Nestled within Federico Fellini’s impressive filmography is “Nights of Cabiria”, a scintillating Italian drama that is rarely mentioned among the director’s greats (“8 1/2”, “La Dolce Vita”, etc.). It’s a shame considering the film earned Fellini one of his four Academy Awards and is regarded by some as his finest work. I find it hard to argue against the movie’s brilliance and greatness.
“Nights of Cabiria” sits firmly between Fellini’s shift from classical Italian Neorealism to the extravagant sensory experiences we would get later on. The neorealist’s spotlight on working class society and economic hardships is represented from title screen to the film’s final frame. But we also see Fellini experimenting with a more crafty and stylish form of storytelling. It’s the early stages of what would literally burst into form three years later in “La Dolce Vita”.
Getting the film made wasn’t easy. Fellini peddled his story to a number of producers each of whom turned him down. It wasn’t until Dino De Laurentiis approached him with a five-film contract offer that Fellini was able to make his movie. With funding set Fellini then cast his wife Giulietta Masina in the lead role. This was a critical step since the lead character is in practically every scene and since the story hinges on her emotion and personality. Masina would go on to win the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Masina plays a ‘lady of the night’ but not in the usual vein. Her name is Cabiria and there is more to her than her occupation. She is different – unique is several regards. She is significantly smaller than all the other ladies who work with her. She isn’t the most alluring or attractive. She wears her emotions on her sleeve. Simply put, Cabiria isn’t a woman who would naturally grab your attention, but that doesn’t sway her. Regardless of her obstacles, Cabiria pushes forward clinging to any semblance of happiness and holding onto an internal hope that somewhere true love awaits.
Despite her deeper innocence and naiveté, Fellini doesn’t portray Cabiria as a weak woman. She’s a tough cookie. She truly is a victim of circumstance who has survived due to her determination and wiles. For the audience her tiny shack of a home on the city outskirts is a sign of her tough life, but to Cabiria it’s a symbol of accomplishment. She proudly tells several people that she is a homeowner. And she isn’t afraid to be whisked away by a good dance tune – an effect of her sprightly optimism.
But deep down there is a disappointment that she is deeply in tune with. The very first scene reveals it with uncomfortable clarity. She and her boyfriend are walking by the river in what resembles a romantic stroll. That is until he pushes her in and runs off with her purse full of money. We never see him again. The film is a series of encounters most with cruel outcomes. And Cabiria always seems to expect the disappointment and she accepts the hand she is dealt and moves on. Instead of concentrating on plot Fellini focuses on several tragic themes that grow more vivid with each of Cabiria’s encounters.
When developing the Cabiria character, both Fellini and Masina were said to be highly influenced by Chaplin’s Little Tramp. You can see it in her expressions, her mannerisms, and of course in many of her circumstances. There are moments when the resemblances feel a tad foreign to the tone of a specific scene, but for the most part it fits surprisingly well and it has such a unique contrast with several of the characters Cabiria meets.
“Nights of Cabiria” is filled with fine supporting performances, interesting visual touches, and poignant emotional moments. Fellini’s true-to-life themes simmer throughout the picture and many of them would resurface in “La Dolce Vita”. And at the core is Masina and her magnetic performance. She makes it impossible for us to lack sympathy for Cabiria despite some of the character’s poor decisions. We want her to rise above her circumstances and find the love she longs for. But as things progress Fellini leaves us cynical and skeptical. Like her we want to cling to the hope for happiness but ultimately fear the cloud of disappointment will be to much for her to overcome.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS