Nights of Cabiria

Director: Federico Fellini

In the ’50s and ’60s, when quality European films enjoyed enormous prestige and sizeable audiences world-wide, director Federico Fellini was one of the stars of international cinema. The great French critic Andre Bazin is said to have first used the term ‘auteur’ (meaning the director as author of a film) in relation to Fellini, whose increasingly personal and subjective works were clearly the products of its maker’s rich imagination. Yet Fellini started out working under the influence of the Italian neo-realist movement, and traces of that aesthetic are very evident in his 1957 masterpiece Nights of Cabiria, which is receiving a very welcome reissue in a restored version.
Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is a good-natured, eternally optimistic prostitute who lives and works in Via Cecilia, a wasteland on the outskirts of Rome. In the opening sequence she is robbed and thrown into the Tiber by her lover. Undaunted, Cabiria continues to join other prostitutes each evening on the Passeggiata Archeologica, where a rancous street life flourishes. Dreaming of a better life, Cabiria ventures into the smart side of the city, where she meets a jaded movie star (Amadeo Nazzari) who dumps her when his girlfriend returns. Further humiliations follow – at the hands of other men, the clergy, and a hypnotist – but the irrepressible Cabiria survives them all.
Fellini’s marvellous film effortlessly transcends the cliche of the ‘Whore with a heart of gold’. In Giulietta Masina’s unforgettable performance, Cabiria becomes a universal figure, as affecting and resilient a symbol of struggling humanity as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. At this stage in his career, Fellini still had some belief in the innate goodness of humanity and could therefore celebrate Cabiria’s brave smile in the face of adversity. A work of considerable power and compassion, Cabiria avoids the excesses of bitterness and cynicism that marred some of the director’s other films. Here, the stylistic balance of ‘realist’ and ‘fantasy’ elements seems perfectly suited to the film’s suggestion that the quest for happiness may ba a necessary illusion for survival in a harsh world.

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