Directed by: Federico Fellini
Written by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: Giulietta Masina, François Périer, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Amedeo Nazzari
Cynical outlooks of the world serve as protection from being lured by what may appear to be something pure and optimistic but ultimately causes pain. It’s better to just assume no one wants to help and that everyone’s trying to get something from you. Not the most ideal point of view to have, but what else can you do when life has taught you that lesson many times over? The experience of our protagonist brutally captures this sentiment, helped along by one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen.
After being pushed into a river and robbed by her boyfriend, Roman prostitute, Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) remembers why she does not trust people. She soon pushes everyone away but after consecutive nights of different life-altering experiences, she soon starts to look at life in a new way.
Stories about prostitutes with a “heart of gold” have been vastly overused in storytelling, but their popularity bears a great juxtaposition of perception. It shows that individuals earning an income in what has become a shamed line of work may have the most compassion for others. They’re the ones shamed for offering services that other men will gladly pay for even with possibly having a family at home. A mostly untrustworthy clientele for workers that must build a coat of skepticism around them simply to survive each night.
This coat covers Cabiria and makes her seem abrasive to others, but her history in love has shown that whenever she lowers her defenses, pain will be on the horizon. This character’s arc throughout the whole story defines excellence in character development and happens all below a 2-hour runtime. It could not have worked as well without the legendary Giulietta Masina portraying her. What seems like Masina channeling Chaplin’s The Mutt at times, she displays a sort of physical comedy mixed with the anger that she feels towards her life. She balances that line of being a truly sympathetic character while pushing everyone else around her away because of the pain and you can see why.
The film opens with Cabiria walking along a river with her boyfriend, Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi). She allows him to live with her in a house she owns. While going on this walk, it’s evident that Cabiria has a tremendous amount of love for this man and as they get closer to the water, Giorgio snatches her wallet and pushes her into the river. Something that would be seen as a comedic moment in any other film, but this story shows that this river is incredibly deep and Cabiria cannot swim. A rescue attempt by good samaritans became necessary, and she narrowly survives possibly drowning. After years of being a prostitute, she saw the worst in men but still let one have her heart only to be left for dead as he ran away with money she earned. After some young boys and men save her and get the water out of her system, she opens her eyes and we would assume she would be filled with gratitude, but it’s in this moment that we see the character of Cabiria. She yells at the other male characters and runs off to find that good-for-nothing Giorgio. That opening sequence perfectly informs what we’ll see from the character of Cabiria and an omen for what might transpire in the future.
The journey of Cabiria throughout the nights the title references allows her to go through different experiences, which all have an impact on her in some way. They range from the strange to the religious with each occasion being a stark reminder of her place in life as compared to where she wants to be. Each segment gets highlighted because of the animated demeanor of Cabiria. She has no fear to tell anyone where they can stick it, but each segment shows her opening up a bit more and displaying a purity afraid to be harmed and wanting something more from life. Again, Masina delivers an all-time performance.
Even for someone like Federico Fellini, I was stunned by the artistry on display as he collaborated with Masina, who happened to be his wife. They evidently worked very well together with this film and La Strada. Visually, the film looks tremendous especially with the restoration that I viewed. All throughout the experience, I kept stepping back and thinking, “Is this Fellini’s masterpiece?” I have not seen all of his films, but the artistry on display in Nights of Cabiria superseded his accomplishments in his more famous works, 8 ½, and La Dolce Vita. All of them are exceptional in their own way, but it feels like Fellini tapped into something different when he focused the story on a woman. He does something special with Cabiria and she stands as one of my favorite characters in all of cinema.
Her place as one of my favorite characters from the way she embodies the human spirit of resilience through life. No matter how many times life wants to punish her for showing her pure ambitions and desires, she gets back up screaming and shouting. It all comes together with an ending that feels equally heartbreaking and uplifting. I felt tense for the entire final twenty minutes because I wanted happiness for her. Something she never thought that she could ever achieve. Everything in the story perfectly comes full circle in a way that mesmerized me. It’s truly phenomenal work.
Nights of Cabiria feels like a full experience with a captivating ending. It comes from the tremendous collaboration between a husband and wife that have proven themselves to be one of the greatest to ever work in cinema. It provides comedic moments in a way that shows the pain and insecurity in life. Giulietta Masina truly owned this character and put in a performance that left me in awe days after watching the film and should be considered one of the best ever. It has everything one could want from a story and has instantly launched itself into one of my favorite films.