Nights of Cabiria:
Realism is subjective. That becomes apparent when comparing Italian Neorealist films to standard Hollywood films. One person may believe that filmmakers can demonstrate reality by depicting a group of joyous teenagers playing guitars and harmonicas who randomly appear on a road and swirl around a distressed female protagonist; another may find such an event ludicrous. While one filmmaker depicts Abraham Lincoln as a modest man who can get away with threatening clients in his office and can silence a mob attacking a prison, another filmmaker may find the fictional Lincoln’s ability unreal. This essay sides with the former group – the Italian Neorealists. Perhaps John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln displays no truly surreal sequences, but it attempts to make a godlike hero out of a man, whereas Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria operates in ways that deglamorize its protagonist and the world around her – to reveal the brutal truth just beneath the veneer of high-class society. As Thompson and Bordwell write, “What made [Neorealist] films so realistic? Partly the contrast with many of the films that preceded them. Italian films had become known across Europe for their magnificent studio settings” (360-61). Like Young Mr. Lincoln, previous Italian films were known for being glamorous, but the modernists in Italy saw such a style as unfitting for the postwar era, with Europe in shambles after two massive wars. No longer could Italian directors merely continue to make “cinema of distraction”: the type of romantic melodramas and the comedies that dominated Italy in the 30s and early 40s (Thompson and Bordwell 277-78).
Take, for example, the two films’ very different outlooks on Christianity and morality. At the beginning of Young Mr. Lincoln, a kind old lady just happens to give Abe Lincoln a book which will help him with his future career as an attorney and politician. She is illiterate; after Lincoln looks at the book and tells her that it appears to be a book about law (Blackstone’s Commentaries), she says “I knew that book was about something!” Her idiotic statement of the extremely obvious proves that fate is leading Lincoln toward practicing law. Dumb luck, in a very literal sense, gave him Lincoln an opportunity to learn about law. Fate makes itself known in the movie again when Lincoln drops a stick to decide if he will stay home and live a modest life or seek a greater life for himself in the realm of politics.
The stage is set for Lincoln to become a kind of Christ figure – a man with greatness written in his destiny. He assumes the role of Jesus when he quotes a Sermon on the Mount Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful,” in order to compel the angry mob to step down and let the murder suspects live. The camera shoots Fonda from a low angle to emphasize Lincoln’s moral highness. His height comes into play again when the conclusion of the final court scene shows him towering over Cass, forcing a murder confession. But why would Cass confess to murder so readily? Ford makes this believable in a sense because Lincoln is a spiritually and literally elevated character who can force others to see things his way – like Jesus.
The very idea that a man could understand law after reading just one book is unrealistic. He sets down the book at one point and seemingly reaches epiphany, saying, “By Jean, that’s all there is to it! Right and wrong. Maybe I oughta begin to take this stuff serious.” He goes from being a novice to an expert in legal matters in only a couple minutes of screen time. A Neorealist looks at this kind of plain-spoken logic and sighs. They realize that this kind of oversimplification of right and wrong, good and evil leads to nationalism and war – not peace and justice.
If Fellini had seen Young Mr. Lincoln, he would no doubt have been troubled by the ease with which Lincoln settles all his disputes. Because Fellini believes reality is always more complicated than black and white binaries of right and wrong, he presents his audience with Cabiria: a complex character, riddled with self-esteem issues and prone to denial, who Peter Bondanella calls a “Chaplinesque little prostitute” (137). Unlike Lincoln, who speaks slowly and with simple, logical competence, Cabiria squawks brashly, always quick to deny her humble living conditions and exaggerate to make herself sound better. Later in the scene wherein Lincoln drops the stick to decide his fate, a lady-friend of his approached him, and he downplays his own intelligence, forcing a her to compliment him. Lincoln’s modesty contrasts starkly with Cabiria’s tendency to “[defend] her own adequacy in the face of someone who is better established than she,” such as when she visits the actor’s house and “chatters on about owning a house with electricity, running water, bottled gas and even a thermometer,” thereby “[persuading] herself that she is relatively unimpressed by the exotic villa” (Rosenthal 120). Fellini’s argument is that the true nature of human beings is to unrightfully brag, not to be unrealistically humble and modest like Ford’s Lincoln. The real world is full of desperate people who want to make themselves look better, not heroic individuals who try to understate their worth.
Nights of Cabiria’s Neorealist elements bring it closer to reality than Young Mr. Lincoln, with all its idealism and sentimentality. While the latter movie always contains sufficient lighting (especially when the icon is onscreen), a picturesque smalltown studio set, and crisp-and-clean-looking film stock, the former movie adopts the Neorealist look: it appears more cheaply made, with grainier footage and only the natural light provided by the location of shooting. Often, when Cabiria roams the streets in search of a customer, the mise-en-scène is murky and dark. Cabiria’s face is not glamorized with bountiful soft light as is Lincoln’s, but is instead shrouded in shadows. Conversely, in the outdoor picnic scene following Cabiria and her friends’ visit to the Madonna shrine, the natural light is too bright.
In addition, unlike Ford, Fellini chooses unpolished amateurs to be actors. The outrage on Cass’s face during his accusation, the way the mother and sisters create an eyeline match with their hopeful gaze at the saintly Lincoln, and Fonda’s look of vindication as he slams on his top hat after sparking Cass’s confession all smack of scripted and rehearsed Hollywood acting. Compare the practiced and perfected looks of the Young Mr. Lincoln actors with those in Nights of Cabiria. During the uproar of Cabiria scuffling with another prostitute, while a whole swarming mass of women attempt to separate the two, the blonde prostitute whose pimp Cabiria rejects looks directly at the camera. This violates the Hollywood fourth-wall convention carried over from the theater tradition that states actors should never look at the camera, for fear of reminding the audience they are watching a moving picture and are not actually in another world. Cabiria even looks at the camera at the end of the film. After being surrounded by happy dancing, singing, and guitar-strumming teenagers who cheer her up, her eyes dart around the camera, and then finally at 1:47:12-14, she glances directly at the camera twice before the movie concludes. This is because Neorealists wanted to defy old Hollywood conventions of sweeping filmgoers away in illusion. The act of allowing onscreen characters to look at the camera enhances a sense of vulnerability and reality, because after all, how realistic is it that a character’s line of vision would never coincide with the camera? The Hollywood convention alienates the viewer, assigning it the role of mere spectator, while the Neorealist convention invites the viewer to be a participant.
As for matters of Christianity and spirituality, Nights of Cabiria takes a more realistic view than Young Mr. Lincoln. This statement may puzzle some, because the Madonna shrine scene seems surreal, as does the scene preceding it where a parade of Christians passes the pimps and prostitutes at the same moment they mention visiting the shrine in order to heal the cripple, leaving them silenced and awestruck. These scenes, however, are realistic in the Poetic Realist sense. What they come to symbolize is realistic, even if the literal appearance of the scene is not.
In the Christian parade scene, Cabiria asks her friend what she plans on asking the Madonna for when they visit the shrine. At 45:20, the friend remains silent and audible are the sounds of a priest speaking in Latin and a congregation responding in unison. 45:28 begins a shot wherein the congregation is seen walking in step out of the fog and toward the pimps and prostitutes. At 45:33, the camera goes back behind the prostitutes, watching over their shoulders as the Christian group passes, with one man in the front carrying a cross. The camera pans leftward along with the walking people, then stops panning at 45:49, and the congregation leaves the screen by 45:57. Fellini, however, does not cut there. Cabiria and her friends continue to look leftward in silence, and the shot finally ends at 46:10 after Cabiria walks forward to get a better look at the parade. The 42-second-long shot is surreal because Cabiria’s party barely moves and the congregation’s simultaneous left, right, left, right footsteps keeping the tempo of their chant seems eerie. Yet this eerie surreality comes to symbolize the truth of religion and spirituality as Fellini sees it: Jesus and his principles are not as easy to grasp and use as Young Mr. Lincoln would have its viewers believe. Instead, the Neorealists contend that “modern civilization has no understanding of what the religious experience behinds Christ’s birth actually represents” (Bondanella 104). Christianity is ungraspable in the modern world. It is not as simple as a crippled man tearfully begging for forgiveness amongst a horde of continually swaying people screaming, “Grazia, Madonna!” God seems to mock him for his futile act when the cripple lets go of his crutches to accept God’s gift, then falls on his face at 55:32. Yet Fellini shows restraint in this scene by not quickly dissolving over to the outdoor picnic scene by 55:36, effectively following the Neorealist trend of not overdramatizing scenes that ought to have dramatic consequences.
The film’s argument is that one cannot have his or her wishes granted by God any time he or she desires. “Grace is a mysterious quality in Fellini’s universe,” Bondanella writes, “bestowed most generously but only when least expected and only after a trial by suffering” (139). This grace comes in the final scene. It seems surreal to have these teens suddenly surround Cabiria in attempts to cheer her up, but it proves Fellini’s point that in real life, people go through a lot of suffering in order to finally reach inner peace and understanding – unlike Lincoln in Ford’s film, who unrealistically resolves major conflicts with simple logic and little effort.
Thus, Italian Neorealism is more authentic than classical Hollywood cinema, thanks to a combination of literal reality and symbolic reality. The acting, lighting, set, and film stock are less polished, which lend Nights of Cabiria a gritty aesthetic that defies the glamour of Hollywood. Moments that at first appear unreal happen to signal symbolic reality. Whereas Young Mr. Lincoln wants its viewers to believe truth and justice are palpable and easily obtained with common sense and a little faith, Nights of Cabiria strives to illustrate the difficulty of understanding the nature of truth, spirituality, and grace. In short, Neorealists saw the Hollywood worldview as a fallacy and sought to expose that by making films featuring the people on the lowest rung of society who face unsolvable problems in their everyday lives.
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983.
Fellini, Federico, dir. Nights of Cabiria. Perf. Giullieta Masina. 1957. VHS. International Film Forum, 1989.
Ford, John, dir. Young Mr. Lincoln. Perf. Henry Fonda. 1940. VHS. Twentieth Century Fox, 1988.
Rosenthal, Stuart. The Cinema of Federico Fellini. Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., 1976.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
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