Perhaps the most humanistic Fellini picture, Nights of Cabiria is a heartbreaking foray into the breezy Roma evenings, a tragic portrayal of empty hopes, frustration, and shattered pride. The magic show about halfway into the film encapsulates a large number of themes as well as any cinematic segment I’ve seen. Cabiria’s initial refusal to take the stage showcases her standoffish nature, a reluctance to put herself out for public consumption any more than her occupation as a prostitute already demands. She’s put up walls of insecurity—many of them justified—that result in a constantly bitchy attitude, one that drips with distrust. After buckling under the pressure, Cabiria relents and joins the magician…only to be bombarded by (sadly accurate) questions and judgments about her lifestyle. All of her private insecurities that she’s worked so hard to keep separate—her profession, her home, her inability to find a husband—are suddenly out in the open in a public forum. Even though the audience is full of strangers, it nevertheless represents a coming-out-party of sorts, a merging of her persona with the facade she attempts to keep. Everything deepens as the magic show progresses; Cabiria is hypnotized and unwittingly becomes an actress, performing a combination of make-believe, her past, and her dreams.
The show symbolizes a crossroads for Cabiria’s relationships as well. Before it, she’s only known pure heartbreak—Nights of Cabiria opens with the poor girl being pushed into the water by a lover, hoping to drown her (not surprisingly, Cabiria reacts with spite upon being rescued by some local boys, and storms off without a hint of gratitude). Deep down, I think she realized how little there was to live for. Her conscious and subconscious are constantly at odds. Her next attempt at social acceptance and love takes place in the home of Alberto Lazzi, a famous producer who picks Cabiria up off the street after a huge fight with his girlfriend Jessie. Abnormally, Cabiria finds herself treated royally: attending a well-to-do club—note the smug look on her face as she walks by the bouncers, who do little more than shake their head at her naivety—drinking champagne, and returning to Alberto’s house where they engage in actual conversation (somewhat of a foreign concept to the lady). Slowly, Cabiria begins to crack the ice, opening up, talking, smiling…and then, Jessie shows up at the door, begs for forgiveness, and they reunite. The image of Cabiria, locked in the bathroom so Jessie won’t see her, silently encouraging Alberto to be strong and reject Jessie, and gradually losing all energy and tastes of the fleeting joy, is wrenching. Equally tragic is the medium shot a few moments later of Cabiria, curled up in the bathroom floor, asleep, as Alberto awakes from a night of reconciliation and opens the door to help her sneak out. As Cabiria leaves the palace of winding halls and beautiful adornments, it’s impossible not to pity her trek back to reality.
But after the show, things begin to change. A man named Oscar approaches Cabiria, claiming that her hypnosis-induced love story was fate and he wishes to see her. So begins a dream courtship for Cabiria; again, her inner defenses begin to melt away—though more gradually this time—and she eventually succumbs to his proposal of marriage. Delighted, she bids adieu to her old life and acquaintances (I hesitate to use the word ‘friend’ for reasons to be discussed in the next paragraph), and boards a bus to her new existence. Unfortunately, it leads to a familiar result, one that I won’t detail here, as it should be experienced firsthand by all who view Nights of Cabiria. Thematically, however, it’s a devastating portrayal of Cabiria’s circular journey, one that’s full of hope but always results in emptiness.
Cabiria’s relationships with the other prostitutes and her landlord Wanda smack of frustration and a desperation to impress. As she rides past the square where they often set up in the front seat of Alberto’s car, she bellows, “You see who I’m with?! Alberto Lazzi!” She’s proud of his attention—such a rare occurence, really—and she’ll be damned if she lets the chance to show up her compatriots go by the wayside. Her individuality is fierce, tinted only by the occasional subtle cry for affection (e.g.: Cabiria silently pets a chicken early on before realizing what she’s doing and quickly stopping). With Wanda, things are a bit warmer; despite shouting at each other throughout the film, their teary goodbye before Cabiria boards the bus to wed Oscar indicates more about their bond then all the screaming in the world. Without Giulietta Masina’s devastating performance as Cabiria, none of the emotional power would have the same resonance. Masina was the best part of the mediocre La Strada, but she’s fantastic here, perfectly balancing all the complicated emotions that Fellini’s characters demand.
Fellini uses lighting and settings to mirror the protagonist’s moods. Most of the picture takes place in the evenings (as the title would indicate), with Cabiria bathed in shadows. During the more alluring and optimistic moments, we get purer glimpses of her face, allowing us to soak up her rare smile. Ironically, the final act (not including the lovely final scene with the musical troupe) with Oscar takes place on a cliff at sunset, the precise median of light that peers right into her tortured soul…a rising sun that’s doomed to be engulfed by the looming darkness. It’s this painful humanity that puts Nights of Cabiria above 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita as Fellini’s best film, one that tackles grief, fate, and resignation while never losing sight of its heart.