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Nights of Cabiria: Philosophical Expansion of Neorealism and Female Struggle

by admin on November 1, 2011

Although classified as a Neorealist, Fellini defies this label more so than he confirms it. This is because his best accomplishments stem from the unconventional aspects of his films. Guest post by Lorenzo Vidali.

Rooted in deep philosophical disagreement with Neorealism, Fellini chooses to wander into dreams and fantasy rather than focusing on a concrete, historically based narrative, saying:

I’m a liar, but an honest one [Fellini, Fellini on Fellini, p. 49].

In other words, the literal content of his films is historically false, but they allude to intangible meanings that are in and of themselves true. Thus, he abandons practical realism for a metaphysical one, using unorthodox technique to address spiritual realities instead of socioeconomic conditions. In his book Fellini on Fellini, he writes:

Realism is a bad word. In a certain sense everything is realistic. I see no dividing line between imagination and reality. I see a great deal of reality in imagination. Realism is neither a tight enclosure nor a one-dimensional panorama. A landscape, for instance, has a number of layers, and the deepest, which only poetic language can reveal, is not the least real. What I want to show beyond the outer surface of things is what people call ‘unreal.’ [p. 152]

His work has expanded the genre from simply (according to contemporary French critics) “showing that unjust and perverted social structures threaten to warp and pervert the essential and internal human values,” to detailing the psychological struggle of individuals who strive for human connection in a lonely world [Liehm, Neorealism is like… p. 135].  Nights of Cabiria, therefore, is an expansion of Neorealism’s philosophical reach. It addresses the human condition rather than our social condition:

Our trouble, as modern men, is loneliness, and this begins in the very depths of our being… Only between man and man, I think, can this solitude be broken, only through individual people can a kind of message be passed, making them understand – almost discover – the profound link between one person and the next. [Fellini, Fellini on Fellini, p. 61]

This theme, virtually ubiquitous throughout all his films, has a more specific manifestation in Cabiria (1956), which focuses on the plight of women. That is, it shows them playing an important role in “calling others to spirituality and love” [Fellini, Fellini on Fellini, p. 62]. Using episodic structure, character motifs, open endings, and borrowing from surrealist aesthetics, Fellini delves deeper into psychological realm of the human condition, as Nights of Cabiria displays the emotional struggle of a woman who resiliently strives for love and connection against all odds.

It is important, as a start, to recognize the commonalities between Fellini and Neorealism proper, one of which is the dominance of micro-action over macro-action [Bazin, Cabiria: The Voyage to the End of Neorealism, p. 90]. Just like Bitter Rice (dir. Giuseppe De Santis, 1950) and Sciuscia (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1947), Cabiria places priority on individual episodes within the story; but unlike the others it lends more emphasis to “phenomenological description of the characters” than to causality [Bazin, “Cabiria: The Voyage to the End of Neorealism,” p. 90]. In Sciuscia, for example, we follow the two boys as their unfortunate encounter with the robbers leads to their imprisonment, and eventually, Giuseppe’s death. Under Fellini’s direction, however, Cabiria endures a series of distinct misadventures, which are linked through thematic parallels rather than a causal chain. In the beginning, Giorgio deceives Cabiria, stealing her purse and leaving her to drown. After being saved by a group of boys, her humiliation leads to anger, erasing any gratitude for having been saved.

Indeed, aggression as a concealment for an injured ego remains one of Cabiria’s main character traits, which ties the disjointed episodes together [Murray, Fellini the Artist, p. 100].

When she arrives at her typical “night shift” location, her anger breaks out again, this time against an older prostitute named Matilda. The source of her rage (bitter disappointment) is just as important a motif as the anger itself. In each stage of the film, Cabiria’s expectations are violated, first by Giorgio.

“…the heroine is finally driven to reveal the extent of her hurt: ‘Why did he do it?’ she asks. ‘Why? I gave him everything. Why would he shove me in the river for a mere forty thousand lire? I loved him” [Murray, Fellini the Artist, p. 101].

Next in line to disappoint is a well-known movie star, who after an intense argument with his attractive mistress, summons Cabiria to divert himself for the evening. Intoxicated by her temporary status (by proxy), the protagonist gloats to herself, imagining the jealousy of her rival prostitutes when they discover who she has been with. When they return from the nightclub to the actor’s lavish mansion, we witness a brief moment of connection as they eat and talk about Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Even after receiving an autographed picture as proof of the evening, Cabiria’s desire to gloat is momentarily superseded by a glimmer of hope that her rapport with the actor could grow; but it is immediately quashed when his blonde lover returns. Cabiria must hide in the bathroom, where she spends the night with a puppy as her only consolation: a harsh return to her low and lonely condition.

Anger and disappointment continue to define her experience when she and her companions visit the Madonna to confess their sins in exchange for forgiveness, renewal, and the power to change. At first, her skepticism causes her to brush off the entire ceremony; but hope inevitably lures her in. The surrounding fervor brings the film to its most dramatic point yet, as Cabiria, swept up by her surroundings, weeps for forgiveness and relief along with the other worshippers. Outside the church, disappointment once again leads to anger. Intoxicated with alcohol, and wanting for diving intervention she screams:

We haven’t changed!

These patterns continue and intensify as the story progresses. Under hypnosis she suffers letdown and humiliation, reacting with anger. Her first encounters with Oscar are subdued by cynical distrust, followed by, hope, joy, love, and intense relief, once again to be followed by tragic disappointment when Oscar robs her as Giorgio did. In all instances, Fellini manages to connect episodes using emotional motifs instead of causality [Stubbs, Federico Fellini as Auteur, p. 55]. Therefore, he is able to address the psychology of oppression instead of the social structures responsible. The film depends on an emotional cycle for this to work: cynicism, hope, joy, disappointment, anger. Unlike the beginning, however, the ending is more uplifting, as Cabiria is cheered up by a lively band of young musicians, a testament to her willingness to soldier on and continue her search for happiness.

For a Neorealist film, this ending is atypical and serves a unique function. As stated by Rosselini, Neorealism is a moral position that governs the content and aesthetics of a film to deliver a message [Liehm, Neorealism is like …, p. 129].

Fellini disagrees: “I never make moral judgments. I’m not qualified to do so. I am not a censor, a priest or a politician” [Fellini, Fellini on Fellini, p. 51].

Consequently, the ending of Nights of Cabiria differs from traditional Neorealist films in a way that reflects this discord. In Sciuscia, Giuseppe dies, illuminating the futility of vengeance. In Bitter Rice, Silvana also dies, showing the ultimate result of betrayal. In Cabiria, the last shot is her smiling. She has no money, no place to go, and the future is uncertain. In the spirit of showing rather than telling, Fellini used this ending to underscore the resilience of Cabiria’s search for love and happiness; but he does not try to state the result of this persistence. He only shows it continues to exist.

It is important to note that Fellini could not have accomplished this without capable talent. If not for the talents of Giulietta Masina, the emotional affect of the film could not have been achieved:

Miss Masina gives a remarkable performance, capturing shades of pain and happiness that are rarely approached on the screen. Her pathos is almost unbearable [Fava, The Films of Federico Fellini, p. 96].

Nonetheless, Fellini does employ strategies independent of actor performance, one of which is defamiliarization.

One goal of conventional Neorealist films is to bring the spectator closer to reality through a disclosure of detail that familiarizes the audience with a particular setting or context [Liehm, Neorealism is like …, p. 132]. Fellini, on the other hand, employs a kind of “visual decadence” that promotes new, unfamiliar perspectives [Stuffs, Federico Fellini as Auteur, p. 55]. He does this in two ways: one, as mentioned before, is the separation of plot into distinct episodes that could very easily be shuffled to produce the same overall affect. Another, as exemplified by the ending of Cabiria, harkens back to surrealism.

After Cabiria’s final fit of despair in the face of Oscar’s betrayal, she wanders out of the woods onto a lonely road, despondent and overwhelmed. As she walks, a group of young musicians parade down the road past her, whistling and singing cheerfully. In the final shot, Cabiria nearly breaks the fourth wall as she cannot help but absorb the joy of those around her, and she smiles toward the audience. The appearance of the musicians is unwarranted, reminiscent of random apparitions in our dreams. They defy pragmatic realism, but serve a meaningful purpose in highlighting the persistence of Cabiria’s will to happiness.

A peculiar paradox, however, is Fellini’s own opinion on the moral power of avoiding a didactic morality in the ending of his films.

I feel that a film is the more moral if it doesn’t offer the audience the solution found by the character whose story is told. In other words, the man who has just seen a character sorting out his problems, or becoming good when he started off bad, finds himself in a much more comfortable situation… My films, on the contrary give the audience a very exact responsibility. For instance, they must decide what Cabiria’s end is going to be. Her fate is in the hands of each one of us. If the film has moved us, and troubled us, we must immediately begin to have new relationships with our neighbors. This must start the first time we meet our fiends or our wife, since anyone may be Cabiria – that is a victim [Fellini, Fellini on Fellini, p. 150].

In sum, Fellini employs episodic structure, emotional motifs, open endings, and a flamboyant surrealist visual style to touch upon the intangible aspects of the human condition: suffering, longing, love, and striving.

In order to clarify his framing of the female role, however, it is important to briefly illustrate the predominant role of male characters, who themselves chase after something. Giorgio and Oscar clearly pursue money. The wealthy actor, in his boredom and disillusionment, expresses the futility of wealth, which cannot quench his thirst for human connection. He finds a brief moment of solace with Cabiria, but in his own pursuit, he casts her aside in search of what she also is looking for, connection with a lover. In the church, all characters, male and female yearn for redemption and change.

Inevitably, the social aspect of Neorealism comes into play, as it is Cabiria’s low social status that ensures her repeated disappointment, because the men in her life continually cast her aside in search of their own version of fulfillment. Therefore, Nights of Cabiria does examine social structures, but with an emphasis on their psychological effects. In doing so it uses Cabiria as an example of women’s yearning for commitment in a society that breeds a seemingly unshakable restlessness among men, who are rarely content with their relationships, or are blinded by their pursuit of wealth. Nevertheless, the film does not propose change or impose a moral, rather it attempts to show the mental condition of humanity through the struggles of women.

Nights of Cabiria is not a study of one who develops in a certain moral direction – toward either good or evil – but of one who, in spite of constant disillusionment, finds the strength to declare: ‘Yes – I will go on. For it is better to smile than to weep, better to live than to die.’ Far from being merely a picture featuring another ‘whore with a heart of gold,’ Nights of Cabiria has a theme of universal significance [Murray, Fellini the Artist, p. 109].

Although Fellini rejects his Neorealist label, his contribution to the genre has expanded its ideological reach, giving it more power to contend with the dominant ideological machine of Hollywood. Rather than create characters who are defined by the conditions around them, Fellini creates characters who them selves represent a certain social condition [Bondanella, The Break with Neorealism: Fellini, p. 115].

As arguably one of the greatest directors in Cinema, Fellini both challenged and contributed to Neorealism by making a film that addresses many forms of reality, both spiritual and material. He discarded pragmatic realism in the pursuit of a metaphysical realism that penetrated far deeper into the human condition than the most “real” of traditional Neorealist motion pictures.


1. Bazin, Andre. “Cabiria: The Voyage to the End of Neorealism,” What is Cinema? Volume II. Berkely: University of California Press, 1971, 90.

2. Bondanella, Peter. “The Break with Neorealism: Fellini,” Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. Continuum: New York, 1997. 115.

3. Fava, Claudio G. Aldo Vigano. The Films of Federico Fellini. Citadel Press, 1981. 96.

4. Fellini, Federico. Fellini on Fellini. Zurich: Delacorte Press, 1974. 49, 51, 61, 62, 150, 152.

5. Liem, Mira. “Neorealism is like…” in Passion and Defiance” film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984. 129, 132, 135.

6. Murray, Edward. Fellini the Artist. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1976. 100, 101, 109.

7. Stubbs, John C. Federico Fellini as Auteur. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006. 55.


{ 1 comment }

Pete February 7, 2012 at 1:40 am

Great analysis. Well researched and well written. Thanks

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