NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, 1957
Directed by Federico Fellini
Starring: Giulietta Masina, François Périer
Review by Aria Chiodoi
A waifish prostitute wanders the streets of Rome looking for true love but finding only heartbreak.
OSCAR Winner for Best Foreign Film
Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) from 1957 is another somewhat early film in Fellini’s career- a preface to his later extravagant and intellectual films. Fellini is a quintessential Italian filmmaker; it’s obvious how much he loves his country and its people, but his love is complex, never simple. If one wants an idea of life in Rome during the 50s, this film shows it, albeit with some fantastic and tragic situations. The screenplay was written by Fellini and his frequent collaborators, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, a writing team nominated for three Oscars (although this film wasn’t one of them, it did win Best Foreign Film). Le Notti di Cabiria also boasts another score by Nino Rota, and black and white cinematography of Otello Martelli. Pier Paolo Pasolini, who became a famous Italian director in his own right, also helped write the script.
The amazing Giulietta Masina is again the center of this film, as she was in La Strada. Here she plays Cabiria, a fun-loving, raucous, and spirited prostitute who lives on the outskirts of Rome, and works the streets of the city at night. The film begins with her getting robbed and thrown in the river by a lover- just the first of many misadventures that Cabiria experiences. Cabiria is our tour guide of Rome and its people; whether they’re rich, homeless, or just young and dancing in the streets, Cabiria comes across them all. And she handles everything with an indomitable spirit and vivacity (if this story is at all familiar, it’s because it is the basis of the musical Sweet Charity of 1969)
On this tour of Rome and its outskirts, we are shown the whores and their lovers, who dance and fight under Roman ruins, and hide in the bushes from cops. We also find the rich and famous, who lead glamorous but odd and somewhat sad lifestyles. Then, in a dreamlike but memorable scene, we follow Cabiria and her friends in a procession to the altar of the Madonna. This scene and other scenes of religious imagery display the fervent Catholicism of Italy, the wonder and piousness every Italian feels (even a simple whore like Cabiria) when faced with the prodigious altar of the Madonna. In this scene we are given the peasants and lower classes of Rome, the elderly and the sick, all coming, in the hundreds, to pray and beg for something from the Madonna. Afterwards, Cabiria goes to a magic show, and joins other volunteers from the audience on stage to be hypnotized by the magician. Fellini gives us a grave religious procession but follows it with a show of entertainment and illusion, as if to purposely blend the imagery of religion and illusion.
Cabiria herself is trying to find something in her life that has meaning. Being a prostitute is not a very glamorous or rewarding line of work; she might be taken out by a famous movie star, but then has to spend the night in his bathroom when his girlfriend shows up; she may dance with her friends in the ruins, but they all have to run from the cops every now and then. Whether it’s love or faith, her life is missing something essential, and in her roundabout way, she’s always searching for it. Her group of friends, the other whores, or ex-prostitutes and their boyfriends, are a lively bunch, who make life look fun and breezy, but they don’t understand Cabiria’s need for something meaningful.
When Cabiria meets a nice and respectable man who thinks their meeting is destiny, her prayers may be answered. She might have a chance for a pleasant and normal life with a good man, but knowing Fellini, this could just be another misadventure. I don’t want to ruin anything, but while many may see the ending as tragic and sad, through the tragedy there is life, a life that should be celebrated. Fellini ends on a note of hope, since Cabiria is actually (although she often blunders and gravely misjudges) a ray of hope. Whatever she experiences, she gets back up and brushes it off, smiles through her tears and moves on, searching for something new. Some may call her a fool with no real future, but I saw her as a symbol of humanity: although one meets with tragedy and bad luck, the only thing to do is keep going, and find the good in life again. The face of Masina in the last shot is powerful and poignant, it can make one smile or cry, or do both, as she does. In La Notti di Cabiria, Fellini focuses on the character of Cabiria, and on the colorful Italian community of people who are full of exuberance, in order to capture life and the endurance of humanity.