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“I could give many reasons for the affinities between (and the greatness of) these films, but mostly it’s how both Fellini and Ray walk the difficult line between reality and the wondrous, and of course the compassion that pours out of them right into their characters.” ““ Deepa Mehta

As summer in Toronto continues, so too does TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Fellini/Felliniesque: “Dream” Double Bills film program, bringing to viewers some truly inspired pairings of Federico Fellini’s films with ones by various other directors from different areas of cinema history. One of the double bills, which screened the evening of Sunday, August 14, 2011, especially gave attendees top value for their ticket price, as it consisted of a pair of true classics: Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria from 1957, followed by Indian master Satyajit Ray’s 1960 film Devi . These films were chosen by Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, whose more recent efforts include Heaven on Earth (2008) and Water , which was finally released in 2005 after a famously troubled production period in which protests surrounding its focus on Hindu widows in India forced the shoot to be postponed and eventually relocated to Sri Lanka. Currently, Mehta is at work preparing her adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children .

With Mehta being an Indian-born woman who regularly explores both the plights of female characters and cultural facets of her country of origin in her work, it is entirely fitting that she would choose this particular Ray film, which tells the strange story set in an Indian village of a young woman, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), and how her life suddenly changes after her father-in-law (Chhabi Biswas) is convinced by an intense dream that she is the goddess Durga reincarnated. Umaprasad (frequent Ray collaborator Soumitra Chatterjee), her educated husband, tries his best to act as the voice of reason as the fervor surrounding her appointed role as deity grows.

Embodying a very different kind of femininity in a very different setting, Giulietta Masina stars in Nights of Cabiria as the titular prostitute who experiences a series of adventures in and around Rome as she searches for money, salvation and love. While both Ray and Fellini’s films feature strong female lead performances, the characters themselves are markedly different. Even before her “transformation,” Doya carries herself in a very gentle, serene and even distant way, as seen in the scenes when she caringly tends to her father-in-law and young nephew. Once she is treated as a goddess, she quietly accepts her fate, too stricken with shock and fear to do anything else. Acting as a sharp contrast, Cabiria is a bold, sassy woman who wields her attitude and anger like a knife as protection against anyone who dares cross her. Yet deep wells of vulnerability and yearning lie beneath that tough exterior, and the true Cabiria emerges at telling points ““ near the film’s beginning, when she tries to convince herself that there was a real connection between her and the man who deceives and robs her in the alarming opening scene; at a circus-like religious procession, where she desperately asks the Madonna for salvation from her old ways; and at a hypnotist’s show, where the magician gets her to lay bare her heart’s innermost wishes to the audience.

So what similarities do Fellini’s feisty dreamer and Ray’s passive heroine ultimately share? As Mehta highlights, the strongest parallels exist between not the characters, but rather the directors’ treatment of them. It is quite clear that neither Doya nor Cabiria have much control over their lives, and in their respective films are carried along by forces and events more formidable than them. Time and time again, Cabiria is deceived by cruel men who take advantage of her trust just to steal her money, while Doya’s peaceful existence is rocked by a wholly unexpected occurrence that eventually devours her life. But in every scene, one can sense the genuine sympathy Fellini and Ray have for these women, all too clearly felt in the fleeting flashes of hope they are afforded and the sorrowful manner in which tragic events soon follow. Nights of Cabiria and Devi also resemble one another in the open potential for fantastical things that exists in their worlds as well as their depictions of religious fanaticism and the potentially harmful grip it can have on people’s imaginations. Perhaps most fascinatingly, both films end with their main characters poised before ambiguous fates after having been confronted with some particularly trying situations. Devi ‘s final scene is easily the more ominous one, while it is possible to see some traces of hope for Cabiria in her memorable last moments onscreen. But in both cases, the audience is still left with very real feelings of concern for these two lost souls ““ as, I’m confident, Fellini and Ray were as they prepared to leave these characters behind.

This double bill came at an especially opportune moment for admirers of Satyajit Ray’s work, as the Bengali master has recently received a resurgence of popularity sparked by the DVD and Blu-ray release of his masterpiece The Music Room (1958) by the Criterion Collection. With Toronto’s ongoing celebration of Fellini continuing throughout the summer at full force via TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions exhibition and the remainder of the Fellini/Felliniesque film program, now’s the perfect time to discover and appreciate two of world cinema’s brightest stars.