REVIEW: “Nights of Cabiria”

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Nestled within Federico Fellini’s impressive filmography is “Nights of Cabiria”, a scintillating Italian drama that is rarely mentioned among the director’s greats (“8 1/2”, “La Dolce Vita”, etc.). It’s a shame considering the film earned Fellini one of his four Academy Awards and is regarded by some as his finest work. I find it hard to argue against the movie’s brilliance and greatness.

“Nights of Cabiria” sits firmly between Fellini’s shift from classical Italian Neorealism to the extravagant sensory experiences we would get later on. The neorealist’s spotlight on working class society and  economic hardships is represented from title screen to the film’s final frame. But we also see Fellini experimenting with a more crafty and stylish form of storytelling. It’s the early stages of what would literally burst into form three years later in “La Dolce Vita”.

Getting the film made wasn’t easy. Fellini peddled his story to a number of producers each of whom turned him down. It wasn’t until Dino De Laurentiis approached him with a five-film contract offer that Fellini was able to make his movie. With funding set Fellini then cast his wife Giulietta Masina in the lead role. This was a critical step since the lead character is in practically every scene and since the story hinges on her emotion and personality. Masina would go on to win the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Masina plays a ‘lady of the night’ but not in the usual vein. Her name is Cabiria and there is more to her than her occupation. She is different – unique is several regards. She is significantly smaller than all the other ladies who work with her. She isn’t the most alluring or attractive. She wears her emotions on her sleeve. Simply put, Cabiria isn’t a woman who would naturally grab your attention, but that doesn’t sway her. Regardless of her obstacles, Cabiria pushes forward clinging to any semblance of happiness and holding onto an internal hope that somewhere true love awaits.

Despite her deeper innocence and naivetĂ©, Fellini doesn’t portray Cabiria as a weak woman. She’s a tough cookie. She truly is a victim of circumstance who has survived due to her determination and wiles. For the audience her tiny shack of a home on the city outskirts is a sign of her tough life, but to Cabiria it’s a symbol of accomplishment. She proudly tells several people that she is a homeowner. And she isn’t afraid to be whisked away by a good dance tune – an effect of her sprightly optimism.

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But deep down there is a disappointment that she is deeply in tune with. The very first scene reveals it with uncomfortable clarity. She and her boyfriend are walking by the river in what resembles a romantic stroll. That is until he pushes her in and runs off with her purse full of money. We never see him again. The film is a series of encounters most with cruel outcomes. And Cabiria always seems to expect the disappointment and she accepts the hand she is dealt and moves on. Instead of concentrating on plot Fellini focuses on several tragic themes that grow more vivid with each of Cabiria’s encounters.

When developing the Cabiria character, both Fellini and Masina were said to be highly influenced by Chaplin’s Little Tramp. You can see it in her expressions, her mannerisms, and of course in many of her circumstances. There are moments when the resemblances feel a tad foreign to the tone of a specific scene, but for the most part it fits surprisingly well and it has such a unique contrast with several of the characters Cabiria meets.

“Nights of Cabiria” is filled with fine supporting performances, interesting visual touches, and poignant emotional moments. Fellini’s true-to-life themes simmer throughout the picture and many of them would resurface in “La Dolce Vita”. And at the core is Masina and her magnetic performance. She makes it impossible for us to lack sympathy for Cabiria despite some of the character’s poor decisions. We want her to rise above her circumstances and find the love she longs for. But as things progress Fellini leaves us cynical and skeptical. Like her we want to cling to the hope for happiness but ultimately fear the cloud of disappointment will be to much for her to overcome.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

2015 Blind Spot Series: “La Dolce Vita”

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For the film’s main character Marcello, La Dolce Vita or “the sweet life” is like a carrot dangling before a horse. It keeps him moving forward while remaining out of reach. Marcello, played with spot-on precision by Marcello Mastroianni, searches for happiness, contentment, and fulfillment – that good life hinted at by the movie’s title. But for him they are unattainable dreams. Or are they unattainable? Are they goals meant only for the more talented and affluent? Are they far-fetched canards that prey on gullible optimists? Or do they really exist if only he were looking in the right places? This is a small handful of the questions asked in “La Dolce Vita”.

Federico Fellini’s seminal classic has been broken down, dissected, and interpreted a number of different ways. The film’s basic structure becomes apparent as the movie progresses. It basically consists of seven independent episodes bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. It’s common timeframe starts at nighttime and then moves to the dawn that follows. Marcello serves as the common link between each episode. Many critics have highlighted the film’s significant sevens: the seven episodes, the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, etc. This is an intriguing perspective that begs for a more careful examination of the film. Personally I’m more drawn to other concepts and themes that Fellini explores.

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Marcello is our connection, our mooring, the pulsing blood vessel running through the entire film. Early in the movie he comes across as spirited and confident. In the famous opening prologue a helicopter is transporting a huge statue of Christ to St. Peter’s Square. Marcello follows in a second helicopter filming the event, but takes a detour to solicit phone numbers from some rooftop bathing beauties. In the first episode we see him at a lively nightclub where he brushes off the threat of a man who wants to “smash his face” and leaves with a beautiful heiress. In both of these scenes Marcello appears to be self-assured and full of energy.

But as the film moves forward and the layers of the character are peeled back, we see a very different man. Marcello is a tabloid journalist whose work consists of chronicling the escapades of wealthy socialites, pseudo-actors and actresses, and self-indulgent playboys. It’s shallow and unfulfilling work that does nothing to satisfy his desire to be a serious writer. In fact the longer we stay with Marcello, the clearer we sense his growing state of melancholy.

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Marcello Mastroianni perfectly displays the suave, voguish facade Fellini is going for. Mastroianni’s handsome face, well-groomed hair, fancy suits, and stylish sunglasses sells us a character who seems cool and satisfied. But we watch him grow more weary and jaded with each passing episode, with each superficial aristocrat he encounters, with every shallow and spurious ‘news story’ he covers. Through Marcello the film builds up a lavish, attractive, self-indulgent perspective and then knocks it to the ground. It tempts us to indulge in the trendy excesses of “the sweet life” while at the same time systematically destroying the very idea of “la dolce vita”.

Fellini’s view of the good life and the quest to capture it could be called cynical. But it could be he is pointing to a particular perception of the good life (one that was especially popular in 1959 Rome) and focusing on its seductive dishonesty. The film gives us plenty of great scenes and characters to examine in our search for answers. There is the early nightclub scene and the meeting of Maddalena (Anouk AimĂ©e), a rich and beautiful heiress who sees Marcello as her man of convenience. He clearly has feelings for her, but she basically uses him as her toy.

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Then there is the famous episode with Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) a ravishing buxom blonde actress from America. She arrives in Rome and Marcello is to report on her stay. Swarmed by obsessed news reporters (it’s from “La Dolce Vita” that we get the word paparazzi) Marcello dismisses Sylvia at first. But soon he falls for the ‘perfect woman’ aura that surrounds her and which culminates in the film’s most memorable moment – wading in the Trevi Fountain. But like waking up from a dream, Marcello’s romantic moment dissolves before his eyes. Again, something else outside of his reach.

Perhaps the most telling is the three-part episode revolving around Marcello’s friend Steiner (Alain Cuny). He’s a wealthy intellectual who represents everything Marcello hopes to be. He’s has a luxurious home, the perfect family, high-class friends. In one scene Marcello and his unstable fiancĂ© Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) attend a party at Steiner’s home. Marcello loves mingling with Steiner’s poet, artist, and intellectual friends and at one point Emma tells him that someday he will have Steiner’s material and social affluence. But in the third act of Steiner’s episode Fellini hits Marcello and us head-on with a not so subtle smack of reality. Another dream crushed under the weight of truth.

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This only scratches the surface of “La Dolce Vita ” and its numerous themes and concepts. I could talk about the scene where Marcello is typing at a seaside cafe and meets a young waitress named Paola – perhaps the one truly innocent character of significance he encounters. I could speak of the episode where Marcello’s father pays a visit. It’s the only clear look we get into Marcello’s past. I could go on and on. Fellini gives us so much to talk about and he never wastes a moment. Every episode and every scene offers something of narrative, thematic, or cinematic value.

I could go on and talk about the incredible visual technique used by Fellini, the diverse and personality-rich locales, the beautifully strategic use of music. With “La Dolce Vita” Federico Fellini has created a masterpiece that feeds off of every aspect of the cinematic experience. He captures your eyes with his entrancing visuals, he sucks you in through his fascinating characters, he challenges you through his intelligent thematic examinations. In a nutshell “La Dolce Vita” is cinema that we don’t see these days. Thankfully Fellini gave us this rich classic that is always worth revisiting.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

An examination of Fellini’s “8 1/2”

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Director Federico Fellini has long been one of Italy’s most important gifts to the world of cinema. A daring and proficient filmmaker, Fellini had a career that featured various stages of evolution. Most notably was his turn from popular Italian neorealism to an almost surreal fantasy mode of cinematic storytelling. There are some who have viewed Fellini’s shift in style and approach as a turn in the wrong direction and a small handful of his later films may support that view. But I can’t go along with that, especially when said style shift gave us treasures like “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2”.

“8 1/2” is a semi-autobiographical film that gets its name from the eight and a half feature films and shorts Fellini had made up to that point. For the first time in his life Fellini was experiencing a creative stall. His struggles with director’s block inspired him to start over and make a film about a prominent Italian director laboring through the same creative pains. Trusted actor and friend Marcello Mastroianni would play the lead role of Guido Anselmi who is an undeniable reflection of Fellini with a few added dramatic twists.

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At first glance it may be easy to dismiss “8 1/2” as a malaise of off-beat dream sequences and surreal imagery. But as with every great cinematic work, there are layers of creativity and ambition that one can’t appreciate with a single viewing. There is no doubting that at that point in his career Fellini was a visual storyteller and his images play a pivotal part in “8 1/2”. But they aren’t images just for the sake of images. Fellini has specific things in mind and it takes some digging to find their meaning.

Take his dream sequences as an example. Each of the film’s dream sequences serve as an escape for Guido – a refuge from the anxiety and stresses of his real life. But each dream also feeds us information about who Guido really is. Some are simply memories taken from his past. Some are past memories heightened with hyperbolic flare. Others are full blown dreams emphasizing Guido’s perspectives, his fantasies, or his different states of mind. In other words the dream sequences in “8 1/2” aren’t simply indulgences or vain attempts at masking Fellini’s uncertainties.

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While the movie isn’t thick with plot, it paints a mesmerizing portrait. Its story resides within the Guido character and the absorbing performance from Mastroianni. We get an idea of who Guido is through the film’s unforgettable opening scene. While caught up in a massive traffic jam smoke filters from the vents of his car filling the cab. Desperate for help he pounds the windows, but everyone around him simply stares. He manages to escape and makes an angelic-like ascension. But while in the air and getting a small taste of freedom, he feels the tug from a rope that is tied around his leg. On the other end of the rope is a member of his production team who represents the maddening life he can’t seem to escape.

Guido is surrounded by chaos. He is a respected director working on a big budget science fiction picture, but his deadline to begin filming has come and gone. A huge hunk of “8 1/2” takes place at a fancy Italian resort where his cast and crew have gathered to begin working on the film. The problem is Guido has hit a creative wall and his apathy is frustrating everyone involved. He is bombarded with pressure from his short-tempered producer, his misanthropic lead writer, a high-maintenance French actress, and several others from his production crew. Guido has no defined plan for his movie and we slowly witness the emotional toll it is taking on him.

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There is another contributor to Guido’s melancholy. It’s his messy, complicated web of relationships which includes his wife and mistress. The alluring Anouk AimĂ©e plays Guido’s wife Luisa, a smart and elegant woman frustrated by her husband’s indifference. Carla (Sandra Milo), his mistress, is a chintzy, nagging starlet who irritates as much as excites. It appears as if Guido juggles these relationships without an ounce of thought. At one point in the film he has both women at the resort at the same time. But is this simply a mismanagement of his mangled love life or is it an intentional move by a man desperate for some form of resolution? As with most of “8 1/2” there is more to it than what we see on the surface.

Guido’s perception of women, love, and romance is skewed. We see this in the film’s famous harem dream sequence which features all of the women in Guido’s life embodying various fulfillments of his imagination. While it does reveal his warped perspectives, the dream also visualizes the internal conflict that’s fueling Guido’s deteriorating state of mind. In essence Guido can’t escape the turmoil in his dreams or his reality. To combat this mental and emotional back-and-forth Guido loses himself in reoccurring visions of the “perfect” woman. The stunning Claudia Cardinale represents his ultimate fantasy. She is his symbol of purity, spontaneity, and innocence. She is always dressed in white and she appears with a ghostly elegance and grace. She is his dream girl.

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But as with everything else in Guido’s life, reality offers a much different perspective than his fantasies. That gets to the greater point of “8 1/2” – dealing with reality instead of fleeing from it and finding genuine inner happiness. At the same time and more directly Fellini examines the pains and pressures that accompany creativity – the inspirations and expectations filmmakers struggle with during the creative process. Roger Ebert called this the best film ever made about filmmaking. It’s hard to argue with him.

“8 1/2” is a movie that marches to its own beat and it doesn’t follow any established formula or convention. It is free of any and all caution and hesitation. It is a film that will undoubtedly still have detractors who won’t completely respond to its unbridled vision. But it could be said that the true beauty of “8 1/2” is found in its confusion. It’s found in the physical and psychological mayhem. It’s found in Fellini’s unique film language and audacious visual approach. And the most amazing thing about “8 1/2”? It found its genesis and inspiration in the mind of a struggling, burdened auteur. It just goes to show that true cinematic art, much like the life we choose to live, originates within us and not in some polished and meticulously detailed script.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

MOVIE CONFESSIONS

Well Nostra over at My Filmviews is at it again. The master blogathoner has put together a little thing called “Movie Confessions”. It’s a chance for movie fans to come clean and answer a series of questions that expose some of their cinema shortcomings as well as their past cinema vices. So I thought I should get in on the action. Nostra has asked and here are my answers:

1. Which classic movie don’t you like/can’t enjoy and why?

There are several that could easily be mentioned here – “Easy Rider”, “Toy Story 3”, “Fight Club”. But the main movie that instantly came to mind was Stanly Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”. This is a movie that’s considered monumental for the science fiction genre but I thoroughly detest it, and I’m a huge sci-fi guy! I’ve tried on three different occasions to watch it all the way through and to see what all of the hype was about but I just can’t. Kubrick’s blabbering self-indulgence didn’t work for me at all and I don’t see myself trying to watch it again. I know most consider it a great film and it’s certainly garnered it’s share of accolades, but I promise you, it’ll never make my list of favorite movies.

2. Which ten classic movies haven’t you seen yet?

Sigh. To my shame, I’ve yet to catch “Lawrence”

Gulp! This was the question that I feared the most (Nostra, how could you ask such a question?). Anyway, here it goes:

  1. Singin’ in the Rain” (Sorry, I HATE musicals)
  2. Lawrence of Arabia” (I’ve seen bits but not enough to say I’ve seen it)
  3. My Fair Lady” (Yes, another musical. I’m sorry, ok!)
  4. All the President’s Men” (This just never appealed to me. I know, no excuse.)
  5. West Side Story” (Sense a trend here?)
  6. East of Eden” (Dean’s first major role. Again, I have no excuse.)
  7. The Lion King” (I’m always slow to animated features. It’s to my shame.)
  8. Dr. Zhivago” (Incredibly popular yet I’ve never seen it.)
  9. A Streetcar Named Desire” (Another that I haven’t seen enough of to say I have.)
  10. Any of the “Harry Potter” films (It’s true…yes, it’s true.)

3. Have you ever sneaked into another movie at the cinema?

No. At least not to sit in and watch a full movie. Now I have walked into another room just to see what was happening on the screen. But I’ve never sneaked into a theater or another movie without paying. My hands are clean!

4. Which actor/actress do you think is overrated?

There are several actresses and actors that come to mind. Julia Roberts is certainly one. While she hasn’t been as big lately, she’s still considered a wonderful actress and honestly, I can’t see it. She’s a one-trick pony and so often her roles are just variations of the same performance. Jennifer Aniston is even more overrated. Sure she has the looks but at some point you have to be able to act. I think the roles she’s taking points to her serious lack of acting chops. But ahead of them both would be Angelina Jolie. Talk about someone getting roles for her looks alone (and now even her looks are long gone). She has flirted with decent performances but I’ve yet to see her do anything to warrant the attention she gets.

As far as actors go, Will Ferrell is popular and he seems to be a “love him or hate him” kinda guy. I’ve yet to see anything that earns him the praise he often gets. Worse than Ferrell is Seth Rogan. I know that since I don’t like raunchy comedies he naturally isn’t going to appeal to me, but does he really ever do anything else. Not only is he one-dimensional but I find him extremely annoying. But above all is Ashton Kutcher. Sure, I know he’s mainly reserved for TV these days but he still is a big attention-getter and people really like him. WHY? How does this guy have an acting career. I’ll never understand his popularity.

5. From which big director have you never seen any movie (and why)?

This one was really tough because I have seen films from most of the great directors. But one classic director that I have yet to see a film by is the Italian great Federico Fellini. He’s a highly accomplished and stylish film director and a winner of five Academy Awards. The sad part is that I have no good reason for not seeing any of his films, especially “8 1/2”, a movie that has been in my Netflix queue for months and months. I should have already watched some films made by this influential director.

6. Which movie do you love, but is generally hated?

Yes, I love “The Time Machine”. What of it?

One movie that comes to mind is “The Time Machine”. Now I’m not talking George Pal’s movie from 1960. I’m speaking of the 2002 film directed by Simon Wells and starring Guy Pearce. This adaptation from the H.G. Wells classic was generally panned by critics (its Rotten Tomatoes standing is an abysmal 29%) and by moviegoers alike, but I truly love the film. I whole-heartedly concede that the special effects in the second half of the film aren’t the best. But I still think Pearce was wonderful, the storytelling is strong, and it features a great score. And I still get a warm and almost misty feeling during the wonderful final scene. Yes, I know I’m one of the few, but I loved this version of “The Time Machine”.

7. Have you ever been “one of those annoying people” at the cinema?

I can honestly say no. My mom and dad began taking me to the theater at a very young age. They pretty much taught me early to be quiet, watch the movie, and not ruin it for others. That even stuck with me through my doofus teen years. And still to this day, I can’t stand people talking or being disruptive during a movie. It drives me crazy.

8. Did you ever watch a movie, which you knew in advance would be bad, just because of a specific actor/actress was in it? Which one and why?

Oh yes! I am a HUGE Humphrey Bogart fan. I have the majority of his films in my collection and there were a lot of them. I have even some of his older low-budget pictures and movies where he played only a small part. Some were, to be honest, real stinkers but I not only watched them but added them to my Bogart collection. Yes, I’ve actually watched films such as “Isle of Fury” and “The Return of Doctor X” solely due to Bogart’s participation.

9. Did you ever not watch a specific movie because it had subtitles?

 I’m not going to say I never have, but as a big fan of foreign cinema, subtitles don’t bother me at all. In fact, I would rather there be subtitles that English voice-overs which do more to take away from the film than help it. So for me, subtitles are no problem at all.

10. Are there any movies in your collection that you have had for more than five years and never watched?

Hmmm, yes I have DVDs that I own and haven’t watched but they aren’t movies that I haven’t watched. These are DVDs of movies I have seen before but have never watched my copy. I’ve seen them but may have found them on DVD really cheap or they were given to me. But I don’t think I have a single movie that I haven’t at least seen.

11. Which are the worst movies in your collection and why do you still own them?

Yep, that’s “Van Helsing”!

I mentioned some of the earlier Bogart movies that are pretty terrible but I have them because they are Bogart films. But after briefly looking at my collection there were a handful of others that stood out. Movies like “The 13th Warrior” . I’ve watched it but never again. Then there is the Kevin Sorbo “Kull” movie. I’m not sure why I even bought it. Oh, and how about “Van Helsing” . Kate Beckinsale is in it so there’s the only reason for owning it….maybe.

12. Do you have any confessions about your movie watching setup at home?

I wouldn’t say there is anything I want to confess about it, but it works good for me. I have a 55-inch HD TV, a Playstation 3 for my Blu-Ray and DVD player, and Direct-TV’s HD package. That’s really it. It’s not the greatest setup but it certainly works for me.

13. Any other confessions you want to make?

Well, I’m definitely not the emotional type but good movies have a way of getting to me. If a film packs an emotional punch that’s well done, I’m certainly vulnerable to watery eyes. It may not be the most macho thing to announce, but it’s the truth.

And there it is. My movie confessions. If you’re interested in more information about Nostra’s blogathon, head over to his blog site My Filmviews . There you can find out how to participate and read the confessions of other movie-oholics like me.