Bittersweet Charity

In one of the most famous sequences in the history of the cinema, Federico Fellini ends his 1957 masterpiece Nights of Cabiria with a benumbed Giulietta Masina walking along a street as a bunch of carefree teenagers serenade her. The boys and girls swirl around the lonely, grief-stricken woman, passing in and out of the frame, singing, riding a motorcycle around her, until, finally, Masina smiles, even grazing the camera with a glance, as if to signal to us her permission to enjoy the moment. One can analyze this movie, which has just been rereleased in a restored, uncut version, in terms of its technique and its cinematic language – patterns of light and dark, figures in the foreground and background intricately moving together, and so on. But emotion is a language, too – the language that the cinema forgot – and when watching Nights of Cabiria, one is amazed by how close Fellini keeps us to the moment-by-moment feelings of Masina’s aging, unhappy little prostitute. That final sequence pulls together the seemingly random meanings of everything that has come before; it completes Masina’s character and releases us into tears. Nights of Cabiria remains the most perfectly beautiful and touching of Fellini’s movies.

At the end of the war, Fellini began his career in film by writing screenplays for Roberto Rossellini, who was creating, with other directors, a new, raw-streets style that came to be known as neorealism. Nights of Cabiria, which marks the end of Fellini’s first period as a director, can be seen as a final stopping place for that style. The heavily symbolic La Dolce Vita came next, and then the many Fellini extravaganzas in which the fate of no single human being seemed to matter very much. Cabiria shares the neorealist emphasis on poverty and unhappiness – the sense of social betrayal, the rapacity of street life – but the movie at its most expressive is moving away from realism and toward fable and even religious myth.

Masina’s Cabiria is no longer young; she’s been around, and she talks tough, insisting on her independence, refusing the services of a pimp. She has something – her own house. But it’s the most comfortless of refuges, an isolated cement box surrounded by empty lots and a few blank modern buildings. In the neighborhood where she works, pimps and clients drive up, the other girls strut and shout, and sometimes lewd parties break out on the street. It’s a Fellini movie, and there’s always a lot of life going on. But the prostitutes and their clients are struggling to cheer themselves up, struggling to keep at bay the loneliness and impersonality of the huge, tawdry city. For all her tough talk, Cabiria is entirely vulnerable; she believes what people tell her. She unwittingly poses a test of their honesty and loyalty.

At the beginning of the movie, a man Cabiria loves throws her in a river and grabs her purse. She is pulled out by a bunch of kids and turned upside down until the water drains out. As soon as she can, she’s up and fighting, enraged and hurt but ready for more. Battling for every bit of respect she can get, she responds to everything, little slights and moments of temporary advantage. Masina’s performance draws on the circus, and on the Chaplin Tramp figure, but it has a delicacy that goes even beyond Chaplin. Cabiria can’t conceal anything; her feelings show up on her face, a clown’s mug with saucer eyes and big round lips. At a pretentious nightclub, she starts dancing like a music-hall performer, kicking and grinning – Cabiria is not stupid, but she’s guileless. She lives deep in fantasy and emotion while hardly seeing what’s in front of her.

Even after her gruesome experience in the river, Cabiria is looking for love, or at least a little companionship. It was a principle of neorealism that incident mattered more than plot – that reality not be squeezed into a preset pattern. Nights of Cabiria seems at first rather wandering and random. But Fellini quietly creates a structure that echoes and resonates. If you think of the movie as both a Christian fable and a sorrowing defense of illusion, everything in it makes sense. The movie becomes a panorama of betrayal – by art, by the church, by men. Only a silent man with a sack, walking about the outskirts of Rome and handing gifts to the broken-down old whores living in caves – a secular saint – redeems this wasteland.

Nights of Cabiria, we think, should be a tragedy. But Fellini renounces tragedy; he insists that life without illusion is not possible. He offers a Christian optimism that draws nothing from doctrine or clergy and everything from love. It would be nice to say that Nights of Cabiria could redeem the cinema, too, but some things are not possible. Yet this 41-year-old movie provides an extraordinary contrast to the summer-season monstrosities as they blaze their way into oblivion.

Bittersweet Charity