Thursday, November 11, 2010

Giulietta Masina, a Bright Light in Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria”

Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is spending a day with her boyfriend, Giorgio. When they approach a river, Giorgio snatches Cabiria’s purse and pushes the woman into the water. Cabiria is saved from drowning by several locals, but, refusing to believe that Giorgio has simply stolen her money, she returns to her home to find him. Such is the life of Cabiria, who earns her living as a prostitute. She endures hardship and heartbreak, maintaining a firm grasp on the notion that one day she will find a true companion, a generous and selfless man who will shower her with love.

Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (aka Le notte di Cabiria/1957) is sometimes viewed as a bleak, often depressing film. Cabiria suffers through life’s adversities, which is not always easy to watch, compounded by the fact that she seems naive and so desperate for affection. She encounters men who are disrespectful or self-centered. She wanders into situations which ultimately leave her embarrassed or humiliated. There are times when Cabiria is alone, inside her small house or walking the barren land just outside the city, and a sense of loneliness will betray the woman’s confidence.

But what makes Fellini’s movie anything but a tragedy is Cabiria herself. Despite a childlike exterior, Cabiria is undoubtedly experienced and intelligent. Rather than let herself become overwhelmed with sadness, she retains hope with a smile and a spring in her step. Soon after Giorgio’s treachery, Cabiria is on the streets with others in her profession, dancing to music. Even after another woman insinuates that Giorgio is her man and Cabiria attacks her, the woman’s fury does not linger, and before long, she’s once again dancing in the street. She sees the beauty in so many things, a woman who is proud of the tiny house that she owns and whose happiness cannot be washed away in the pouring rain. The title is certainly appropriate: as the night blankets everything in darkness, Cabiria stands there, forever shining brightly.

Masina, who was married to the director for many years until his death in 1993, was a tremendous actress and provides Nights of Cabiria with a beautiful and unforgettable performance. Many of Fellini’s films either contained a circus or were reminiscent of one, with a motley assortment of characters, each with his/her own distinctive qualities and in a world that had no choice but to embrace every single person. Masina, quite suitably, was much like a clown. She could move from comedy to tragedy with the greatest of ease, and her face was incredibly expressive. Her grins radiate with joy, and her frowns are shrouded in sorrow. Her character in an earlier Fellini film, La strada (1954), played a clown, but that attribute is clear even without the makeup.

In 1998, Nights of Cabiria was restored by Rialto Pictures and was re-released in theaters. In addition to improving the overall quality of the film’s images, a seven-minute sequence with a character usually referred to as “the man with the sack” was included. The previously cut scene involved Cabiria, walking home alone in the early morning, seeing the man pull up in his car. Curious, she watches as he brings food and clothing to people living in what looked to be holes (translated in the subtitles as “caves”). It enhances the film greatly, as Cabiria meets a charitable man who seems to represent what she desires. Likewise, one of the people in the caves is a former prostitute whom Cabiria recognizes, and the woman, once wealthy from the spoils of her profession, is the embodiment of what Cabiria fears.

Nights of Cabiria won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Masina was awarded the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Zulueta Prize at the San Sebastián International Film Festival held in Spain. Fellini was awarded the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar three additional times, for La strada, (1963), and Amarcord (1973). His actress wife was also nominated for a BAFTA for both La strada and Nights of Cabiria.

Nights of Cabiria editor Leo Catozzo, who had worked on other films with Fellini, designed and patented the CIR-Catozzo Self-Perforating Adhesive Tape Film Splicer (sometimes called the CIRO and/or guillotine splicer). He was awarded an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 1990.

Federico Fellini had begun making films during the movement known as Italian Neorealism, which can essentially be defined as social commentary presented in a realistic manner (e.g., shooting on location, amateur performers, etc.). Certainly later in his career, Fellini moved beyond neorealism, with as a clear turning point, much more surreal than based in reality. However, even Fellini’s earlier movies rejected the notion of realism. There was a poetic and spiritual quality to his films, and this is prevalent in Nights of Cabiria. The film concludes with a violation of the fourth wall, a lyrical moment which gives the movie bittersweet closure, and just a little more sweet than bitter.


  1. Sark, this is probably my favorite Fellini film (I also like La Strada a lot). Masina plays one of the strangest prostitutes in film history. You are so right about the expressiveness of her face...she makes a good clown. I view this film as a black comedy because of the way the story is told. Thanks for reviewing this.

  2. Fabulous review, Sark, of my favorite Fellini film (though, like Kim, I am also a fan of LA STRADA). You eloquently highlight the complexity of the film: Fellini makes us wince as we watch some of the things that happen to Cabiria, but--in the end--this is an uplifting film because of the relentless hope harbored by its title character. As such, the entire movie rests on little Masina's shoulders and she proves capable of supporting it and much more. Your analogy of the night "blanketing" the luminous Cabiria is brilliant. You also make an excellent point about the shift in Fellini's approach to film. I saw CABIRIA later in life after having watched AMARCORD, 8 1/2, SATYRICON, and LA DOLCE VITA--all larger-than-life films. Thus, I was surprised with CABIRIA, which seems almost low-key in comparison and, for that reason, all the more powerful by its conclusion. One of these days, I need to watch all of SWEET CHARITY, the American musical remake (I've only seen snippets). Thanks for providing a great start to my day with a great review.

  3. Sark, your research into and insight about this film are incredible! I knew that this movie was the inspiration for Sweet Charity, but I've never seen this original. What a little doll Masina is -- I can see that she could break your heart. I agree with Rick that your night as a blanket analogy was really a piece of good writing. I've got to see this one.

    Sweet Charity had two endings. I remember the original release in the theatre, and when I saw it a few years later, another ending had been substituted. One was sweetly comical and happier, the other bittersweet (in a dumb 60's flower-child way). I suspect the bittersweet is closer to this original. I'll have to see it and find out. Thanks for one of your best articles!

  4. This was a poignant tribute to both the poetic Fellini and his luminous bride, Giulietta Masina. Your words made me think of the rhetorical quandry of the glass being half empty or half full. It also reminded me of a remarkable scripture in Romans 8:28: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."

    Sark, you are truly a gifted writer and your review of "Nights of Cabiria" is a masterpiece.

  5. Wonderful choice, Sark, and well done! I like most of Fellini's films, and Nights of Cabiria is one of my favorites (also La Dolce Vita and Juliet of the Spirits). Giulietta Masina...her face, style and presence almost supercede the need for dialogue.

  6. A wonderful post on a tremendous film. As much as I love Fellini's greatest films, this is my very favorite--for many reasons, most of them mentioned here, above all the wonderful Masina-- and I'm glad to see I'm not alone in this opinion! I think of this as the movie that even people who are cool towards Fellini will like, and the perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with his work. So far the foreign film month is off to an impressive start with great posts on two Renoirs and now this. Can't wait to see what's up next.

  7. Cabiria, alias Giulietta Masina a sexy girl!!! Kiss me Giulietta!