut) to discuss this film with someone - anyone who was around. But alas, I had watched the film by myself, my boyfriend was out seeing the newest blockbuster movie opening and I didn't know anyone who had seen the film I could call, so, like Cabiria did so many times in the film, I internalized it and moved on. Dramatic comparison? Absolutely. But the effectiveness and universality of this film is such that it can easily be injected into every day life - and, part of me doesn't want to forget the impact this movie had on me.

5 out of 5 stars

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