Some people say, I prefer the “early, funny” Woody Allen, in preference to his more ambitious and serious films of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Well, I have similar feelings about Fellini; I prefer the “early, realist” Fellini, or what I might less charitably call the “early, good” Fellini. I find Fellini’s later films incomprehensible or completely not my thing or both (depending on the movie) and I’ve never loved his “peak” films (though I haven’t seen them in forever and I’m due to re-watch the two most famous at some point). Some of this isn’t just Fellini, but comes from my documented dislike of certain aspects of Italian culture. All of this is to say that I’m much happier watching a pre-La Dolce Vita film than a post-8 1/2 film.
I know she won a Best Actor award at Cannes and it’s to her credit that I don’t like her, but I do not like the main character. A huge chunk of whether or not you like this film is how endearing you find this maddening woman, who is a pretty good stand-in for a stereotype of an Italian, smiling one moment, yelling hysterically the next. Much of the mild humour of this film comes from Cabiria’s incessant mood swings. If you find her aggravating, you laugh a lot less, I suspect.
But just because I didn’t like the main character doesn’t make the film bad. Fellini sets up a distinct contrast between vibrant, downtown Rome and the borderline post-apocalyptic suburbs where Cabiria lives. (It’s dry, and there is little between the bare-bones one-storey homes and the apartment buildings that look like they’re miniatures from a Ballard novel. The contrast is quite striking and plays a huge role in understanding Cabiria’s life and ambitions.
I think one reason the film struck such a chord in the English-speaking world when it came out is the frank depiction of prostitution as a fact of life. That would have been borderline unheard of in the US and the UK at the time, so I think a lot of the appeal was in the relative realism of the background if not the actual story.
There is also and underline of moderate social comment, about the state of Roman society where some people are so desperate they are living in caves and some have servants. It works because it’s relatively subtle and because it is never the focus of the film.
The film is famous for its final sequence but I can’t quite decide how I feel about it. It’s more upbeat an ending than I would give the film, but I think that’s still the point. But it is extremely well done, even if I am not entirely onboard with Cabiria’s feelings and my perception of what they mean for the whole story. It’s certainly an iconic scene, one of those scenes you know impacted a lot of people without even Googling it.
Anyway, despite my dislike of the main character, the film is a great example of how assured Fellini was with shots and editing and the like. I don’t love the score, but that’s another minor quibbled. I’d much rather watch something like this than his later work, that’s for sure.