Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) (1957)

Gadepigen Cabiria
Today’s review cannot help being somewhat subdued. A few days ago I found out that Chip Lary, author of the “Tips from Chip” blog had passed away. Those were shocking news and a part of me still refuses to accept it but insists that one of these days he will pop up and declare that this was all a bad joke. If you happen to wonder why I care so much you just have to look up one of my past reviews. ANY of my past reviews actually, and you will find a comment from Chip. Invariably. We are a relatively small group who always checks out each other’s writing and he was a centerpiece of that group. Dammit, it is strange that he is gone.

Anyway, deep breath, “Le notti di Cabiria” or “Nights of Cabiria” is another installment in the catalogue of Frederico Fellini. I have already watched “I Vitelloni” (off-list) and “La Strada” (on-list) and “Le notti di Cabiria” falls in quite naturally in that list. The overall themes being existentialistic, but wrapped in a very depressing neo-realist frame.

So far Fellini has not been a hit with me and this is no exception. I liked it better than the other two, but that may be mainly because I actually think I understood it better. It feels more accessible and the lead character Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is quite likable even if, like Gelsomina in “La Strada”, she is as much a cause of her problems as her adversaries.

Cabiria is a prostitute in Rome. She is willful, hot tempered and ready to bitch and shout, but this badass attitude is not just street smarts but also a shield to protect a soft and gentle persona inside. Behind the tough façade Cabiria is a dreamer who wishes for a better life. From our perspective her aspirations seem mundane enough, a husband, a home, a life where she does not have to prostitute herself, but for Cabiria these are dangerous dreams that makes her vulnerable to men who wants to exploit her.

In a different kind of movie, a Hollywood rosa-hued movie for example, dreaming of better things is a commendable trait, often a necessary trait for the person to succeed, but Fellini has an issue with this sort of people. A common theme in his movies has been so far that he punishes people, particularly women for having dreams and for wanting to improve their situation. To me he comes about as a cinematic sadomasochist who takes pleasure from torturing his characters. That Giulietta Masina is actually his wife just makes this love and torture impression more… plausible. Because there is no doubt that Fellini also loves his victims. He may be humiliating Cabiria, but he is also showing us what a lovable and trusting person she is.

So, is this just Fellini having fun tearing Cabiria to pieces? No, there is probably more to it. All the neo-realist movies had a political agenda, which was quite far to the left of center. There is always a critique of how the poor are left to rot by the rich in general and the state in particular, whether the suffering are elderly, homeless, unemployed or as here prostitutes and that angle is definitely there. However I doubt Fellini was really that interested in that angle. He seems a lot more interested in Cabiria as a person. As much as he is constantly crushing her dreams, he seems to be fascinated by her ability to bounce back. When everything is taken away from her she still has a fountain of energy and joy inside that is her real richness.

Well, let me see, if I get this right Fellini is saying: don’t trust handsome guys, don’t trust the rich, don’t trust the church, don’t trust magicians (!) and don’t trust people who seem to mean you well. Just, you know, be happy…

Hmmmm… Maybe I did not really get the movie after all.

I cannot say that I really liked the movie. Cinematic sadomasochism is not really my thing. I do not get any pleasure from watching people I care for on the screen getting torn to pieces. It does not make me laugh and it does not make me cry. It just make me nauseous and disgusted. There was a poignancy to the “Bicycle Thieves” that I loved, but in “Nights of Cabiria” it just feels like a sadistic witch hunt.

There is plenty of Fellini coming up, but at this point I am not really looking forward to them. There is an excellent restaurant in Aalborg, Denmark called Fellini and I would much rather go there.


  1. I kind of agree with you on this. I've been pretty ambivalent when it comes to Fellini (there are a few that are at least interesting coming...and some stinkers), but I appreciated this one a little more than you did. I find something uplifting not in the film itself but in the film's attitude. Maybe it just struck me the right way. I'm not aching to watch this again, but there was something there that I could get.

    1. There were parts of it where I would say it definitely struck a cord, but the ending underlined how this entire movie was a series of crushing defeats. Well made, but so depressing that I cannot say that I liked it.

  2. I'm pretty sure that we have definitively established that Fellini is not for you. The rest are not going to get any less depressing just much, much weirder. Too bad because he's given me a lot of pleasure. But Cabiria might be his most accessible film. When I look at it your way though, I understand completely.

    I'm still in shock over Chip's passing too. And just this morning I learned a favorite podcaster died suddenly. The local art cinema is going out of business. I hope this makes up the latest three and there will be some good news soon.

    1. Weird is okay, I like weird. Depressing can be good to, but torturing your characters...? And a message that hope is useless and dreams are dangerous, well, yeah, lets have a party.
      No, I do not think Fellini is for me.

      Bad things always comes in bundles. Let us hope it is looking up from here. It is such a weird feeling though.