Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nights of Cabiria

(Federico Fellini, Italy, 1957)

I approached this film with a fair amount of anticipation - besides my long-standing admiration for Fellini, it came with the imprimatur of James Gray, who spoke highly of, among other things, the deftness of Nights' finale. The idea, per Maestro Gray, is to achieve an ending which is isn't definitively up or down - that avoids being both emptily bleak and falsely consoling. The one drawback to this anticipation was that I spent the last twenty minutes of the film on the edge of my seat, my mind racing (despite my best efforts) to figure out just how this film could manage to conclude in that sweet spot.

True to the hype, the conclusion was pitched perfectly between exaltation and despair - a remarkable feat of tonal dexterity that extends to the whole story. I don't feel I can do much beyond fawn over the film's many triumphs - as a work of storytelling, as an acute psychological portrait, and as a deeply humane/spiritual picture with overtones of Christianity that aren't overbearing. The Chrisitanity issue is perhaps the oddest - it was a contentious production; in particular, the scenes comprising the pilgrimmage - in which Cabiria and several of her prostitute confederates (and a local pimp) seek salvation from God - were repeatedly interrupted by various reactionary groups. But the film went on to be a major success, and a surprisingly uncontroversial one - people were calling it a Christian film from the get-go.

It's not difficult to see why - Cabiria is a classic savior figure - downtrodden but pure of heart, embittered but possessing a soul that seems incapable of ever completely hardening despite being repeatedly burned. If she's a more than a bit saintly, though, she's also deeply human, and Fellini wisely eschews the supernatural elements that might have been included to underscore this point. In 1957, he hadn't yet gotten rolling with the fanciful techniques that have since come to define his legacy - this was Fellini before his movies became Felliniesque. Instead, his formal technique is relaxed but assured, and the story works marvelously.

This was always Fellini's secret strength: the heart of his work that keeps it "real" even as the style became more baroque and sensational. His subsequent characters would live in worlds that were increasingly surreal, but their primary concerns remained distinctly human - fear and desire, love and loss, exaltation and disappointment, hope and regret. In NIGHTS, these elements are distilled to their essence, dramatized through the misadventures of poor, adorable Cabiria, who is portrayed with stunning and brilliant nuance by the great Guilieta Masina, Fellini's wife. This is the first time I've had the pleasure, and I'm grateful to have made such a discovery. The performance is tremendous, right down to her feisty little strut of her walk. I'm very much looking forward to seeing her other collaborations with her husband.

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