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Fellini Redux

[whitespace] The Nights of Cabiria
On Location: Federico Fellini and wife and actress Giulietta Masina at the shooting of his vibrant and sorrowful film 'The Nights of Cabiria.'

Sorrowful, sexy Nights of Cabiria is released

By Richard von Busack

Summed up briefly, Federico Fellini's 1957 classic, Nights of Cabiria, may seem like just one more version of the streetwalker with a heart of gold. The film unfolds as an episodic tale about a short, feisty "night bird" who doesn't consider herself to be in the same straits as other prostitutes. What really distinguishes her is an optimism that betrayal can't kill.

Nights of Cabiria, which was once commonly honored on top-10 lists of the world's best films, has long been available only on murky video or 16mm prints and may now be better known as the source for the musical Sweet Charity than for its own virtues. Happily, this beautiful and modish film is being revived at the Castro Theater, July 31-Aug. 13, in a new 35mm print, with new subtitles and with an extra seven minutes censored by the Catholic Church at the time of its original release.

The film follows the adventures of the Roman prostitute Cabiria, who lives on the bleak outskirts of the city on the Ostia road--outside a ring of new but instantly slummy apartment blocks. When we first see her, she's almost dead, having been knocked into the river Tiber by her lover, who stole her purse before he shoved her in.

After pulling herself together, Cabiria commutes into the city to work and encounters a famous movie star. In another episode, she joins a religious procession but is disappointed--she doesn't feel born again afterward. In the third major sequence, Cabiria joins a show given by a deceptively shoddy-looking hypnotist. Because of her reluctant participation in the performance, she meets an apparently nice man who doesn't care about her past or her profession.

The vivid, magical nightlife reflects Cabiria's faith that someday she will find an honest man. Fellini is at his best depicting this demimonde full of male loafers, wearing sunglasses after dark, hanging around in their cars, chatting with the cruising women. These scenes are vibrant with details: a crazy prostitute yells, "Arrest all those dreadful girls!" when the police make a raid; the magician delivers an elaborate hypnotic spiel to make a bunch of men sitting on a bench believe they're caught in a boat in a storm.

Fellini was one lucky man. He established his own look so handily as to become an adjective--who hasn't walked into a nightclub or a wedding reception that could only be described as "Fellini-esque"? He began as a cartoonist and persisted as a caricaturist, filming the swag bellies, big butts and outsized noses that beguile an artist trying to scrawl out the absurdity of humankind.

In the 1960s, his peak years of fame, Fellini enjoyed a large following of young people who were boiling mad at the homely old men who ran the world. Toward the end, especially in Fellini's Satyricon, it seemed as if he were moralizing--as if the ugliness of the ancient Romans ought to be used to convict them.

Fellini didn't live to see his cult wane, but when I say that he was lucky, I mean it's because he had wonderful collaborators. In some respects, Nights of Cabiria is almost a music video for Nino Rota's stunningly quirky soundtrack. Rota's chic, catchy waltzes and fox-trots in minor keys match (and sometimes overmatch) the power of the images--a frowzy picnic in the dirt, the switching rumps of a pair of conceited streetwalkers. The music counterpoints the action and tames the sentimentality Fellini lavishes on it.

But Fellini was luckier still to have his wife, actress Giulietta Masina, for his star. Is Masina a more important artist than Fellini? Her performance in Fellini's La Strada (1954) offers one of the purer moments of sorrow on the screen. Her smallness against the almost lunar landscapes of the desperately poor parts of Italy is sad enough; her fragility and goodness in an atmosphere where neither can be sustained is even sadder.

Nights of Cabiria isn't as pure a tragedy. Masina's Cabiria is a much different character than her heartbreaking circus performer in La Strada. Cabiria is a little more streetwise; there's more earth to her. Her spirit isn't gone, even if her rabbit-fur jacket is molting and her clothes are torn.

For the part of Cabiria, Masina shaved her eyebrows, painting them in with sharply angled strokes. The effect echoes the way Anglo actors had themselves made up in the years when they played the Asian roles. It gives her a suspicious, worldly-wise gaze. Skinny, and a little sagging, Masina's Cabiria might be no one's first choice for a quick one, since she doesn't conceal her loneliness well enough.

Like her only serious rivals in screen pathos--Chaplin and the Gish sisters--Masina can be unexpectedly funny. Leaning into an argument with the other hookers or telling off a doorman who is trying to shoo her away, Masina can remind you of Lucille Ball or Andrea Martin.

The trade of sex work is always a popular theme in the movies. It adds to the unpredictability of a woman's character and provides an easy way to cut back the exposition in action movies and dramas alike. More recently, it's been the quickest way to strip a heroine of her clothes with a minimum of writing.

This is no new trend in movies: Janet Gaynor, Helen Hayes, Anne Baxter, Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, Jane Fonda and Julia Roberts all earned Oscar nominations or the award itself for playing women in the sex business. Prostitution in the movies has progressed over the years from a fate worse than death (The Sin of Madelon Claudet) to a dream of personal freedom (Klute) to a dream of quick profit (Pretty Woman).

In this long list of cinematic working girls, Masina's Cabiria gives us one of the most flattering and sentimental portraits. Cabiria is a sort of saint. She never is shown submitting to a customer, which keeps her occupation metaphorical, even Christian. What's surprising, then, is that the Catholic Church demanded only seven minutes of cuts.

It's only at the end of Nights of Cabiria that the sentiment becomes overwhelming; Fellini brings the disappointments of Cabiria to a point where you can hardly bear to see her mistreated one last time. While I hardly think her kind of naiveté is commonplace, I certainly don't think that Cabiria's kind of innocence is a myth. I met a prostitute once who told me, "My life is sadder than The Other Side of Midnight"--that she could even identify with Sidney Sheldon's garish pulp after what she'd been through!

At least Fellini was practical enough not to ask why Cabiria was in her line of work, even while sentimentalizing her hopes. But then Masina's performance overrides skepticism. As Cabiria's suitor says, "When we are faced with purity and candor, the mask of cynicism falls." Masina has that kind of purity and candor. Ultimately, her shining, expressive face makes Nights of Cabiria deserve its reputation.

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From the July 27-Aug. 9, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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