Maria Cecarelli is nicknamed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina), a prostitute living on the outskirts of Rome in a tiny hovel, but could it be she has found the one man who can take her away from all this and allow her to start afresh? No, it couldn't, because that man takes her on a trip to the river and while she stands at the water's edge enjoying the day and his company, he grabs her handbag and pushes her in, then runs away, leaving her to drown. Some boys on the bank are alerted to her cries as she goes under and dive in to rescue her, pulling her out as the adults try to resuscitate her by artificial respiration, massage and holding her upside down till the fluid drains out of her, but once revived she is furious with them...
Whereas she should be furious with the boyfriend who tried to kill her, but it's going to take more than that to wake Cabiria up to the men in her life who will take advantage of her trusting nature. She had appeared in a previous film directed by Federico Fellini, The White Sheik, and would perhaps be more famous when her story was turned into Sweet Charity, a musical that was filmed with Shirley MacLaine, but for the fans of the director and indeed the actress, who was Fellini's wife, here was where she was undiluted by any Hollywood conventions. This served up a curiously hard-edged sentimentality where the damaged heroine tried to remain optimistic in spite of the hard knocks life doled out to her.
For many observers, this was one of the most emotional movies ever made as the cartoonish protagonist was routinely abused by all and sundry as if everyone was determined to see her ground down with all the hope dashed from her body, which given her oddly caricatured personality was the equivalent of watching Betty Boop be driven to a crushing depression. That could be effective, yet the naysayers had a point when they accused Masina of being a little too cute in her performance and her husband of manipulation, with a sadistic tinge to the ordeals Cabiria endures, all too carefully calibrated to jerk the audience’s tears when something more emotionally honest might have come across less cynically masterminded.
Every time - and I mean every time - Cabiria thinks she can finally look forward to something the rug is pulled from under her, which really can get a bit much so that when she does find someone in the second half who is geared to her well-being we are now convinced she is headed for a fall even if this guy is on the level. Sweet Charity sugarcoated this to a degree, though it left the essential "if you can survive this, you can survive anything" conclusion intact, but leading up to this Cabiria has encounters not only with the potentially murderous boyfriend but a movie star who she cannot believe her luck wants to spend the night with her, except it's actually bad luck she's suffering when his girlfriend returns unexpectedly and Cabiria must hide out in the bathroom for the whole evening before sneaking out.
There were hints some of this was meant to be funny, only in a deeply bittersweet fashion, so for example when our girl is on the dancefloor of a swanky nightclub with the celebrity she really struts her funky stuff while the higher class patrons look on in amused, almost snooty disdain. Then again, there were the sequences where the tone was more grimly ironic, such as when Cabiria and her prostitute pals join a pilgrimage to pray to the Madonna that their lives will change and that ray of hope they so yearn for will at last bless them, only for their prayers to have absolutely no effect and things continue much as they had before. But then she meets Mr Right, and she wonders if her wishes have been granted; Masina offered a study in pessimistic, tough guardedness for most of the time, tempered by her remaining hope, which made the ending one of the most beautifully poignant in cinema. But again, there was so much of the cynic to the film we didn't know if we could trust the world to give her a break, ever. Music by Nino Rota.
Aka: Le notti di Cabiria
[Nights of Cabiria is released on Blu-ray by Studiocanal in a restored print, and with these extras:
Interview with film historian Phil Kemp
Also released on Blu-ray by Studiocanal is The White Sheik, the Fellini film where the Cabiria character first appeared.]