Nights of Cabiria: A Dance of Endurance
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
*Spoilers for a movie that came out in 1957*
Her name is Maria “Cabiria” Ceccarelli and she’s a prostitute. Cabiria is naive but optimistic, eager to let loose and quick to fight. She is uptight and works a rough lifestyle, but she is furtively soft inside. She is facially expressive and sweet like Lucille Ball while physically amusing like Charlie Chaplin. She is proud to own a small home in the impoverished region of Rome. She is certain that life is ultimately good and that beauty can be found in a world of unscrupulous, cynical people. She pursues some sort of inner spirituality, pleading for her life to be changed for the better while still allowing herself to feel the fleeting joys and infinitesimal hopes of an aching life. When she isn’t dreaming, she dances and when she isn’t dancing, she dreams. She is curious, has a wonderful heart, and simply wants to be good. She desires worth, love, and happiness and believes these things happen to everyone eventually despite the ones around her believing in the contrary.
Meanwhile, she is pushed into a river by her boyfriend Giorgio and left to drown so he can get away with her money; she is eyed with contempt by prettier, more elegant prostitutes; she is deflated by a courteous movie star when left with no choice but to sleep in his bathroom (with his cute dog, at least) after his fiancee returns home to him after a fight; she is humiliated by a histrionic hypnotist when he puts her in a trance, unveiling her irresistible tenderness and lust for true love in front of a crowd of callous, immature men; she is disappointed by the Virgin Mary, getting blind drunk when a visit and prayer leaves her anything but redeemed; she is embarrassed when pursued by the police, hiding in the bushes; she is fascinated by a charitable man giving gifts to poor people living in subterranean holes, only to discover an older woman she once knew as an attractive prostitute is now destitute, living in these shelters of dirt; then, she is devastated by a conniving man named Oscar, who sees her with non-judgemental eyes, promises her truth and vows his love for her, convincing her to marry him before he too, takes her money, the most elementary thing in comparison to love. Through all this she doesn’t dwell too long on her victimization, she stays true and hopeful, and she endures. She knows there is still enough good in the world worth living for. She is resilient.
Before it closed, Film Forum in New York City was supposed to be screening Nights of Cabiria around this time, a 4K restoration if I remember correctly. I had planned to go see one of my favorite movies there on the big screen. Little did I know that this tale of human resilience would be vital to this time. To watch Nights of Cabiria right now is to live vicariously through Cabiria, to endure and to continue like she does, to escape with a smile and a dance.
“Guess there’s some justice in the world. You suffer, you go through hell. Then happiness comes along for everyone.”
They were watching the sunset, her happiness was secure, he was a genuine man, and she believed. Cabiria was sure this time. She treaded lightly, skeptical from the beginning despite his assurance of self-righteousness and claims of fate. She was even rational about it, “What are you saying? Marry me? Marry someone you’ve seen ten times?” But he insisted on his love for her, a romantic man of virtue obscuring the nefarious soul. She gave in, this was her chance to have life-changing happiness. Oscar was true. He was very convincing from the start, “Everyone pretends to be cynical and scheming, but when faced with purity and innocence, the cynical mask falls off and all that is best in us awakens.” A poignant statement from a liar.
“Then it’s true? You love me? Is it really true? You’re not trying to fool me? Do you really love me?”
Italian master Federico Fellini is mainly known for his films 8 ½, La Strada, Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, which are all great, but his true masterpiece is Oscar Foreign-Language winner, Nights of Cabiria. Starring his wife Giulietta Masina (Best Actress at Cannes), there’s strong evidence that Fellini’s film is so beautiful because of his appreciation of Masina.
“I don’t remember our first meeting. The truth is I was born the day I first saw Giuletta,” Fellini once famously said. Like every great director and their muse, Fellini’s camera followed Masina with authentic adoration. It might be because of his love for Masina that her character Cabiria is unlike many of the strong female leads of the time. She still desires love and a good man for a husband, but she is also a real, flawed individual with dreams and longings and quirks beyond the world of men and matrimony. Masina is transcendent as Cabiria, capturing her tragedy with pitiable sweetness and hopeful humor.
Fellini was known for his use of surrealism and Nights of Cabiria had only a diminutive dose of it, being that his love for Masina was a reality and Cabiria’s story was a strong message of real life. This message comes at the end, when Oscar’s true motives are revealed and Cabiria is left with nothing on a cliff overlooking a scenic sunset. Oscar’s elaborate plan worked, but he couldn’t finish the final stage: pushing her off the cliff. This echoes the opening scene when Giorgio pushes Cabiria in a river as he takes her purse. When Cabiria turns around and sees Oscar nervously sweating and contemplating, it is one of the most devastating scenes in cinema. I yelled at the screen and wrung my hands in my hair the first time I saw it, hurting for Cabiria. I didn’t sit comfortably in my seat again until the film went black because by then I was smiling again, I felt good. I was inspired and restored. I was full of hope and I was happy to live on, to endure. I myself could take on the world now because Cabiria, when left alone on that cliff after begging Oscar to kill her, eventually gets back up. She walks back through the woods and onto the road back to her old life. But there’s something simple yet amazing happening on that road. Street musicians are walking together, playing music jubilantly and laughing together. Cabiria walks slowly among them, one of them says “buona sera” (Good evening) and Cabiria smiles back, slightly nodding. She looks around, her suffering is still there but nuanced now (Masina is incredible here). Cabiria walks on, still shedding tears but also laughing. Her grief and her pain are things of life and they too, are beautiful. She knows that, she’s always known that, and she embraces it. She suffers perpetually, yet she is resilient. She continues, always. She looks at the camera, breaking the fourth wall. Good evening Cabiria, life is so hard but every part of it is beautiful. Our world is cynical and scheming, but life and all its goodness happens despite it.
“Come on, Cabiria, let’s have a good laugh.”
It’s like the film itself is a test of one’s cynicism. Different people will have different responses to Oscar’s arrival to save Cabiria from her struggle. We know that Cabiria is naive, but it’s easy to believe along with her that Oscar is a solid nugget of gold; as for the cynics of the earth, they know right away that this guy is a deceiving chump. The first time I saw Nights of Cabiria, I was with Cabiria the whole way because I had hope and wanted the best for her after all she had gone through. I was also naive about non-American films of that era, believing that they also fit into the mold Hollywood films, thus it would most likely have a happy ending; Cabiria would finally find happiness and contentment with a husband. How wrong I was and how happy I was to be wrong.
Who knows where Cabiria goes from that road, what matters is that she goes on. Forward. She will continue to be herself, to wonder, to strive for good, and seek the beauty in the world. Resilience. She will move on, knowing that to hold onto whatever she is feeling is to live, but to cherish it, that is to be alive.
It’s funny, there’s really no vengeance against life. Life makes a fool out of us, but we can’t really make a fool out of life. Our only reasonable response to the hardship and mischief of life is to embrace it and seek the good. Endurance. You can still dance when you’re down and you can still smile when you cry.
Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina