Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Guest Blogger: Paul Cogley

Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Review by Paul Cogley

Nights of Cabiria is a neorealist-tainted version of Chaplin’s City Lights, a movie that Fellini said was its inspiration. In an expressive, tragicomic performance, Guiletta Masina dances madly, rants voraciously, and beams with childlike bravado in her career best film performance.

Its harrowing opening scene shows Cabiria getting robbed and pushed into a swiftly flowing river. She survives and, that evening, resumes her trade as a streetwalking prostitute. Cabiria is downtrodden and isolated, a reject of society. For her, whenever her luck seems to have changed, it is probably an illusion that a plot twist will reveal. But, although she can rant at life’s hard knocks, nothing that happens will ultimately succeed in taking away her buoyant spirit.

On one level, The Nights of Cabiria is a religious movie. Cabiria is moved profoundly by two spiritually engaged men, one a religious brother and the other an altruistic layman who feeds the poor. Eventually, Cabiria herself will undergo a spiritual transformation in the face of a shattering disappointment in her life.

Cabiria’s birth name is Maria, a name no one has known her by since the day her mother sold her into prostituion. Hypnotized in a stage show, we learn that the young innocent Maria is still very much alive in her. It is a scene simultaneously touching and cruel, as she is exploited by the showman to reveal her innermost self.

Caught up in the frenzy of a Catholic procession where healing miracles are expected by the faithful, Cabiria watches a group of religious sisters and others parade joyfully to the church. She joins the crowd and says a simple prayer that she may experience change. Later she scorns the sisters when she concludes that her prayer failed to change anything. Yet her prayer will be answered—although not in the way she expected. Her inner Maria will know how to accept life on life’s terms without the ranting of a frustrated Cabiria, and she will be surrounded by another parade of joyful people much like the religious sisters she once scorned.

In City Lights, Charlie befriends a millionaire who only recognizes him when drunk, and the relationship eventually lands him in prison. After he is released, Charlie is shabbier and further outside the margins of society. Similarly, Cabiria becomes pushed further outside of society by an unlikely relationship which at first seemed as fortunate to her as Charlie’s with the millionaire. But—as Chaplin did in City Lights—Fellini does not offer a clear resolution for us to take with us from this movie. Instead, we are left after the film ends to ponder on the meaning of a smile of hope.

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