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Nights of Cabiria

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 28 August 1998

  Directed by Federico Fellini

Starring Giuletta Masina, Francois Perier,
Amenda Nazzari, and Franca Marzi

Federico Fellini’s 1957 masterpiece remains to my mind his finest work, a magical mix of neo-realism and romantic optimism in the face of a cruel world that. Nights of Cabiria also marks the conclusion of the first phase of his career. His next film, La Dolce Vita, left the poor and the working class to revel in the decadence of Rome’s high society -- it could have sprung from Cabiria’s interlude with the movie star in Nights of Cabiria, just as Cabiria in many ways sprang from a character that appeared briefly in The White Sheik and a chance encounter with a real life prostitute during the shooting of Il Bidone. The rambling pace, gentle tone, and simple grace of Cabiria stands in contrast to the flights of fancy and fantasy of later films in style and theme.

The exquisite Guiletta Masina stars as Cabiria, a tough talking, streetwise hooker with one weakness: she falls in love all too easy. Her latest boyfriend, a shifty character named Giorgio (after a month of living together she’s never learned his last name), steals her purse for pocket change and dumps her in the river. Even confronted with the obvious, she wishfully worries about Giorgio’s welfare until the reality of his crime finally sinks in, and she responds with a sudden, mad fit of destructive anger, burning the clothes and accessories she’s showered him with while he briefly lived in his house.

Out first impression of Cabiria presents not so much a complex character as a passionate one: Masina’s moon face and bright eyes flash emotions with the quicksilver spontaneity of a child. She’s a streetwalker-as-Mary Pickford, a waif whose years on the street has turned wary and cynical, but just short of jaded. She still has the capacity to show her delight in life, the trust to give her heart away, and the clear thinking to buy her own house and stock money away in the bank.

For a couple of hours Fellini invites us to share the dreams and disillusionments of Cabiria. With a rambling looseness Fellini would lose in later films, we follow Cabiria as she plies her trade at the ruins of the Passeggiatta Archeologica (a magnificent monument on a busy street near the middle class neighborhoods of Rome), goofs with her friends, and by sheer chance winds up the evening date of matinee idol Alberto Lazzari (Amenda Nazzari).

This new restoration delivers a stunning vision that hasn’t been seen in the US in decades, a vivid image with deep blacks and sharp contrast. It also presents a scene missing since the film’s Cannes premiere (and there is some controversy as to whether it even showed then), a seven minute sequence where Cabiria meets the "man with the sack," a simple Roman citizen who brings food and other necessities to the homeless living, literally, out of the holes in the ground on the outskirts of town. The sequence was supposedly removed at the request of the church and Fellini himself (in a later interview) suggested that it could be tracked down and restored to future releases: "I think the scene especially good," he remembers, and quite correctly. Not only good, but an important moment in Cabiria’s search for self: she meets an aged streetwalker who is now a destitute, homeless beggar, a glimpse at one possible future.

As if haunted by the experience, she stumbles along looking for some meaning in her life, which she most pointedly does not find in a disappointing pilgrimage to a Catholic shrine -- "Nothing’s changed!" she cries after seeing salvation turned into a circus. But after a devastatingly poignant admission while under hypnosis at a magic show, where she opens her soul when she meets her dream lover and becomes the object of ridicule by a taunting audience, she finally meets a man who seems to appreciate her open heart and trusting soul. Oscar (Francois Perier) doesn’t know who she is or what she does, but he sees what we see in her glowing face: hope shining through her pain, a woman ready to offer her unconditional love.

Massina’s Cabiria is like a brassy cousin to her mute, sensitive peasant Gelsomina, the simple-minded girl from La Strada. But Cabiria, as clownish as she appears at times, is no passive gamine but a hearty, rambunctious woman full of the joy of life. At a high class nightclub with movie star Lazzari she jumps into a goofy dance of joy, completely out of synch with her surroundings but an honest expression of her character. No posing, no masks for Cabiria, she is what she is and makes no apologies and that’s what holds the episodic film together. The plot essentially exists as bookends to the film; Nights of Cabiria dares lose itself in the wanderings of its hapless, hopeful heroine.

No Fellini film offers such honest hope in the face of such bitter devastation, but then no Fellini film presents a face with such an honest offer of hope. Perhaps no actress other than Massina could have pulled off the delicate final scene (I won’t spoil it for anyone whose never seen the film previously), a soaring triumph of the human spirit. NIGHTS OF CABIRIA remains Fellini and Massina’s greatest collaboration, and one of the great films of world cinema.

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