Cabiria, loneliness, ritual

I watch Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria and I’m transfixed. Before, I’d watched this film and La strada on TV when I was about four years old, and never again since. To date, these two films are my earliest memories of sadness, from an age when I could not have possibly ever experienced that type of sadness. Except through those films. I was always afraid of going back to them. So here we are, that sadness and I, thirty-odd years later. I find: a film of unstable balance between a profound sense of drift and emptiness (the bleak suburban Roman landscape, caves, open spaces, the main character truly lonely in every sense, no respite ever) and a lightness of touch, graceful interferences of unexpected gestures that place what is implausible in what is stark real. Rituals and representations exceed a self that is void, but not meaningless. At one point, Cabiria joins a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Divine Love and asks for grace. One of the women in the crowd shouts at the top of her voice, speaking to the Virgin Mary: ‘I am REALLY asking you. I am REALLY asking you’. As if screaming was the space where belief is validated. Cabiria cannot quite scream and barely sings, she is hushed and overwhelmed by the chanting and the demonstrations, the gestures, yet she is the only one who believes (maybe because she’s speaking to herself, not to any divine presence). In the next scene they all sit on a lawn having a picnic, life goes on untouched by the empty yet repeated ritual, except for Cabiria, who is deeply affected by the fact that, after the pilgrimage, ‘nun semo cambiate’ (in Roman dialect, ‘we haven’t changed’). At the end, the space of utter truth is revealed to be the space of utter deception; unlike later films by Fellini, here truth and deception exist osmotically, they do not outnumber each other by means of cartoonish exaggerations. The edge is softer and I am more easily driven in the film, not as a spectator but enmeshed, affected.

(Then I thought of another harrowing scene of loneliness, staged faith, make-believe and loss of belief, in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, when Bess goes to church for the last time and can no longer sustain the double-voiced dialogue with God that she’s been staging up to that moment, deceiving or asserting her own self by speaking in two voices.)

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