Monday, 20 January 2020

Nights of Cabiria

Off to the cinema to see Nights of Cabiria, a classic Italian film from 1957. It stars Giulietta Masina's eyebrows, and also the rest of her, but mostly her eyebrows, which are fantastic.

See what I mean? Nights of Cabiria was directed by Frederico Fellini, who was Masina's husband. Fellini would be one hundred years old today if he had not died in 1993 or any other year before now. As a tribute the British Film Institute has re-released some of his films, which is how I had a chance to see Cabiria on the big screen, at the BFI South Bank. The last time I saw a film at the BFI South Bank an autistic person screeched at Eli Wallach, but that didn't happen this time.

Cabiria has been given a new 4K restoration. I can't comment on the quality of the work - I've never seen the film on a big screen before - but I didn't notice any problems. In common with most Italian films of the period the dialogue was dubbed in afterwards, so the characters often speak without moving their lips, but Fellini's films take place in a fantasy world all their own, so the occasionally wonky dubbing just adds to the charm.

I can confirm that Cabiria enraptured the audience for two hours and got some good laughs. Not polite laughs, but actual spontaneous real laughs. There was applause at the end. Before the film there was a short talk by Carol Morley, who is a film-maker. She couldn't remember the first time she heard about Fellini, and neither can I.

I can however remember the first time I heard about Carol Morley. It was 18 January 2020, and I was reading through the programme notes for the BFI's screening of Nights of Cabiria. I remember it vividly because it was only two days ago.

Our heroine's house.

I grew up in the 1980s, so I find it hard to write about Frederico Fellini, Pier Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni et al. Grand old Italian film directors of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of them - such as Bernardo Bertolluci and Franzo Zeffirelli, who weren't quite legendary enough to be mononyms - were still active and winning awards in the 1980s, but I have a sense that in the age of Spike Lee and David Lynch they were thought of as passé. You weren't supposed to rate them.

Firstly because it was too obvious. It would be like saying that your favourite classical musician was Beethoven, or that your favourite band was The Beatles. Secondly because in the 1980s it was trendy to shit on idols of the past. And thirdly because in the 1950s and 1960s European cinema was sold to Mr and Mrs Ordinary of suburban nowheresville as culturally uplifting. The idea was that Mrs Ordinary would badger Mr Ordinary into taking them both to the cinema to see one of Fellini's films in the hope that exposure to culture would stir something within them.

They would hire a babysitter, because continental films were for grown-ups only. Mr Ordinary would have gone along in the hope that Anita Ekburg might take her clothes off, although he would have been disappointed. On Monday they would boast to their friends that they had gone to see a Fellini film, although inwardly they would have been disappointed by it. What was the fuss about?

Sixty kilotons of bombs were dropped on Rome during the Second World War. It took a while for the city to grow back.

But their disappointment didn't matter, because the distributors got their money. All films are sold in one way or another, and Fellini's films were no exception. In his case, and that of the French New Wave, the Czech New Wave, the non-aligned films of Ingmar Bergman and so forth, the films were sold both on their own merits and as part of a movement, and of course by the 1980s the world had changed and some of the illusion had worn off.

There's another factor as well; in the modern age Fellini and Berman get woke points for writing strong female characters, but they are docked several points for the airbrushed whiteness of their films, although Bergman wins back some points because his films are so incredibly white that they almost work as parodies of whiteness. Fellini also wins back a couple of points for gently mocking the Catholic church, but loses them again because he had a habit of filling his films with quote freaks unquote, who were presented as "the other", which doesn't sit well with contemporary sensibilities.

Nonetheless it's hard to hate Fellini, and Nights of Cabiria is a good example of why that is. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Feature, but it's better than that. It's unpretentious, subtle, clever without being arty, good-looking without drawing attention to itself. It was overshadowed by Fellini's later work and I have the impression that it languished in relative obscurity until the late 1990s, when it was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, but from that point onward it developed a second wind. It was picked up by blogs, and of course Giulietta Masina's face is magnetic; the posters did the rest. Now it's a classic, the kind of Fellini film that you can talk about in polite company without coming across as shallow. It is Fellini's The Conversation. Fellini's Mirror. Fellini's Drunken Angel etc.

It's the "too obvious" factor again, see. No-like likes to spend time with a boring person. If you say that your favourite Fellini film is La Dolce Vita people assume that you haven't seen any of his other films. If you pick Satyricon or Casanova you actually have to do some work to justify your choice. Nights of Cabiria on the other hand wins instant approval. It doesn't require explanation and everybody likes it.

The film was shot largely on location. This is Rome's central station, Termini, which looks much the same today. How could anybody be mean to Giulietta Masina?

What's it like? What's the film like? It's essentially a kitchen sink drama, albeit that it takes place in Rome rather than Salford, so to my eyes it looks a lot more glamorous than Look Back in Anger or A Taste of Honey. How did Italian audiences react to it? I have no idea. It was shot a few years before Italy's post-war economic boom, so although all of the characters are well-dressed and dripping with sprezzatura they mostly live in abject poverty, dreaming of a better life that, from their point of view, might never come. They are engaged in a race against time to better themselves before they grown old.

It's also a comedy, and parts of it could easily have been adapted for a Carry On film. At one point a handsome man hides his one-night stand in the bathroom so that his long-term girlfriend doesn't find out that he has been playing the field, although Cabiria stands apart from the Carry On films in that it's told from the point of view of the one-night stand rather than the handsome man, who is portrayed as a vain, shallow brute.

Our heroine - she calls herself Cabiria, although her real name is Maria - owns a tiny house made of concrete blocks. It's bleak, but her situation could be worse. Some of her friends have to sleep outdoors, and some of her former peers live in caves. The scene where Cabiria discovers the cave-dwellers was cut from the film before release and re-added when it was restored in 1998. It's not essential, but it helps to illustrate our heroine's fear that she will end up homeless.

Cabiria is, not to put too fine a point on it, a good-time girl. A floozy. The film presents this more explicitly than for example Breakfast at Tiffany's, although this being 1957 there's still at least an implication that Cabiria merely hangs out with rich men rather than sucking their knobs off. The film is essentially a picaresque in which our heroine repeatedly attempts to better herself and fails each time, through no real fault of her own, and in the hands of a different director and with a different lead actress we wouldn't remember it today.

But of course it was directed by Frederico Fellini, and it has Giulietta Masina, who - in the words of the chap who wrote The Criterion Contraption - has a face for the ages. Fellini had a thing for distinctive faces, and Cabiria is packed with them, but Masina stands out. She is a furious ball of compressed energy; her acting is broad and expressive, at times reminiscent of the performance style of silent films, but I'm not complaining.

Fellini's direction is relatively transparent. He points the camera at Masina and lets her do her thing. A few shots stand out, but for the most part he gets out of the way, which is a skill in itself. The film slows down in the second half, and a sequence in which the cast pray for salvation from the Catholic church feels as if Fellini had been asked to pull his punches - unlike Cabiria's other ventures it doesn't end in complete disaster, it merely leaves her feeling unfulfilled - and the finale might have benefited from a less subtle touch, but on the whole it's a terrific film that has aged extremely well.

Back in 1957 Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote that "the film runs for an hour and fifty minutes, which is too long for the little it has to tell", and I can sympathise, although if someone asked me to cut a few minutes here or there I would refuse to do it. He also felt that the contrast between the bleak reality of the film and Masina's up-beat performance was too stark, but I disagree; I have the impression that the film is presented from Cabiria's point of view, and she is a dust-yourself-off, get-on-with it type.

Cabiria herself is a realistically frustrating character. She is at times her own worst enemy, but she never becomes obnoxious. Like Mr and Mrs Ordinary mentioned up the page she imagines a perfect life that you can only have if you're born to it, and even then it's not enough. It's never enough.

Two examples of Fellini's compositions, which ease the story along without being overpoweringly arty. NB These screen grabs come from the 1999 Criterion DVD, which by now looks a little dated.

Anything else? I don't want to give away the ending, but it's bittersweet. My personal theory is that it's not as bad as it seems, because for the first time our heroine can actually go to the police. Earlier in the film she couldn't, because she would have been arrested for prostitution, but this time she can truthfully say that she did nothing wrong. The police would probably have been useless, but there's an implication that the man who wrongs her is a serial con-artist, so perhaps she might have ended up at least with her money, if not her house. And of course Italy's economy picked up in the 1960s. A few years later Cabiria might have got a job in an office in Rome somewhere. A boring life but with a steady wage. She would have retired in 1980, older and wiser.

Pier Pasolini tarted up the film's dialogue. There's a certain irony about Pasolini. He began writing dramas such as Cabiria in which working-class Italians struggled with poverty. Then Italy's economy improved, and working-class Italians got jobs and bought cars and televisions etc, at which point Pasolini mocked them for being bourgeois. Would he have preferred Italians to stay poor forever? Was he in fact just a self-righteous snob who detested people who he felt were beneath him? If you know the answer to either of these questions I would, as always, like you to write the word "maybe" on a postcard and send it to Sir Iain Duncan Smith care of the House of Commons. Don't include a return address. You are the reason he behaves the way he does.

As mentioned earlier there's the issue of woke points. Several characters tell our heroine that her life is incomplete without a husband and children, which in theory should result in the removal of several woke points, but the dialogue is delivered by crusty old authority figures who are presented as old-fashioned and patronising, so fair enough. Fellini gets to keep those points. The men in the film are almost universally beastly to Cabiria but she still clings to heteronormative behaviour.

BAME representation is also problematic. There are only two (2) BAME characters, both mute, who are presented as a novelty - Cabiria herself is either unimpressed or disgusted by them - so the film should really be banned, but on the other hand the white characters in that scene are also presented as novelties, but then again the implication is that "the white people are as weird as black people", so yes I suppose the film should be banned after all. It should be banned and the negatives burned, or at least not widely distributed among the proles. Obviously you and I will still be allowed to watch it, because we're intelligent enough to resist its evil.

So, in summary, Nights of Cabiria is a disgusting piece of retrograde trash that should be ripped from the projector and burned, and yet I enjoyed it, so perhaps I am the one who should be ripped up and burned. In the next post I'm going to open up an old laptop, just you wait.