The films feel like kindred spirits with their shared motif of saintly women keeping their chins cocked to the sky despite the ugliest reality. Empathetic portraits of society's outsiders, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria share a concern with the sorry lot of women in traditional society and a picaresque vision of characters whose journeying from place to place presents a portrait of every strata of Italian society.
The event that opens Fellini's gorgeous, lyrical Nights of Cabiria would make a lesser woman crumble. Led to the river's edge on the outskirts of Rome by her boyfriend, Cabiria (Masina) is then thrown into the drink and her purse stolen. But the heroine of Fellini's wry, tender, captivating ode to the resilience of the human heart has a child's forgiving spirit. One of the peasants who rescues Cabiria from drowning declares, "you can thank the holy Father," and to some extent, despite a fair share of disappointments, Cabiria's life seems invested with an element of magic that allows her to exceed the limitations of her reality as an aging prostitute on the lower rung of Italian society.
Cabiria makes up for her lousy morning in the company of a jilted actor Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), who takes Cabiria on a nighttime stroll through Rome, where they dance the mambo and visit Lazzari's lavish villa. There is a dressing of wackiness to the proceedings but also a tenderness that comes to define this bittersweet film. The uppercrust at the Roman nightclubs, including Lazzari himself and his butler, all greet Cabiria's brief journey into their world with an amused embrace: Her spirit enlivens the more dissolute locations in the film but also lends an air of grace to the jaded, moneyed locales.
Rome, as seen through Cabiria's eyes (and Fellini's lens) is a human circus where African dancers perform their "tribal" act at the Piccadilly nightclub and couture-draped whores stroll the fancier avenues of the city while Cabiria and her confreres roam the less atmospheric Passeggiata Archeologica on the outskirts of town. On the city's fringe there are cinderblock houses and miles of scrub brush and packs of children who patrol the wasted landscape. It's a Rome reminiscent of the dire poverty of postwar neorealist Italian cinema and contrasted with the wealth of Villa Lazzari, where the closets sing a sweet tune when opened.
Cabiria is witness to the diversity of the city, as when she encounters a man who delivers food to people living in caves on the city's periphery. This episode was cut from the film after its 1957 premiere because of the Catholic church's objections to Fellini's sympathetic portrait of a layman engaged in charitable duties the church saw as its own province.
Though the term "Fellini-esque" seems more often invoked in reference to the bizarre fantasias of his later years (Satyricon, Juliet of the Spirits), there are touches of the outsize and extreme in these early films, too, despite their debt to neorealism. From the supersize hooker in skintight garb on a self-delusional trip who every night berates the whores as she strolls her parcel of Passeggiata Archeologica, to the swan-necked, soigne patrons of the Piccadilly nightclub who look like fashion sketches of female pulchritude, the denizens of Fellini's early films are a kind of colorful plumage that enliven a tale that could easily veer into the morbid.
Fellini's 1954 La Strada is a masterpiece in its own right, but one whose grittiness and instances of a woman put through the emotional wringer can go down a little harder than the gossamer atmosphere of Cabiria. Anthony Quinn is an itinerant performer, Zampano, who returns to the countryside to replenish his stock of female sidekicks. When her sister Rosa dies on the road, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is purchased from her impoverished mother as a replacement for Zampano's act.
The sweet, soft-headed Gelsomina sets off on the road with Zampano, who turns out to be a bully and a rogue who expects sexual favors from Gelsomina, and then abandons her on the roadside while he romances a small-town strumpet. But Gelsomina remains devoted to him -- his scant attention seems a tonic to fuel her adoration.
As Zampano, Quinn is gruff and crude, and in every way more intellectually and emotionally stunted than the simple-minded Gelsomina. The same sense of grace that flows from Cabiria's forgiving spirit occurs again in La Strada, although by the time Zampano realizes how profoundly the simple Gelsomina has touched him, it is too late.
La Strada and Nights of Cabiria share not only a leading lady, whose acrobatically expressive face led many to compare her to Chaplin (and have led others to critique the melodramatic extremes of her performance style), but also an attitude of grace that seeps into even the most dire situations. The human world may neglect Gelsomina and Cabiria, but the heavens seem to look down on them. "Even as a child, I couldn't help but notice who didn't fit in for one reason or another -- myself included," Fellini has remarked. For Fellini, being an outsider is a curse that nevertheless brings with it greater insight into the human condition.
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