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Bucket List Movie #432: Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Updated on March 20, 2014

It’s strange that in the modern era of “dark and gritty”, we can watch beatings, gunfights, decapitations, and lacerations without flinching, but a story that tells of tragic people who will never know real happiness? Few filmmakers, at least those of the Hollywood persuasion, would even dare. That is because violence is much more palatable than the visceral emotions we struggle everyday to avoid or deny, such as loss, regret, and hopelessness. Bullet wounds are infinitely preferable to irreparable anguish; after all, you’ll either live or die from a bullet wound, but, for some, emotional turmoil churns inside until the very end. Federico Fellini, one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, tackles those very issues of the heart in Nights of Cabiria, a harsh parable that dares to question whether hopes and dreams are worth the trouble.


Our titular heroine, Maria “Cabiria” Ceccarelli (Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and frequent star), is a prostitute of a certain age whose world-weary pragmatism is constantly overridden by her girlish hopes and desires. Cabiria projects an image of brash self-possession, boasting of owning her home (which is a sorry cement block of a house in a poor rural area) and talking smack with her fellow prostitutes under a bridge while dodging the cops. Despite her bluster, Cabiria is a romantic at heart, and yearns for a love to call her own. Though she barely survives a disastrous relationship in the beginning of the movie, in which the evil louse tries to drown and rob her, Cabiria still believes love is within her grasp. Cabiria eventually encounters three different men she hopes to find romance with: the first is Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari), a fading movie star who picks her up after his girlfriend noisily dumps him. He takes Cabiria back to his ostentatious home (complete with a musical closet) for a tryst, but he leaves Cabiria in the bathroom overnight when his girlfriend comes back to him.


Cabiria brushes off this humiliating incident easily enough, and then meets a nameless philanthropist who delivers food to poor people living in holes in fields, but, despite Cabiria’s fascination, he is not interested in her. Third time seems to be the charm when Cabiria meets a handsome, sensitive man named Oscar (Francois Perier) who instantly sweeps her off her feet and proposes after a whirlwind courtship. Cabiria overcomes her trepidations and accepts, but is Oscar too good to be true?


It would be unforgivable to spoil what comes next, but I can’t praise the film highly enough for displaying the foibles of humanity to which we are so comically accustomed. When Cabiria and her friends go to a church ceremony to ask for the grace of the Virgin Mary, they are full of reverence... until afterwards, when they lounge outside the church, chugging booze and engaging in dirty talk. “You never change!” Cabiria bitterly scolds them. But isn’t that true of all of us? We go to confession, or vow to change our ways, but then we rarely do.

Cabiria is one of the great tragic figures in film, because she is also unable to change her ways. She is constantly at odds with her adult side that should know better, and the youthful, innocent side that she is too afraid to let go of. It is all too understandable, because ignorance is the greatest protection against the truth. In fact, you could argue that truth is the actual fate worse than death: the realization that perhaps it is too late, that you will never get what you really want, and that you may as well be satisfied with what you are, no matter how much you’d wish it otherwise. There will always be unlucky people in life, and we wonder how they got that way: is it just circumstances? Their own bad choices? Or do they just have the misfortune of living in an indifferent world? Cabiria is a woman so starved for love, affection, and validation that, in one devastating scene, she throws caution and self-preservation aside, because her dreams mean that much to her. Masina brings Cabiria to remarkable life, with a very natural acting style that is never false, not even for a moment. She manages to be old and young at once, and her dark eyes convey longing at every turn, even at her most upbeat. It’s no wonder she won the Best Actress award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.


Parades are a recurring motif in Nights of Cabiria. There is a parade of nuns and priests twice in the film, and then a group of partygoers at the end. Cabiria merely watches the former, and joins the latter by accident. It occurs to us that the parade hasn’t just passed Cabiria by, but that perhaps she was never truly meant to march in it. But march on she does, regardless of whether or not she belongs. She will go on, not out of optimism, but because, well, what other choice does she have?


In addition to the exquisite story and title character, this is also one of the loveliest looking films of the 50s. Shot in sharp black and white, Fellini’s cinematography is perfect in its simplicity, for it shows the contrast of how Cabiria is always at her most animated and brusque in the nighttime, but more modest and girlish during the day. There is a shot towards the end of the dusky sun reflected in a lake, and it is easily the most beautiful scene in the movie, and all the more effective for the fraught events that follow. Fellini’s story is honest and unsentimental, but also sensitive towards its protagonist. He cares about Cabiria, and wants us to care as well, because we’re all a little like her.



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