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With: Giulietta Masina, François Périer, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Aldo Silvani, Ennio Girolami, Mario Passante, Christian Tassou, Amedeo Nazzari
Written by: Pier Paolo Pasolini, based on a story by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli
Directed by: Federico Fellini
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 117
Date: 10/05/1957
IMDB

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Magic Show

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Nights of Cabiria on DVD

Federico Fellini made two kinds of films -- we'll call them his "big" films and his "small" films. His "big" films are the ones that contain astounding arty imagery like 8 1/2, and Amarcord His earlier, "small" films are less intimidating and contain extraordinary images of people, like his wife, Giulietta Masina. Nights of Cabiria is such a film, and for people who have never seen a Fellini movie, it is a wonderful place to start.

Well received when it was first released in 1957, Nights of Cabiria (a.k.a. La Notti di Cabiria) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and Masina won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival (for the second time -- the first was for Fellini's La Strada). Despite this, the Church pressured Fellini to cut a scene in which a man carries a sack of food and blankets to give to the poor because they thought it was priests who should be doing such work. Nights of Cabiria was then relegated to shoddy 16 mm prints. Now, it's been fully restored, newly subtitled, and transferred back into a new 35 mm print.

Nights of Cabiria is a beautiful and heartbreaking film. It works mostly on the strength of Giulietta Masina, who is a combination of Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, and Al Pacino. She can be described as a waif, a powerhouse, a clown, and a princess all in one. Masina plays Cabiria, a streetwalker who has her own small home on the outskirts of Rome. She is dressed in a shabby waist-length fur, a skirt, and bobby-sox. She is adorable and ridiculous-looking at the same time. (Fellini's favorite film was Chaplin's City Lights, and he was trying for the same kind of comedy, poetry, and grace.)

The film opens with a long shot of Cabiria and a man running and giggling with each other near a riverbank. They appear to be a young, carefree couple in love. In the first closeup, the man looks around, snatches her purse, and shoves her in the river. She nearly drowns, and the man gets away. She is revived by some locals in a horrible fashion, her limp body tossed and jerked around. When she wakes up, she's not grateful, but angry. Her absolute fury in this scene is a thing to behold (hence the comparison to Al Pacino -- she blows up like a reactor).

The rest of the film recounts her adventures in Rome, looking for love. Cabiria soon rejoins her cohorts on the streets of Rome. A movie star who has just dumped his glamorous girlfriend orders Cabiria to get into his car. He takes her to a club where Cabiria begins dancing crazily, in contrast to the dour regulars. The movie star brings her back to his home. They begin to talk, but the girlfriend shows up, and Cabiria must spend the night in the actor's huge bathroom.

Later, she and her friends go to a mass to ask the Madonna for grace. Fellini intercuts between Cabiria and a man on crutches. Cabiria begins to weep with fear as she prays to the Madonna. You can see that she feels something this time. But Fellini tips us off early as the old man asks for the use of his legs again, and collapses on the floor in a heap. Afterwards, Cabiria loses her temper again, as she realizes that everyone is unchanged from the incident. Everything is exactly as it was before. No one had received any grace.

At night, she wanders into a magic show, and is hypnotized by the magician. The magician conjures up an invisible lover named Oscar for her, and she pours her heart out to him, asking if he really loves her and if he's not deceiving her. A man in the audience is moved by her and begins to court her. His name is also Oscar, and he tells her that they were fated for each other. But Fellini keeps us on edge as to whether or not his intentions are honorable -- up until the final moment.

While Chaplin conveyed incredible heartbreak and sympathy in one shot at the end of City Lights, Fellini takes two or three scenes to do the same, but it's just as effective. I believe the end of the film is a hopeful one, as Cabiria walks along a road flanked by musicians and teenagers singing and dancing.

Masina (who passed away in 1994) was 37 when she starred in Nights of Cabiria, and she magically transforms herself, depending on the scene, to a reckless youth, or a weary adult. It's impossible to guess her true age. The Police could have been singing about her in their song, "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic". Even though she's a streetwalker, even though she loses her temper, even though she's uncouth, your heart goes out to her. I dare anyone not to be moved by Masina finding the puppy while spending the night in the bathroom; or standing in the rain with a faraway look on her face, ignoring the calls of a potential customer; or absently dancing on the dark Rome street; or courting her invisible Oscar in front of the cruel audience; or weeping before the Madonna.

I've been talking mostly about Masina, but I believe that Fellini himself would have done the same. He dearly loved her, and was moved and inspired by her, and his film caresses her, rather than smothering her, like many other directors in love with actresses did

The other great talent on the film includes; Pier Paolo Passolini, who was another great Italian director (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), and who wrote some additional dialogue; composer Nino Rota, who worked often with Fellini, and famed producer Dino De Laurentiis (Ragtime and Dune). Nights of Cabiria may be Fellini's best film for its effortless poetry, its love, and its grace.

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