It may sound strange to describe a prostitute as “sexless,” yet that’s the word Federico Fellini used for the title character of his 1957 film Nights of Cabiria; to be more specific, he saw her as a clown.
Three years prior to Nights of Cabiria, star Giulietta Masina, the director’s wife, had played an actual clown named Gelsomina in his La Strada, and the resemblance between the two figures went beyond the superficial. “The relationship between Cabiria and Gelsomina is that Cabiria is Gelsomina’s fallen sister,” Fellini said in an interview with Charlotte Chandler. Moreover, he characterized both of them as Augustes, vulgar clowns, utterly antithetical to graceful, elegant white clowns in behavior as well as appearance. “White clowns have always rivaled one another in the luxury of their dress,” he wrote in the 1970 book I Clowns. “The Auguste, on the contrary, is always the same type. He never changes his clothes, can never change them. He is the tramp, the child, ragged and dirty.”
Although Cabiria wears a variety of outfits throughout the film, that description is, nevertheless, an apt one. The opening scene may offer the most literal example, after she’s rescued from drowning. Not only is she bedraggled and breathless, but her attire — a matching shirt and skirt with broad horizontal stripes, plus sandals over ankle socks — gives her a vaguely childish air. (Her small stature adds to the effect as well.) It’s the perfect complement to her naivete, a quality that soon becomes woefully apparent. As the viewer has already seen, Cabiria was pushed into the water by her boyfriend, Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi), who then fled with her purse, but that’s not how she interprets the incident. “We took a walk by the river and I fell in. He got scared and ran away,” she explains to her friend Wanda (Franca Marzi). When Wanda suggests that Giorgio took the purse intentionally, a furious Cabiria refuses to believe that someone who loved her would be willing to kill her for a mere 40,000 lire. “What love? You met him a month ago,” Wanda says. “You don’t know his name or where he lives. Can’t you understand? He pushed you in!” At last, Cabiria has to accept the truth. The experience leaves her wiser and warier — but maybe not wiser and warier enough.
Shortly thereafter, Cabiria, Wanda and their fellow prostitutes are on the street, trying to attract customers. By necessity, Cabiria is dressed more stylishly, more femininely than she was earlier, yet there’s still something offbeat about her look. She continues to wear stripes, albeit thinner ones, along with sandals over socks; her hair is, as always, up in a tiny ponytail; and her outfit is topped off with what may be the rattiest fur coat in the world. “For Giulietta’s wardrobe, we went to a street market to shop for the clothes Cabiria would wear. Afterwards, because she wasn’t going to have pretty clothes to wear in the film, I took her to an expensive boutique to buy a new dress for herself,” Fellini told Chandler.
Cabiria can only dream of that sort of luxury. During a rare venture into an upscale section of Rome, the contrast between her and the wealthy, fashionable women there is immediately apparent. Perhaps because the contrast is so strong, it’s in this setting that she does her most blatant clowning, reacting to her surroundings with exaggerated facial expressions and dancing with the much taller, largely indifferent Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), a movie star who picks her up after having a fight with his girlfriend (Dorian Gray). Fellini cited Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights as a significant influence on this scene. “The French critics referred to her as the feminine Charlot, their affectionate name for Chaplin. That made her very happy when she heard it. I was happy too,” he said.
Cabiria’s life is not an easy one, as her shabby clothing indicates, but she’s fiercely proud of the things she does have, material and otherwise. She refuses to work for a pimp, for example, and she never misses an opportunity to mention the fact that she owns her own home, as when she visits Lazzari’s luxurious mansion. “The others sleep under the arches in Caracalla. Mind you, I have my own house with water, electricity, bottled gas, every convenience. I got everything — even a thermometer. See this one here?” she says, indicating herself. “She never, ever slept under an arch. Well, maybe once. Or twice. Of course, my house is nothing like this. But it’s enough for me. I like it.” This speech is Cabiria in a nutshell: pride, independence, pragmatism and a touch of contempt for other women in her profession, but also deep vulnerability and a secret desire for something better.
At one point, Cabiria and her cohorts visit a church to seek mercy from the Madonna. Unlike Wanda, who changes her mind at the last minute and decides she’d rather ask for a villa, Cabiria is all sincerity as she tearfully begs, “Madonna, help me to change my life. Bestow your grace on me too. Make me change my life.” The simplicity of her clothing — a plain coat and a scarf covering her head — emphasizes the purity of her spirit at that moment. A similar effect is achieved later on when, while under hypnosis, Cabiria lets down her guard and becomes a gentle innocent; the coat is the same as in the church, and the scarf is replaced with a crown of flowers. She can be comical and abrasive and even violent, and often is, but those qualities vanish at times like these.
Something else also proves capable of altering Cabiria’s manner and appearance: love. A man named Oscar (François Périer) begins pursuing her, and though she’s both surprised by his interest and reluctant to get involved at first, the two eventually become engaged. Inside and outside, she softens. She starts to wear better clothing, and her eyebrows, formerly two dark, harsh, diagonal lines, take on a rounded, natural shape. “At the end, she has made herself as close to beautiful as she can, because she is feeling more glamorous with her approaching wedding,” Fellini noted to Chandler.
Unfortunately for Cabiria, her happiness turns out to be short-lived. The end of the film finds her dirty and despondent, much like the beginning in many ways, but worse — and yet she manages to smile. “In spite of everything, Cabiria still carries in her heart a touch of grace,” Fellini wrote in a 1957 letter. Rather than anything external, it’s this quality, this willingness to carry on and keep hoping, that gives her a transcendent beauty like never before.
Chandler, Charlotte. I, Fellini. New York: Cooper Square, 2001.
Fellini on Fellini. Trans. Isabel Quigley. Da Capo, 1996.
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