One of the things I always appreciated about Fellini was his ability to stick his landings. Even if one of his films had me utterly lost and I couldn't follow what was going on, eventually Marcello Mastroianni would find himself on a beach in the early morning hours, for a moment of self-reflection after his wild adventures in "La Dolce Vita," or the white faces and the augustes would get together to put on one last glorious show in "The Clowns." As Fellini moved farther and farther away from his roots in Neo-realism, into his "Felliniesque" flights of fancy and experimentation, the harder it was for me to discern what he was trying to say, save for his endings, which always managed to leave me with something definitive. There have been Fellini films where all I've enjoyed were those endings, like "Juliet of the Spirits," his first color film. "Juliet," the final collaboration between Fellini and his wife, actress Giulietta Masina, was a particular disappointment, because their previous film together, "Nights of Cabiria," is my favorite.
"Cabiria" is the tale of a prostitute who works the streets of Rome, looking for love and happiness. At the beginning of the story she's dumped by her live-in lover, who pushes her into the lake and makes off with her purse. Stung, Cabiria declares she's done with men, and resolves to be independent. Played by Masina, Cabiria puts on a tough exterior, with a quick tongue and an indignant attitude, but she has a soft heart that lets her be taken advantage of, even when she should know better. Her tragic flaw and her saving grace is that she always has hope. Maybe this time things will turn out right. Maybe this man won't be a louse and a cheat like the others. Some have compared her to Chaplin's Little Tramp, a shabby figure in a funny outfit, eking out her survival in a world of poverty. Even in the worst situations, she resolutely keeps her chin up and dares you to look down on her. I liked Masina as Gelsomina, the little fool from "La Strada," but Cabiria is the best role she ever had, and she makes it hers completely.
The Rome of "Cabiria," which was shot in 1956, is a precursor to Fellini's more iconic vision found in "La Dolce Vita." Though largely recovered from WWII, we see poverty everywhere in the city. Wealth and luxury exist, as evidenced by Cabiria's run-in with a movie star, and the signs of social mobility around her, but they remain remote and out of reach. Fellini's style is still very Neo-realist here, emphasizing the gloom of darkened streets and rainy nights, where Cabiria stakes out her turf with a lonely umbrella. However his camera is starting to become more mobile, the settings a little more stylized. Cabiria's visit to a night club is a prelude to the wild revelries that would follow in "La Dolce Vita" and "8 & 1/2." Her visit with a hypnotist, of course, anticipates "Juliet of the Spirits."
Moreover, the film is not particularly concerned with condemning society for the plight of Cabiria. The sympathetic examination of the life of a prostitute is certainly in keeping with the aims of the Neo-realist movement, and Fellini includes satirical and critical segments among Cabiria's adventures, including some mild poking at religion and the upper classes. Yet Cabiria herself is such a strong, distinct character, her sorrows and joys come across as fiercely personal, and can be seen as largely the product of her own determined will and innate weaknesses. Society may be responsible for making a victim of Cabiria, but she'd never let society claim the credit.
And then we have the ending, which is about the most joyous and uplifting thing I've ever seen on film. I don't want to spoil it, but after many ups and downs, Cabiria finds herself a victim once again, and her boundless optimism dealt its harshest blow yet. Ten years prior, DeSica and Rossellini and perhaps the younger Fellini would have left her there, in her misery. But instead, we have a moment of hope. Not society, but perhaps we could say that humanity comes to Cabiria's rescue, revealing that her world is not entirely dark and cynical. "Cabiria" may have its moments of despair and desperation, but in the end it's nice to know that Fellini agrees with his heroine's outlook, and is willing to leave her with the hope of a happy ending, if not a happy ending itself.
What I've Seen - Fellini
I Vitelloni (1953)
Il Bidone (1955)
La Strada (1954)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
La Dolce Vida (1960)
8 & 1/2 (1963)
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
And the Ship Sails On (1983)