Fellini’s 1957 Nights of Cabiria is about houses and homelessness and the painful exchange we make, as modern creatures, when forced to cash out the stagnant wealth of the past for a new and desperate freedom. By the 1970s, when the Italian director made Amarcord, the price had been paid, and everyone in the little town depicted there lived in some version of the late Fellini’s modern-cinematic-surrealist world of restlessness and narcissism and irony. But in Nights of Cabiria, the title character, played by Giulietta Masina, is in the midst of the transition, torn between the house that gives her dignity, and the grand cinematic dreams of love and redemption that will leave her both homeless, yet terribly free of old mythic encumbrances.
Cabiria, a prostitute who falls in love with dubious men, is often swindled of her earnings. But she has managed to protect her house, a simple structure near Rome on the road to Ostia, from her own recklessness and naiveté. It is basic, a rectangular box with only one room. When we see her enter it for the first time, she must climb through a window because the man she loved took her purse, and thus her keys, and left her to drown in a river.
Cabiria’s house, a symbol of her fraught independence (she has no pimp and thus no protection), is her sole asset, and it is small one. The arid, rectilinear high-rise apartment buildings of suburban Rome are encroaching. Just as her life as a prostitute is untenable, so too her home. It contrasts sharply with two other dwellings in the film: The caves that worn-out street walkers are destined for, a lunar landscape of utter destitution we see in a haunting interlude; and the modern house of Alberto Lazzari, the besotted movie actor who takes Cabiria home only to dump her even before consummating the dalliance.
This last house is a marvel of architectural confusion. Even Cabiria, in the morning, gets lost trying to escape its white walls and glass doors. A staircase, steep and straight, seems to be going both up and down at the same time, a confusing inner passageway in a house that should be open and blank in the high modern fashion. Lazzari is struggling against the architecture, stuffing his home with all the nonsense that modernism is supposed to banish. It is cluttered with modern art and luxuries, but also a Baroque spiral column sitting in the room as a purely sculptural and decorative object. The transparency of the modern style has been subverted and the space feels closed in.
Cabiria’s house is secure, yet she can always get in, while Lazzari’s house is protected by ferocious dogs, yet it’s hard to get out. One frail house is threatened by modernity, while another sumptuous one is an example of the failure of freedom that modernity is supposed to bring. Music, for both Cabiria and Lazzari, is a consolation for problematic homes, a way of being rooted in structures that are insecure or vulnerable or contradictory.
Cabiria’s fate is in the hands of a man whose house—if he has one—we never see. He lives in another part of the city, he comes from a village outside of Rome, he is rootless and foreign within his own country. At the moment he threatens Cabiria—just before wresting from her the money that came from selling her house—we see him standing in the exact pose of Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. Wandering, restlessness, motion—this is the new sublime, the reward for everything lost when the home is taken from us. The whole film could pivot at this point. Cabiria’s pathos could work on the man’s conscience. It almost does.
But no. This is the moment when Cabiria crosses over and loses the last of the emotional tendrils that connect her to the old way of life. She is homeless but fully modern, drawn to the itinerant music of life after dwelling.
She isn’t disillusioned—that would be a different movie, a morality tale—but she will never have as much at stake when she invests in a man, or a place, or an idea again. Having cashed out her house, having been swindled by a homeless man from the land of nowhere, she finds herself swept up in the flow of youth. “We’re going to lose our way, going home,” says one of her new friends, with happy abandon. And so Cabiria exits walking, strolling, almost dancing, part of a loose network of ephemeral alliances, never again to be rooted in something so burdensome (or consoling) as pile of stone with a roof on it.