Federico Fellini, the grand master of Italian cinema, began his life behind a camera as a young lad among the neo-realists, a protege of sorts to De Sica and Rossellini and their own habits of redefining cinema forever. Fellini, like those masters of the form, sought to reject Hollywood convention and lay down a thick layer of everyday humanity with non-actors and grungier camera techniques less galvanized in Hollywood glamour and melodrama. This shift itself was a towering upheaval to the cinematic tradition, a tangible stimulant to directors everywhere to shake the foundations of film land and brace for impact.
But Fellini was not done shaking. The neo-realist movement, for him, was a jumping off point, a stepping stone for his own more whimsical, more blunted, and dare I say more challenging vision of what cinema ought to be. Beginning with the seminally shattering La Strada in 1954, Fellini married a form of realism to a carnivalesque wonder and an omnivorous desire to break with reality when it could help the emotional truth of his story at the expense of conventional logic.
This itself was as radical, and arguably more scorching, a rejection of film tradition, a double-blow to American and European cinema. If the neo-realists carved out a viable alternative to classical cinematic tradition, Fellini broke down the false dichotomy of “Hollywood glamour” and “European realism” altogether, constructing a trenchant reminder that European cinema, and indeed all of world cinema, had long known a marvelous tradition of breaking with reality to excavate human dreams and nightmares, desires and hopes, and fears and wonders in cinematic ways. Cinema, in essence, could do more than showcase literal realism; it could speak to the internal fixations that constructed realism, the girders of human emotion hiding deep beneath the thin veneer of everyday life.
Fellini’s work would revolutionize the cinema, paving the way for the French New Wave and the veritable cornucopia of new material to arrive out of the continental European nations in the ’50s and, especially, the ’60s, not to mention the increasing Western awareness of Asian cinema that had been volcanically stirring since the mid-’40s. All of these cinema regions would experiment with melodrama and art and the emotional highs and lows of humanity divorced from the limits of realism. Fellini, for his part, would do more in the future to advance the limits of cinema, eventually breaking entirely from realism for various genre riffs on sultry, sweaty melodrama, satire, and even horror when it suited him.
The middle phase of Fellini’s career – La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and 8 ½ – is probably the most unique melding of realism and heightened experimentation, finding Fellini in a period where he wasn’t limited to any style. Instead, he found transfixing bewilderment in melding styles, and if Nights of Cabiria, released right in the heart of this mid-phase, isn’t his best film, it may be the greatest marker of transition in his career. La Strada, for all its bewilderment and melancholy, is largely a neo-realist work all the same. It saw Fellini play with the limits of realism by dipping his toes in the waters of magic, but Nights saw him submerse himself up to his waist. An early film for soon-to-be mega producer Dino de Laurentiis, Nights sees Laurentiis and Fellini – a ridiculous mixture if ever there was one, until you realize that Laurentiis would finance anything, even arthouse fare, that was hip in the moment – meeting in the middle-ground of harsh reality and Hollywood allure.
The tale they concocted borrows the lost romance malaise of La Strada, with wandering prostitute Cabiria (Giuletta Masina) hopelessly searching for love in a world that wants nothing but to abuse her and laugh off her misfortune as the product of her own cold inhumanity. What emerges isn’t nearly as episodic as the best neo-realist tales; a greater narrative thrust persists, but nothing too gaudy in the spirit of the grandest and most mystical of Hollywood tales. This shift finds Nights of Cabiria at a cross-roads, arguably the cross-roads of Italian cinema, after the nation’s submersion in troubling realism and before it would peruse the various stratospheres of enticing genre cinema dreams circling around the nation’s head. Italian cinema in the 1960s looks virtually nothing like Italian cinema in the early ’50s, and Nights of Cabiria is as majestic and pointed a shifting point as you could hope to imagine.
A shifting point that leads to a best-of-both-worlds. Nights knows well the pleasures of the more promiscuous exploration of later Italian cinema; Fellini plays with gauzy camerawork and interrogates the searing warmth and bold pastoral of a more magical land beyond realism, just as he investigates something more noirish and relentlessly weeping with chiaroscuro. The film never fully gives in to these impulses, however, a judicious rejection of its own dreams that perfectly serves a tale that is fundamentally about the myth of true love, of overpowering happiness, and the earthly rejection of the same impulses.
This thick undercurrent of difficulty cuts through the luminous lights and melodrama of the piece, begging us to imbibe in Cabiria’s lustful and honest human vision of a better world and then continually chopping that vision to pieces without ever once resorting to cruelty or mocking brutality against Cabiria. It is plainly obvious, here more than in any neo-realist piece, that Fellini genuinely loves Cabiria, and that her simple vision of love is the great human hope that keeps us all driving forward in dark times. The greater focus on contrasted, almost mystical lighting and foggy cityscapes draws us into the essence of her dreams and her hopes in a way that the limits of realism deny, and they make the film’s side-treks into realism all the more pointed and challenging. The realism becomes not a skeletal structure, but a harsh jab in the stomach, a come-down from the heights of Cabiria’s starstruck eyes. It is as if she is imagining her Hollywood romance and having it taken away from her, and the film’s contrasting and melding of styles achieves this contrast with luminous results. Cabiria’s eyes become portals into the warm hopes of a woman and the abuse of that woman, and all women, by men who masquerade with money and love and only seek to abuse and take advantage of her search for genuine human comfort.
In the film’s final moments, Fellini provides us with one of the most singularly sublime statements of mixed emotion in all of cinema: Cabiria, having been bested by yet another man who only looks at her with superiority in the guise of love, cries a long walk, before being surrounded by other human joy and passion, and the faintest whisper of a smile peaks out of her sadness. The people may not represent reality or human kindness as they exist in real life, but they locate the abstract idea of a kindness we all require to keep on going. They are Fellini’s ultimate paean to this lost, and hopefully found again, woman, and to the visions of joy and the need for hope that persist even in the darkest moments. Nights of Cabiria is Fellini submitting to a producer’s desire for glamour, giving us that glamour only to take it away, and then gifting it to us again in a manner that is all the more meaningful only because it has been denied us throughout the film. It feels like Fellini rejuvenating himself.