The little tramp

A review of the newly restored version of Fellini's classic "Nights of Cabiria," by Stephanie Zacharek.

Published August 6, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The little house belonging to the title character in Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria" rises out of the landscape on the edge of a desolate yet oddly cheerful little Roman neighborhood, like one of the solitary, boxy buildings that dot the horizon in a Krazy Kat cartoon. It's a cube built out of something like stucco, with a curtain of beads hanging like a shimmer of fake rain in front of its simple door -- part jazzed-up fairy-tale cottage, part Spartan make-do dwelling. For its owner, the love-starved yet emotionally self-sufficient prostitute Cabiria, played by Giulietta Masina, in the role of her career, the house represents security and pride, a place to return to that's all her own, like the tiny studio apartment of any city working girl. But is the house meant to signify isolation as a protective measure, or the sense of feeling truly at home with oneself? Or both?

That conflict lies at the heart of what may be Fellini's loveliest and most moving picture, made in 1957 and currently making the rounds of theaters across the country in a beautifully restored (and long overdue) version distributed by Rialto Pictures (the company partially responsible, along with Strand Pictures, for last year's restored re-release of Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt"). Maybe what's so wrenching is that the house in "Nights of Cabiria" does symbolize both: Isolation can be a way to hide from pain and involvement, but there are also times when no one seems to deserve our company, when solitude -- a deep sense of being at home with oneself -- is preferable to anything else. "Even as a child, I couldn't help but notice who didn't fit in for one reason or another -- myself included," Fellini says in Charlotte Chandler's 1995 book "I, Fellini." "In life, and for my films, I have always been interested in the out-of-step. Curiously, it's usually those who are either too smart or are too stupid who are left out. The difference is, the smart ones often isolate themselves, while the less intelligent ones are usually isolated by the others."

In "Nights of Cabiria," Fellini weighs the cost of both isolation and connection, but it's such a graceful picture that his technique comes off as anything but ponderous -- it's more like a graceful soft-shoe, a muted shuffle on a sandy floor. "Nights of Cabiria" is almost vaudevillian in its structure and sometimes in its tone. It's not that it's broad or obvious -- it's that Fellini lets the story of Cabiria unfold as a series of discrete but connected episodes.

As the movie opens, we see Cabiria and her lover, Giorgio, scampering across a dry, sandy landscape, heading for a closer look at the Tiber River. She's wearing a cheerful striped dress, swinging her handbag, a perfect picture of summer joy and freedom. When they reach the river, she exclaims, "It's beautiful!" even though, to us, it seems somewhat muddy and undistinguished. Her boyfriend looks about him shiftily, grabs her bag, pushes her into the river and runs off, leaving her to drown. She's rescued by a group of boys (a man in a suit sees her but hesitates to jump in), and she's barely gained consciousness when she runs away from them, humiliated and confused, trying to convince herself that her boyfriend hasn't betrayed her.
Ultimately, Cabiria acknowledges that her truant beau was a scoundrel, and as an acknowledgment, she burns the fine clothes she'd bought him. Later, we see Cabiria, dressed awkwardly in a ratty fur, tight black skirt, bobby socks and sandals, horsing around with her low-life friends on her "beat," the sheltered stone walk near the Baths of Caracalla, and being picked up by a famous movie actor in his big American car. She's whisked off to his villa, only to be locked in the bathroom for the night when his wayward girlfriend shows up at his door for a tearful, passionate reconciliation, which Cabiria views through a keyhole. She makes a pilgrimage to a holy shrine with her ragtag group of pals and asks the Blessed Virgin to help her change her life. Finally, after being hypnotized (and publicly humiliated) by a charlatan showman, she meets a man whom she comes to believe can truly love her.

Yet the plot of "Nights of Cabiria" is really nothing but a vehicle that allows the extraordinary Masina (who was Fellini's wife) to build the character of Cabiria layer by layer. At first she holds herself away from us, a thundercloud of unhappiness. She scowls and frets and averts her eyes. But with each scene, Masina pulls her character into sharper focus. Early on we see her, still somewhat troubled over Giorgio's desertion, hanging out with her friends on the street, and with them, her mood changes like quicksilver -- more than one of them declares that she's "nuts." But just when Cabiria begins to seem too cranky, Masina shows us a little something else.

She has a stiff, swaggering, comical walk, like a stick figure brought to life. Swinging her arms, prowling the streets with her slightly bowlegged strut, she's more a picture of confidence than of fragility, and it's that boldness, fired by some mysterious inner mechanism, that makes her character work. Her prickliness comes part and parcel with her innate sweetness: When she's brought to the home of the film star (played by real-life Italian movie star Amadeo Nazzari) she tries hard to keep her cool, only to finally break into a beaming smile, clasping her hands together as she blurts out that she's seen every one of his pictures. When she takes his hand and kisses it, impulsively, the gesture is so childlike -- and so baldly un-erotic -- that it nearly tears you apart.

This performance, as well as her portrayal of the sweet, simple Gelsomina in the more sentimental "La Strada," earned Masina comparisons to Charlie Chaplin, and the analogy is apt. Her shy, self-deprecating vulnerability, conveyed at least partly through the way her body moves, mirrors Chaplin at his best. But in some ways, Masina's expressiveness as Cabiria outdoes even Chaplin. Her face -- crumpled into a doughy pout, clouded with mistrust or illuminated with a wary smile -- has the simple power to break our hearts. With her eyebrows drawn on as thick, downward-sloping diagonal slashes, she's a sometimes bemused, sometimes troubled, emoticon. These eyebrows -- the same ones that the Gelsomina of "La Strada" wears as part of her clown makeup -- are a theatrical concession. They're not real-life eyebrows, and yet they don't seem like a device. Their sole purpose seems to be to point the way to Masina's wide, dark eyes.

"Nights of Cabiria" is one of the finest collaborations between husband and wife ever committed to film. Fellini seems to step aside, opening a broad path for Masina to do her wonderful work. Yet the movie's success owes as much to his subtle shaping as it does to Masina's intuitiveness as an actor. Fellini shows the influence of (and pays tribute to) the neo-realists who came before him. "Nights of Cabiria" has the breeziness (in its lighter moments, it conjures Vittorio de Sica's "Miracle in Milan") and magic that Fellini faked in his later movies. And just as de Sica did, Fellini faces squarely the plight of the poor -- an awareness he twisted awkwardly later on, preferring to focus on the blankness of the rich. This restored version of "Nights of Cabiria" includes a legendary, long-lost sequence known as "The Man With the Sack," in which Cabiria meets a man who distributes food to the homeless people living in caves on the outskirts of Rome. Leaders of the Catholic Church reportedly demanded that the scene be cut, claiming it suggested that the church was shirking its duty in caring for the destitute. The footage, seen only at the film's screening at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, was finally found in a French negative, after a search through all the prints in Europe.

In "Nights of Cabiria" Fellini gives us a movie that's deeply emotional even as it sidesteps easy sentimentality. In the movie's closing scene (one of the most memorable in the history of movies, and one of the mostdevastating), Cabiria, after being betrayed by a man whom she thought had loved her, finds herself caught up in a troupe of children, apparently on their way to a festival. At first, she moves zombielike among them. Then a smile creeps across her face -- first it's timid, then broad. She no longer owns her little house -- she sold it, and the money has been stolen. But the house was nothing more than a heap of stone and wood. It wasn't really her refuge -- just a physical stand-in for it. Even now -- or maybe only now -- with no place to go, she's once again headed home.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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