Published August 1, 1999
Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini, recently re-released in a restored version, stars the great director’s wife, Giulietta Massina as the Roman prostitute, Cabiria, whose fortunes and misfortunes in the mid-1950s, must now seem to us to come from a world as long gone as Dante’s or Manzoni’s. All is now changed, changed utterly, since the time only four decades ago when the lines were drawn so ineradicably between respectable society, in which both love and security were at least theoretically obtainable, and the demi-monde inhabited by Cabiria where they were forever out of reach. We have gained much since that time, but also lost much. And part of what we have lost is the clarity and honesty of moral vision that comes from dealing with life and love on the elemental level that Cabiria does.
For she lives in a world of basic appetites, where each must look out for himself — and, even more, for herself. This is something as close to the state of nature as described by Hobbes as we can see in our world and our century. Fellini’s brilliant juxtapositon of it with that of Cabiria’s client, the film star Alberto Lazzari and his girlfriend Jessie who are insulated by wealth from honesty of feeling, help establish the fact. In the opening scene, Cabiria frolics with her boyfriend, Giorgio, dancing by the waters edge and swinging her purse over her head, an image of happiness and freedom. Giorgio snatches the purse and pushes her into the water, where, not being able to swim, she would soon drown but for being plucked from the water by some boys swimming nearby.
The urchins show a rough and ready sort of compassion. They will save her so long as the price is not too high, and this casual kindness is one of the things that saves the film from mere cynicism, though it depicts human nature at its worst. Because the point is not, oddly enough, the perfidy of Giorgio and, later, the egregious Oscar, but rather the insane, the irrepressible optimism of Cabiria. Treachery and greed and betrayal are simply givens of her world, not a cause for self-pitying “pessimism,” Hardy style. That is simply how things are. But somehow she goes on hoping and believing, and what we remember of the film is its images of hope and belief — of the religious processions, or of the man with the bag of food that he distributes to the homeless living in caves outside the city (a sequence, by the way, restored to the film after having been cut from its original release). Or the most famous of its scenes, the final one of Cabiria smiling through her tears, the very image of the Will to Believe.
It is, for all Fellini’s anti-clericalism of the period, a very Catholic theme. Goodness and happiness here are not to be found in romantic but in unselfish love, though Cabiria’s confusion of the two is fundamental to her nature — and perhaps to that of most people. The heartbreaking scene in which a stage hypnotist reveals to a predator Cabiria’s deepest secret — that beneath her tough exterior she still treasures the girlish hope of one day being able to say to a suitor, “So it’s really true? You really love me?” — presents us with a vulnerability that is instantly recognizable as in some degree our own. And its exploitation by the loathsome Oscar inspires us with pity and terror.