Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Federico Fellini | 1hr 58min

It isn’t quite full-fledged neorealism, nor is it the visually breathtaking interrogation of Rome’s faith and frivolity that Federico Fellini would accomplish just a few years later with La Dolce Vita, but Nights of Cabiria falls somewhere in between. Its vignettes are mostly contained between sunset and sunrise, leading us through cycles of hope and defeat perpetuated by Rome’s celebrities, entertainers, and more broadly, men, against titular street prostitute, Maria ‘Cabiria’ Ceccarelli. 

Giulietta Masina is a force of pure empathy in this role, projecting innate virtue and innocence even when she has every reason not to. There is a naïve honesty in her large, expressive eyes, accentuated by her dark eyebrows which seem to be permanently raised in curiosity. As she is so often written off as simple-minded and cheap by those looking for an easy laugh, any instance where Cabiria is lifted off her street corner by a man and placed on a pedestal is a moment of ecstasy for her, and each time she fully believes she has found acceptance within the society she both loathes and adores. 
 
And yet on several separate occasions, we watch these same men rapidly deflate the fantasy they have built for her the moment something more enticing catches their eye. Even as we get to know her final love interest, Oscar, on a more personal level than the others, a pattern has been set by this point. No matter how charming his manner, no matter how much brighter Cabiria appears than ever before, Fellini’s rhythmic narrative gives us no reason to believe that this relationship should be any different than the last few. And indeed, Cabiria winds up facing a similar fate to that which almost killed her in the very first scene. 

A string of unreliable men in Cabiria’s life.

Fellini brings impeccable form to Nights of Cabiria in this sort of repetition, constantly returning to dishonest, selfish male characters, Catholic processions moving through Roman streets, and references to Cabiria’s nostalgic memories of adolescence, all three motifs delivering false promises of security and prosperity. She is not a particularly religious woman, and yet when she finally does follow one of these processions back to a church she is overcome with the same fervour that has washed over the entire crowd, singing and praying to Mother Mary for help in changing her life. 

Finally following a Catholic street procession back to church, Cabiria prays to the Mother Mary – and Fellini literalises the Madonna-whore complex.

Here we have two women named Maria addressed by other titles, Madonna and Cabiria, and thus a parallel is drawn between their journeys. A virgin and a prostitute, both drawn to God, both embodying intrinsic goodness, and yet only one has her name shouted in passionate ardour through the streets and churches of Rome – a rather literal rendering of the Madonna-whore complex. In one unfortunate encounter Cabiria is even led into a humiliating trap by a magician wearing devil horns, threatening her with diabolic tricks as she searches for Christian redemption. It is through this intelligent employment of religious and demonic imagery that Fellini and Masina craft one of the greatest, most indelible cinematic characters of the 1950’s, allowing us an empathetic vessel through which we contemplate the religious hypocrisies and class struggles of post-war Italy.

A poignant, hopeful ending delivered by one of the greatest actresses of her generation.

Nights of Cabiria is currently unavailable to stream in Australia.

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