One Scene

My Kind of Clown

Features — Jan 20, 2020

With her second feature, The Farewell—which follows the story of a young writer named Billi (Awkwafina) whose grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, a fact that her family takes pains to conceal from her—Lulu Wang wanted to capture the protagonist’s hope and joy in the face of tragedy. Looking for inspiration, she turned to a movie that made a deep impression on her when she was first discovering art-house cinema: Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina’s 1957 collaboration Nights of Cabiria. During a recent visit, Wang spoke with us about how that film’s final scene gave her the courage to break with conventional rules of character development. This article, published in celebration of Fellini’s centenary today, grew out of our conversation.

I was a freshman in college when I first saw Nights of Cabiria. The only Fellini work I was familiar with at the time was 8½. Because I wasn’t raised with art-house cinema, the surrealism went over my head, so I decided to go back to the beginning and follow the chronology of Fellini’s career, starting with his early neorealist works—including I vitelloni, La strada, and Nights of Cabiria. What I found especially profound and powerful about Cabiria is summed up in its final sequence. Commonly held screenwriting rules dictate your lead character must undergo a change of some kind to have an “arc,” but the hero at the center of Cabiria refuses to change, and in doing so, she’s able to defy cynicism, hold onto her optimism, and save her own soul.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Cabiria recently, as I watch films that wrestle with violence through the victimization of their protagonists. These films seem to pose a relationship between cause and effect: look what the world has done to these people—it’s no wonder they’re driven to madness and violence. But is that an inevitability? Are we meant to point our finger at society and identify with the rage of the individual? Human character is developed out of circumstance—how a person is challenged and how she responds. Which characters, challenges, and responses do we deem worthy of glorification? And why? 

Cabiria is a prostitute and, essentially, the village clown, derided for being both naive and profane. What she wants most is to be loved, and when she meets a man named Oscar, who tells her he wants nothing more than to love her, she believes him. She returns to her village, triumphant in the knowledge that she will leave for a new life with a man who loves her—an experience that, according to townspeople, she is not entitled to having. Cabiria is eager to believe in the good in the world, to hang onto hope. In the penultimate scene, she feels vindicated, buoyant with the belief that life is fair, and that, despite suffering, happiness comes along for everyone! Fellini lets the camera linger on Oscar’s face as he listens to Cabiria’s exultations, the sweat informing us of his deception and malice without a single word. As the wind shifts and Cabiria realizes the menace in Oscar’s silence, she suddenly asks him if he’s there to kill her. He answers her with more silence. It’s one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever seen. Like Cabiria, I too tend to assume that people see the world the way I do and have often been advised to be “more careful,” less trusting.

Cabiria is stunned when she discovers that what Oscar wants to kill her for is so base: money. The betrayal is profound and Cabiria simply hands him her entire life savings. She tells him to go ahead and kill her. What is there to live for? Instead, Oscar flees, leaving Cabiria to pick herself up and return to the village. How does one go on from here? What’s the appropriate “character arc” for a protagonist whose fundamental hope and belief in humanity perpetually casts her as the clown?

Once Cabiria picks herself up off the ground, we watch her come out of the dark, claustrophobic environment of the woods into the openness of the streets, where she’s met by a group of street musicians. The camera movement is so seamless, and Giulietta Masina’s performance is so continuous, that I always think of this scene as one shot, though it isn’t. We track all of the subtlety and nuances of her grief as she contemplates how to confront her life and community again, returning as the fool they’ll make her out to be. When a stranger walks past and says “buona sera” with a smile, that simple, kind gesture is such a powerful call to defy cynicism, to not let pain shut you down but, instead, to embrace it as part of the beauty of life. 

I always love it when clowns cry. To me, Giulietta Masina is the ultimate hero of tragic comedy. She’s able to balance those registers of pathos and humor so well, inviting us to laugh and cry with her. In the moment that is the dark night of her soul, Cabiria’s eyes glisten with tears and the camera pushes closer. How she’s able to hold those tears! They start out as an expression of her sadness, but we watch them transition and transform in front of our eyes into glimmers of joy and, thus, hope. This last scene is an incredible demonstration of Masina's talent. When she looks into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, it’s like she is saying to us directly: thank you for listening to my story. Thank you for bearing witness. She nods her head slightly, as if to say, it’s going to be OK; if I can make it, you can too.

This final scene was a huge inspiration for The Farewell. I had talked with our producers about a number of different possible endings, many of which were dictated by whether Billi’s grandmother lives or dies. But for me, the movie is not about honoring a circumstance outside of our protagonist’s control. It’s about the survival of her spirit and her will. I wanted Billi to experience the quiet transformation that Cabiria does walking down that street—feeling a tremendous sense of loss but then, gradually, committing to the joy regardless, through the spirit of her grandmother. That is resiliency in its truest form—joy within loss—and the immigrant story I wanted to tell is defined by that quiet resiliency. There is so much power in insisting, especially in the darkest times, that there is good in the world to live for.

Cabiria is a woman who is victimized time and time again, yet she neither resorts to violence nor completely breaks down. Resiliency is her defining attribute, and that makes her my kind of clown. She is a celebration of accountability, of self-reliance and of emotional intelligence.

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