A quarter-century ago - October 31st 1993 - Federico Fellini died from complications of a heart attack he suffered a day after celebrating his fiftieth wedding anniversary. His memorial service at Cinecittà in Rome a few weeks later was attended by 70,000 people. Twenty-five years on, for our Saturday movie date I thought I'd pick something from that heyday of "Hollywood on the Tiber". I came to Fellini's 1957 smash Nights of Cabiria the wrong way round - because I was writing something about Sweet Charity, the musical Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon drew from it a decade later. In both versions, the central character is a girl fall-guy who, in a handful of episodes, gets variously humiliated, cheated and assaulted by men. The two works have other similarities, not least in the relationship between director and actress: Miss Verdon was Fosse's wife, star and muse, as Giulietta Masina in Cabiria was to Fellini. She was the woman he spent those fifty years with, and died five months after him from lung cancer.
But the characters these two fine actresses are playing have crucial differences: Verdon's Charity is not, like Masina's Cabiria, a prostitute, only a "taxi dancer" — that's to say you rent them per number. It was a coy evasion at the time (1966), and it seems even more so now. Yet Masina's tart, a shopworn waif with a big heart in search of someone to give it to, is an even bigger cliché, a conclusion underlined by the old-fashioned indicating of her performance: Look, I'm cute! Look, I'm vulnerable! Look, I'm angry! The only thing to be said for this approach is that hookers and lap-dancers and so forth often wind up getting through their daily routines like bad actresses — playing to gullible clients as if they are, in effect, the stars of their own ongoing C- or D-movie, forever pouting, flouncing, striking poses. The bad ones betray their boredom (cf Stormy Daniels). If Masina sails perilously close to the proverbial tart-with-heart, it may be for the reason that a lot of tarts model themselves on the versions they see in movies.
That's a kind of intellectual defense of the star. A better one is that Masina's Cabiria is an irresistible fireplug of a performance. She's not a glamorous beauty - like, say, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman - and not really the type that Hollywood risks betting a major feature on. Not is she the appealingly daffy ditz type that Miss Verdon on Broadway and then Shirley MacLaine in the screen version exemplify. Signora Masina makes you like her on sheer personality and human sympathy, veering from merry to melancholy as effortlessly as Nino Rota's beautiful score does. Rota's main theme has a strong claim to being the most life-affirming film music ever written, and it's perfect for the central character. And Rota's presence on the team is a good example of this picture's attention to detail in every department. Cabiria's producer, Dino de Laurentiis, was on the brink of almost as spectacular a career as Fellini's, one that lasted from La Strada in that glorious Tiberian youth to the Silence of the Lambs prequel, Hannibal Rising, over half a century later - in between which came Barbarella, Serpico, Death Wish, The Shootist, the King Kong remake, Conan the Barbarian, Blue Velvet, on and on.
As for Fellini, in 1957 he was not yet the global star La Dolce Vita would shortly make him, but the directorial signature is unmistakably his from the opening scene: people moving, the camera dancing with them in long shot. Cabiria and a young man called Giorgio emerge from some scrub on the outskirts of Rome, where they've presumably been sating their passion. She's in love, he's in a hurry. So he steals her handbag and pushes her into the Tiber. She can't swim and the current's carrying her into deeper peril. "If she gets to the sewer, she'll never come up again," says one of the boys on the bank.
And that's the question at the heart of the film: once you're in the sewer, can you ever come up again?
If you've seen Sweet Charity on stage or in Fosse's film version, you'll be struck by how the American version (written by Neil Simon) follows Fellini scene for scene and sometimes line for line, yet manages to give every moment an entirely different emotional impulse. In Charity, for example, our heroine also gets shoved in the drink — this time, the lake in Central Park — but it's not life threatening and just played for laughs. Likewise, both Cabiria's and Charity's desperation to "change my life" lead them to charismatic religious leaders, but in Cabiria the episode ends in the bleak disappointment of miracles that never happen while in Charity it's just an excuse for a hippy-dippy, beads'n'kaftans, swingin' Sixties love-in set to "The Rhythm Of Life". The only point at which original and adaptation are truly in tune is the episode in which Cabiria/Charity gets picked up by a famous movie star. "Hey, chicks!" shouts Cabiria to her pals from the back of his convertible. "Take a look who's with me!" Or, as Charity sings back in the star's apartment, "If My Friends Could See Me Now". Fellini had Chaplin's City Lights in mind for that scene, and, in their way, Fosse and Verdon make the hommage explicit by having Charity do her "little tramp" impression in the middle of the dance.
The biggest difference between the two versions comes in the sombre and transcendental finale. But running it a close second is the seven-minute sequence belatedly restored to the film in the 1990s. In this episode, Cabiria gets dumped from a truck on the edge of town and meets a man dispensing alms from a sack to various lowlifes, including a deranged old whore spending her retirement in a hole in the ground. In the car of this good and kindly man, en route back to Rome, there is a rare moment of real rapport, shy, tender, tentative, in which Cabiria even tells her benefactor her real name. It seems incredible that anyone could ever have considered dropping this sequence — it's some of Masina's best acting — and even more amazing that Fellini and de Laurentiis did so, supposedly, because the Catholic Church, as the dominantcharitable institution in Italy, was concerned at the way the scene implied their role could be carried out more effectively by a freelance.
As to the matter of the hooker's nom de guerre, Cabiria was also the name of a 1914 film hit in Italy, a costume drama about a slave girl. Perhaps this is coincidence, but perhaps not: whenever this Cabiria talks about films she's seen they're always "costume dramas" - and indeed, in English, (K)Nights of Cabiria sounds like some swashbuckling'n'wenching franchise. Yet, with such slight details, Fellini and his two regular co-writers Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano flesh out their character. And the best thing about Giulietta Masina's performance is that, from five minutes into the picture, you feel as if she's been inhabiting this role all her life. After Dolce Vita made Fellini a star, he made himself the star — the real leading man of every picture he made. But in this film he came up with a wonderfully sad/funny character for the ages. The joyous images of Cabiria mamboing in the streets of Rome will stay with you forever.
~Mark talks to Cy Coleman, the composer of the above-mentioned Sweet Charity, in a special episode of The Song of You, and eulogizes him in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade. If you prefer your storytelling with a Continental locale, don't forget our latest Tale for Our Time - Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, all of whose episodes can be found here.
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