Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Nights of Cabiria

(Le Notti di Cabiria, 1957)

DIRECTED by Federico Fellini
PRODUCED by Dino De Laurentiis
WRITTEN by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli & Pier Paolo Pasolini
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Pasquale Bonagura & Nino Rota
ART DIRECTION by Brunello Rondi

(There is a spoiler at the end here, but it’s not something you can’t see coming a mile away.)

Giulietta Masina was married to Federico Fellini for 50 years, and she died within five months of him. She starred in three of his best films: La Strada, Le Notte di Cabiria, Guilietta degli spiriti; also in Ginger e Fred, which I didn’t care for much. In fact, I am not a huge Fellini fan. I love 8 1/2, Variety Lights, and the aforementioned three. The rest are often visually stunning but empty. For me. Cabiria is the best of the bunch.

If you’ve never seen it, it was adapted, sort of, as a musical under the title Sweet Charity. Now, I’m not putting the musical down. I’ve seen it on Broadway and I’ve seen Bob Fosse’s movie of it, and I love it. Some titanic talent there with Fosse and Neil Simon. But it is a pale, pale shadow of Cabiria. For instance, “Big Spender” is one of the finest moments I’ve ever seen on stage … but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been staged on the streets of New York by prostitutes instead of a dime-a-dance club that, frankly, just isn’t too believable. Cabiria was a prostitute, a streetwalker, and not even a very pretty one. Her life was hard. She owned a house of which she was very proud, and it was nothing but a pile of concrete blocks out past the gas works. But hey, it could have been worse. Some of her friends were sleeping on the street.

“It could be worse” pretty much sums up Cabiria’s life, and what makes the story so strong. She is forever hopeful in the face of setbacks and betrayals that would stagger a saint. In the musical, Charity is betrayed by Oscar because he can’t face the fact of her profession and her friends. In Cabiria, Oscar was out to get her money in the first place, he cleans her out of every penny, and doesn’t push her off a cliff mostly because he’s too chickenshit to do it, not from any real compassion.

This could almost have been a silent movie. Giulietta Masina’s face is so mobile that she can go through half a dozen expressions in a few seconds, each of them crystal clear without being in any way mugging. I got some proof of this a few days ago when we rented a wretched public-domain copy from the library (they misspelled the title on the box, if you can believe that, “Caberea,” and it wasn’t a librarian’s typo, it was a printed cover) where the subtitling was spotty, to say the least, and sometimes almost unreadable … and I always knew what was happening. Of course, Italians can say plenty with just gestures, and hers are exquisite.

The entire move is wonderful, but like with City Lights and Ikiru, it is the last shot that haunts. Cabiria is broke, dirty, heartbroken, she has just pleaded with her traitorous lover to kill her. She is walking down a road. A group of young people appear, laughing, singing, far too young for heartbreak. As the tears leak from her eyes, Cabiria begins to look around at them and smile. And for a brief moment she looks right at us, and that look says so many things I can’t even begin to describe them. It would take five pages of prose, and Fellini and Masina do it all in about 48 frames.