Nights of Cabiria
***1/2 out of ****
Directed by: Federico Fellini
Starring: Giulietta Masina, François Périer, and Franca Marzi
Released: May 26, 1957
Country: Italy / France
Runtime: 117 min.
Reviewed by: Philip Hogan
Nights of Cabiria is one of the director’s transitional films. Fellini had co-written some of the most well known and important post-WWII Italian Neo-Realist films with landmark director Roberto Rossellini. When Fellini started his own directing career in the 1950s, his earlier films dealt with settings and themes reminiscent of the Neo-Realist movement, only hinting at the dreams of showbiz and nostalgia that would become rampant in the director’s later work. Nights of Cabiria is deeply rooted in the filmmaking tradition that Fellini was brought up on, but also showcase’s his desire to move into a different direction.
From the opening shot of our prostitute heroine Cabiria (played by Giulietta Masina, the director’s wife) strolling down an urban river bank with her young lover, the mood is set instantly to feature the harsh reality of living in post WWII Rome. With the theme of a prostitute trying to go straight and a camera that explores the seedy nightlife and poverty of the urban environment, Fellini is very much in tune with his realist side. The film is episodic in nature, not having much of a story until the last third of the film, leading to a gritty atmosphere in a world of prostitutes. One of Cabiria’s closest friends, Wanda (played by Franca Marzi), accompanies her on the corners at night, leading to some of the film’s most humorous moments as the prostitutes fighting it out over gossip and petty arguments. Wanda eventually gets Cabiria to join her for a large religious ceremony, which ends up becoming another opportunity for Fellini to confront his discontent with his Catholic upbringing.
But not all is of prostitutes and the slums. An extended sequence with Cabiria getting picked up by a movie star and taken to a surreal night club and later his mansion, feel like a dress rehearsal for La Dolce Vita. Another sequence serves to illustrate both sides to Fellini, featuring Cabiria following around a Good Samaritan at dawn as he delivers food and supplies to people living in holes and caves on the outskirts of Rome. In its silence, the sequence is oddly surreal, but it also serves as another Neo-Realist approach to the film.
Though the star of this film is not Fellini, but Giulietta Masina as Cabiria. The role is written as a mixture of street smart toughness with sweet sixteen naiveties. With her performance, Masina borrows a lot from silent film acting (particularly Charlie Chaplin), putting an emphasis on her adorable facial expressions and hand movements. She fully inhabits the spirit of her character, embodying the perfect blend of melancholy and blind optimism. The film’s funniest moments come from her performance, as do it’s saddest. Often in his later films, Fellini lost interest in featuring a strong protagonist that was not an extension of him, featuring bizarre and flamboyant surrealism made to order, or ensemble nostalgic pictures with great production values but little in the way of characters. Cabiria is the perfect showcase for his wife and Fellini’s greatest character. The final moments in the film will no doubt strike a cord in the viewer’s emotions, but it is Masina’s performance and smile that will remain in their mind.