#315. The Nights of Cabiria (1957)

To finally sit and write about Nights of Cabiria after watching it twice, and re-watching its ending at least a dozen times, feels doomed because for one thing there’s no real plot to convey, no elevator pitch that’ll make anybody wanna see it. Nights of Cabiria is a long digressive story about the (night)life of the titular Cabiria, a prostitute who never appears to take a john, played miraculously, magically, by Giulietta Masina, wife and lifelong collaborator of writer-director Federico Fellini–and the perpetrator, here, of one of my most zealously beloved performances in all of cinema.

            I love this movie as much as I love the character.

            And clearly the movie itself is celebrated as a great piece of art–here it is on the List and there it is in the Criterion Collection–and yet for all I’ve heard about Fellini’s work, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody mention Cabiria before. I’d heard of La Strada and 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, but never, for some reason, Nights of Cabiria—and maybe that’s because the movie isn’t particularly great? Maybe the material is kinda shoddy, on its own, and the whole thing is only elevated into a work of near-celestial beauty by the power of Masina’s performance.

            I saw an interview with Stephen Fry a long time ago where he said that James Joyce’s Ulysses was his favorite novel and then offered, as a reflexive and truncated but still poignant explanation, the fact that the book–whose final line is an electric salad of “yes”—is “life-affirming.” It celebrates food and sex and sorrow, commaraderie—everything.

Everything.

            Cabiria does the same thing: sad and sweet and weirdly sexy—I was just talking about Wild Strawberries and about her, with Ingmar Bergman’s movies, the philosophical elements started to seem way more poignant when finally, rather than just openly meditating on a theme, he puts his characters in situations where, because of who they are, they’re struck by epiphanies. Cabiria’s sad smile in the last shot of this movie, given everything we’ve come to learn about her in the couple hours leading up to it, is one of the few shots I can call to mind, in any movie I’ve seen, that speaks more than any amount of writing could do (there’s also that scene toward the end of An Affair to Remember, that one shot, that can hit you in a similar way).

Normally, with a Fellini movie, you’re looking for some of his signature tricks. The jazzy cocktail party soundtrack, the large cast, the juggling of sub-plots. There’s almost none of that here. The camera, and the movie itself, are trained with diary-like focus on Cabiria herself. Nothing else. And I think that Fellini wants Masina to hold the whole show in her hands because his directing here is smooth, subtle, and elegant to the point of being almost invisible, like Howard Hawks’s old adage about cutting your shots on movement so that the audience doesn’t notice.

Fellini disappears here.

            In those later Fellini movies, which I think are made distinct by the fact that the camera is the protagonist, he’s got larger casts than he does in Cabiria or La Strada, more ground to cover geographically and imaginatively.           

            But I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Fellini becomes a better filmmaker as he switches from the smaller, more conventional movies to those larger, zanier, more ecletic and authorially distinct movies. I think they just become that: more distinct, more original; and, if you’re the sort of viewer for whom Fellini’s distinct voice proves interesting, well then you might prefer those later movies to these earlier ones.

            I enjoy Nights of Cabiria much more than any other Fellini movie—but, if we’re to look at them like specimens in a dish, I’d say 8 ½ (which I think is his most personal) is the one I find most interesting, the one I would most like to explore. My interest there is artistic, intellectual. My affinity for Nights of Cabiria, on the other hand, is totally emotionally and warm and one of the few movies that ignite what feels to me the love one conjures for a friend.            

I love love love love love this movie

3 comments

  • I am afraid Fellini never hit it with me. The best I have seen I tolerable (Dolce Vita, 8 1/2), while the worst… Personally I much prefer Antonioni, who I have gotten to appreciate as a deep and perceptive director.
    The fact that I do not remember much from Cabiria probably means that it is not too bad.

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    • It’s interesting to hear you say that because I’m the complete opposite! Playboy Magazine, for their 50th anniversary, released a bunch of little ebooks, costing $1, featuring their most famous longform interviews. I just bought the one where they interview Antonioni because, for the life of me, I just don’t get his work. I enjoyed La Notte but thought that L’Aventura and Red Desert and L’Eclisse were literally painful. Zabriskie Point was tolerable, but mostly just for the gorgeous five-minute explosion at the end.

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      • Did the ebook provide any insight then? These Italian directors are hit or miss. The best of them can distill a sentiment or feeling while the worst are way too self indulgent and some are sort of both. Antonioni for me is able to induce the feeling of estrangement and isolation and I am looking forward to watch Zabriesky Point, coming up shortly.

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