The first time I saw Nights of Cabiria, I was wide awake and it was the middle of the afternoon, but I was so wrapped up in watching Giulietta Masina’s spectacular performance that I’d stopped reading the subtitles and missed a chink of the story. Of course, this being a Fellini film, the visuals and expressive acting spelled out most of what happened and Masina’s work as a happy go lucky hooker with a head of stone and dreams of finding love kept me entranced until the ending.
I’ve seen the film quite a few times since and have introduced it to friends with no explanation because how do you properly describe a film about prostitutes that manages to be funny and sad and human all at the same time without getting wrapped up in someone’s “Uh, so… it’s a movie about what?” eyebrow. Granted, you can always take the easy way out and make it a double feature night with Fellini’s La Strada first, as like this film, it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and has Giulietta Masina giving another performance for the ages. That SHOULD wipe away any smudgy thoughts about pedigree and content.
Anyway, after she’s pushed into a river and nearly drowns by a handsome customer she’d been seeing for a few weeks (who also steals her purse), Cabiria is rescued and revived by some locals, but she’s still thinking about how to get the man who nearly killed her back. She’s a single-minded dreamer looking for her Prince Charming to sweep her off her tiny feet, but everyone who knows her well from her neighbors to the other working girls she hangs out with thinks she’s a fool for following love. She’d fallen for a scam and is told as much (and even thinks it herself), but she’s still thinking that she’s going to make some lucky guy quite a fine catch because she’s so much fun to be around.
Of course, Cabiria’s travels soon have her hooking up with a famous movie star type, but she manages to bungle that, or more precisely, the woman who broke up with Mr. Famous earlier that evening returns before Cabiria can accomplish that evening’s goal. The poor gal is shoved into a bathroom with a plate of food and a small dog and ends up spending the night there and leaving with nothing but what she walked in with. When she finally gets the chance for some actual (or more precisely, Cabiria-perceived) happiness, even that’s tainted by old patterns rolling back up on the poor woman, but she manages to avoid one nasty fate right before one of the most memorable endings you may ever see.
As noted, Masina steals the film right from the start and her work here is marvelous. I noticed around the third time I was watching the film that she’s doing what amounts to a female version of Charlie Chaplin or some other silent stars, letting her expressive face and tiny frame loose, adding emphasis to scenes and keeping your attention even in those few moments when she’s not on screen. With her short stature, ratty fur jacket and striped dress, she stands out especially when other taller and/or wider women are in the same frame. Cabiria may be delusional, blissfully ignorant and flighty to a fault, but she’s also wildly confident and independent despite her need for that perfect man to pop up and make her life complete.
Of course, this isn’t a documentary at all and yes, Fellini has some great fun with faces and bodies and the varying sets (some of the outfits here are wonderful and wild in how they throw patterns together). Even the trash and rubble is compelling, contrasting with the more lavish surroundings Cabiria finds herself visiting. There’s a beautiful bittersweet tone to the film that hits the sweet spot as you want Cabiria to at least find some way out of her life, but when she does, you’ll be counting down the minutes until things come tumbling down even if you haven’t a clue how and when it will happen. You may even emulate the lady and shed a big tear at that finale, but there’s a strange light at the end of this particular tunnel that you’ll hope she sees as she walks into her version of the future…