I find questions about ‘favorite film, song, book, play or artist’ or ‘what’s the one movie, song, or book you’d want to have if stranded on a desert island?’ annoying. At any moment, on any day I could give a different yet equally honest answer. I admit to feeling a bit like a “party pooper” when confronted with this question and I bring up that point and start in with my counter-questions about what genre or ask the obvious one of “how am I going to watch it on a desert island?” when everyone else is just having fun with it and excited to share their own. I now have an answer I can stand behind.
I have been thinking about great last lines in film which led me to thinking about great last scenes in film, which brought me to Nights of Cabiria. As I thought about Cabiria, the title character, and her story, I realized that Nights of Cabiria is a natural for my ‘desert island movie’ pick. Nights of Cabiria is one of my favorite Fellini movies and is among many films I enjoy re-watching and in Cabiria I find a soul I could be lifelong friends with.
We have little in common except perhaps our mutual love of music and the joy it brings. But commonalities aren’t required components of true friendship or respect. Cabiria makes a living as a prostitute in a rough end of town, but this is not what defines her. She lives in a shack in a bit of a wasteland, but this is not what defines her. Somehow in her rough life she has managed to own the shack and save some money, money taken from her by the man she thought loved her who then pushes her in the river leaving her to perhaps drown, but this is not what defines her. She seeks true love, a better life like so many of us…but this is not what defines her. What defines her is the way she responds to the disillusionments she encounters.
New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther described Cabiria as “eternally hopeful…not surprised by cruel turns of fortune but forever prepared for the best.” Cabiria moves from one disillusionment to another. She continues to trust, to her the world is not a big scary mean place…it just is as she finds it, full of life, full of music and her own steadfast happiness. There is nothing false in this. Cabiria is unique, yes, and as I describe her she may seem unreal, unbelievable but watch this film. Giulietta Massina IS Cabiria, and Cabiria is the genuine article. She is not immune to pain or suffering or disappointment or cruelty. She angers, she despairs, she cries, she even fights. These also are life. Cabiria does not wallow in these darker emotions, they don’t repaint her world, one man may steal from her and even try to drown her, but she doesn’t assume the next man will be the same. Each encounter is begun anew. She doesn’t settle in with darkness or pain or disillusionment for long, rather she rides them out until Nino Rotta’s score fills her inner personal soundtrack as she dances back to life and love and trust and hope. Her indomitable spirit lifts her face into a smile and sets her to dancing and thus she begins again.
Let me get back to my ‘great last lines’ theme. Sometimes the last line in film is not spoken, but delivered by expression. In the last scene of Nights of Cabiria, Cabiria has sold her little shack planning to give the money to a man who has promised to marry her…there is a walk in the woods, a cliff and by now you fear the worst. Cabiria saves herself but loses her money in this biggest heartbreak so far. Cabiria walks along the road to town alone, crying, downtrodden. Eventually she is overtaken by a group of young people walking, dancing, riding scooters, playing music. The camera moves in to a mascaraed tear falling along Cabiria’s cheek and at the same time her inner fire, her pure joie de vivre fuels her resilience and fills her eyes and she looks at us with dance and music and hope.
I’m reminded of a line from Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),
“…he not busy being born is busy dying.”
Cabiria is busy being born. Living life. Loving life and I’d be proud to have her friendship anywhere, maybe especially on a desert island.
Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria), 1957, directed by Federico Fellini, Cabiria played masterfully by Giulietta Masina, signature score by Nino Rotta, behind the camera Aldo Tonti and Otello Martelli. Look for The Criterion Collection restoration.