Transition

The magical Nights of Cabiria shows Fellini moving from neorealism to his surreal masterpieces of the 1960s

Postwar Italy's most heralded contribution to world cinema may have been neorealism, but its most distinctive and beloved filmmaker was Federico Fellini (1920-1993), who found his true voice when he abandoned neorealism for its polar opposite. While the conventional wisdom has Fellini moving abruptly from his neorealist roots toward a lurid, surreal style with 8 1/2 (1962) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965), the fact is that even his earlier successes show more than a little of that tendency--including Nights of Cabiria, a 1957 Oscar-winner that is now being reissued with a previously cut scene restored for American audiences for the first time. Forty-one years after its creation, the film still works its magic.

Initially a reporter and cartoonist, Fellini became a screenwriter in the '40s, attaining fame for his work with neorealist master Roberto Rossellini, including the classic Open City and the scandalous "Miracle" segment of Rossellini's Amore. In 1950 he moved to directing with the comedy Variety Lights. By his fourth feature, the 1954 hit La Strada, he was moving toward a less literal style.

The simplicity and undisguised emotionalism of La Strada's story points to the pessimistic sentimentality that lurked beneath neorealism's gritty surface. In many ways, it feels like Chaplin's The Kid or Modern Times gone mean.

Cabiria is something of a companion piece to La Strada, which had also won the Best Foreign Film Oscar the previous year. Working with the same major collaborators--composer Nino Rota, screenwriters Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli (with an assist on the dialogue from the young Pier Paolo Pasolini), and star Giulietta Masina (who was also his wife)--Fellini concocts a similar mix of comedy and pathos, with a style in which fantasy seems to spring naturally from kitchen-sink realism. But this time around, the director seems to have grown past the fashionable pessimism of La Strada and genuinely moved closer to Chaplin. The final bittersweet shot seems inspired by the ending of City Lights.

Masina plays the title character, a hooker who sees herself (incorrectly) as tough and streetwise. In fact, she is wistful, even foolishly romantic--which makes her easy pickings for a variety of exploitative men.

In the opening scenes, Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi), the boyfriend she has been pampering, tries to drown her for the pittance she carries in her purse. But Cabiria is so starry-eyed that when she's rescued, she initially refuses to accept the truth of his cruelty, much to the frustration of her best friend (Franca Marzi).

But, even after realizing how she's been used, Cabiria resolutely proclaims her independence, insisting, "I've got everything; I don't need anything." But in fact she is lacking a sense of purpose.

The rest of the film is a series of episodes in which Cabiria seeks some kind of meaning or happiness--most, but not all, involving the attention of men. In the most richly comic section, she is picked up by Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), a handsome movie star who has just broken up with his lover (Dorian Gray). It is a perfect fantasy...for a while.

In the section that was formerly cut from English-language prints of the film--presumably for length--she meets a mysterious man who has devoted his life to providing little material comforts for the needy. But Cabiria's needs are spiritual, and for that he has little to offer.

After a disappointing religious rally, she stumbles into a music hall, where a magician hypnotizes her into revealing her hopes and fantasies. After the show, she is accosted by Oscar D'Onofrio (Francois Perier), a gentle soul who courts her in just the way she's always hoped. It seems as if she has finally found the love she deserves, until one remembers that Oscar has already been privy to her dreams.

Because of the episodic structure, the film rests almost entirely on Masina's tiny shoulders. Her characterization of Cabiria is quite different from La Strada's Gelsomina, but no less affecting. The contrast between her waif-like frame and the tough-guy expression she likes to flash is simultaneously funny and revealing.

The new print of Cabiria is pristine. It would be nice if this reissue stirred up new interest in Fellini among independent-movie audiences, who might not find its aesthetic so different from some current releases. After being embraced by Americans more than any other foreign-language filmmaker during the '50s and '60s--he got 12 Oscar nominations in the general categories, as well as four Best Foreign Film awards and a special lifetime achievement Oscar--Fellini's star seemed to decline after Amarcord (1974).

He went on to make such fascinating films as Fellini's Casanova (1976), Ginger and Fred (1986), and Fellini's Intervista (1987). Some were never released, and few people saw those that were.

Nights of Cabiria.
Directed by Federico Fellini. Written by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Starring Giulietta Masina, Francois Perier, Amedeo Nazzari, and Franca Marzi. Opens Friday.

 
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