"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 12, 2011

"Nights of Cabiria" (1957) by Fellini (Film review)

Thanks to the beautiful story and wonderful performance by actress Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) is Frederico Fellini's most moving film, about a prostitute who shows great resilience in the face of life's tragedies and disappointments. She is both a victim and a survivor. It reminded me of a film made in more or less the same period by Japanese director Mikio Naruse, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs, in which a bar hostess who tries to realize a better life each time is pushed back by fate (see here for my review).

Cabiria is a prostitute living on the outskirts of Rome. She owns a stone shack and has a reasonable income, but is also the envy of unscrupulous boyfriends. At the start of the film, she is thrown into the river by her man who then makes off with her purse. This will be echoed at the end of the film, when her money is stolen again by another guy she trusted.

In between, we have several episodes from Cabiria's life: she is taken home by a famous film star, only to have to spend the night in the bathroom when his fiancee appears unexpectedly (Fellini doesn't fall into the Hollywood trap of Pretty Girl); she joins a pilgrimage to a holy shrine sincerely believing that a miracle will happen, only to realize the lies of religion; and she meets Oscar, a mild-mannered accountant, who professes to be in love with her and doesn't ask questions about her life. Will she finally become happy?

Of course not. This is Italia and not California, our realistic world and not dreamland. What this great film teaches us is that it is futile and even dangerous to have blind faith in people, in chance and in religion. But it also reminds us that, whatever happens, life is precious. It vividly demonstrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome terrible personal crises.

For the wonderful thing is that Cabiria, this small, sprightly and energetic woman, each time picks herself up and carries on with her life. Each time, she has the strength to move on.

During the film, Cabiria learns about life, she is a better person at the end than she was at the beginning. When she sees a solitary man distributing food to the poor in the fields outside Rome, she realizes that it is our own actions that count.

Her experiences teach her to live her life free from illusions. That is the only way to take control and work towards a better future. At the end of the film, Cabiria has lost money and love, but she has won hope. As viewers we trust she will be able to realize a better future.

The part of Cabiria is wonderfully played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina. The early Cabiria is thick-skinned and her mouth is her largest organ (Italian-style) - even when she has been saved from the river she gives a tremendous verbal broadside to her rescuers when they ask unwelcome questions. Here, Masina plays for laughs alone, but gradually the veil of comedy is lifted and we get a glimpse of the real Cabiria, who has never experienced love but who is capable of deep feelings. She is even a bit sentimental. As viewers, we gradually start to love her and follow her with interest on her journey of self-discovery. Thanks in large part to Giuletta Masina, Cabiria is the most touching and realistic creation in all Fellini's films.

Watching this magic film is like a spiritual experience.

  • The food distribution scene was cut out by the Catholic censors who regarded it as criticism of the Church whose task it is to feed the destitute.
  • Cabiria is also the title of a silent historical drama from 1914, wholly unrelated as it is about the trek of Hannibal over the Alps. 
  • Le Notti di Cabiria won the best foreign film Oscar in 1957 and Giulietta Masina won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Hollywood couldn't keep its hands off the film and remade it as an empty musical called “Sweet Charity” (with Shirley MacLaine playing the lead role).
Nights of Cabiria is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)