The Absence of God in “Le notti di Cabiria”

~I originally wrote this on the Moviefellas blog but, after reading and making corrections, I decided to completely repost it on here.~ I remember reading on the back of the Nights of Cabiria DVD case, “features the never-before-seen seven-minute ‘man with a sack’ sequence.” I watched a special feature on the sequence after I watched the film but still couldn’t fully understand why the censors made Fellini cut the sequence. I knew that it upset the Catholic Church but why? After a few viewings, my question was answered. When Cabiria and the others are discussing to go see the Madonna, the group of Catholic pilgrims pass by. The way the lights NC1 shines on the group makes them look as if they are a phantom, something unattainable and thus intangible to Cabiria. She feels drawn to them and walks towards the street to follow them. She suddenly stops and falls under a streak of light; but this light shows Cabiria’s realness. She is a woman living in the difficult conditions of post-WWII Italy and, more importantly to the film, struggling to find happiness and love. This shot is stark, sharp, and concrete.  She continues to walk behind them until their chanting is dominated by the hum and chugs of a truck, Cabiria’s next costumer. This sets the basis for what is to come in the next few scenes. I will begin with Cabiria’s travel to the shrine. I focus on Cabiria because of all the people in her group, she is the one who takes the visit to the Madonna solemnly and completely seriously. (One could argue Wanda as well but, to me, Cabiria is the only one.) In The Story of Film, Mark Cousins argues that “Nights of Cabiria reflect[s] a society in which religion has disappeared and only its kitsch images remain” (249). When Cabiria and the others arrive at the shrine, it’s a mad-house or, if I may, a circus. There are numerous stalls selling Catholic trinkets, people walking every which way, the sound of people’s chanting and bells overlapping, elaborate candle setups, people cramming to get into the shrine. Overall it is a very noisy and chaotic scene, not an image one would think of when going to pray to the Madonna. The workers are there to capitalize on the Madonna and the comfort the Catholic faith has to offer; and it only gets worse. As Cabiria scans the walls, there are numerous lighted signs and candles in “honor” of the Madonna and NC2 crutches to show that the Madonna did have mercy on them as just a few of the things Fellini highlights. However, the way Fellini shoots it makes it seem like it’s a commercial attraction rather than something holy and reverent. As they climb up the steps, people scream and shout to the Madonna to make them well or to help them. They throw their arms in the air, in a sense, forgetting themselves. Cabiria, in contrast, does not. Cabiria is the only one wearing a plain white outfit, a color that is synonymous with holiness and purity (very contradictory considering her profession). Her expression is sincere and her wide eyes say much more than all the shouts in the room. When Cabiria does say something, it is not exaggerated or head turning, but rather honest and quiet. Even her request to the Madonna, “Help me change my life,” is much more humble and simple than some of the other requests, such as the uncle who asks to walk again. Once they leave the Madonna, Cabiria becomes frustrated and angry that the Madonna has not helped any of them. The Madonna, and therefore God, is not there for the people. They are only a facade now. All that the people have now are the objects and images which fuel the faith. Now for the man with a sack sequence. The night Cabiria sees the pilgrims, she receives a costumer. Afterwards, she walks home and stumbles upon a man with a sack. However, this time, that haunting light does not hit him. Rather it shines above him, suggesting that he is real and right in front of her. As NC3she follows him, she sees he gives homeless people food and other items that they need to live. He is kind but his expression does not reveal much else of his personality. During the scene he explains that he just started to do it one day. There was no faith that fueled him, he just decided to do it. And, more importantly, he is an everyday person doing this act. Not the Catholic Church. After reviewing this scene again, I can understand why they made Fellini cut this sequence. When they first meet, the man with a sack shines his light directly onto Cabiria, seeing her as she is and not forcing her to catch up with him. As she talks with him, she is more spiritually fulfilled than she is when she goes to pray to the Madonna. The man with a sack is tangible, real, and someone she can talk to. The more Cabiria talks to him, the more we learn about Cabiria’s early life. She says that her  name is Maria Ceccarelli and that her mother and father died when she was young. Cabiria takes down her defenses and shows a side that we have not seen previously. Without this sequence, Fellini is just slamming the Catholic faith. However with it, he is saying that it is everyday people take it upon themselves and help others by giving them what they need, whether it be faith, confidence, or everyday necessities. Probably not something they want to hear.

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2 thoughts on “The Absence of God in “Le notti di Cabiria”

  1. Erin April 9, 2014 / 8:53 am

    Good post. I was aware that the “man with a sack” sequence had been cut, but I never knew why, and this makes a lot of sense. The scene where Cabiria and her friends visit the Madonna always struck me as a sort of precursor to the scene in La Dolce Vita where the two children claim to have seen her, although the circus aspect is even more pronounced there, and unlike Cabiria, Marcello is only part of the media frenzy (although, as far as I recall, he remains characteristically detached).

    • annieshall April 9, 2014 / 8:25 pm

      Yes, I believe Mark Cousins mentions that in his “Story of Film” series now that I think about it. I agree with you, the scene in La Dolce Vita is very much more of a circus scene than it is in Le notti di Cabiria. It’s interesting you point that out, about Marcello being detached since he is part of the media. Both scenes are played out very well and “do the job” but, in my biased opinion, I like the Le notti di Cabiria scenario the best.
      Thanks for the comment!

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