“Nights of Cabiria” opens with a couple running across a field. It’s a bright sunny day. They laugh, hold hands, and embrace. But any notion of romance plunges when the man pushes the woman into the river. She submerges, then dragged out of the waters by the local men and boys. She remains unconscious and her heroes triy to revive her by … dangling her upside-down. She amazingly awakens, only to walk off the scene ungrateful. She was close to death and yet she exasperatedly calls out for a boyfriend long gone with her money.

At first, I thought this was some coy Italian movie, playfully subverting our expectations. It turns out, as I’d like to see it, the scene is a cunning way to introduce its temperamental and unassuming female protagonist. She is Maria “Cabiria” Ceccarelli and the woman is difficult to warm up to. She can be defensive, acting out against the world for being duped by a lover. Granted she’s in a tough position, but she hardly earns any sympathy or empathy.

And yet, the movie has a way of making her earn it! She’s a hard worker after all. She’s in a tough neighborhood, making a living in the streets. She takes pride in what she has accomplished. She’s always striving, dreaming of a very bright future. She might be naive, but dang it, her ferocity for life and audacity for grace are downright admirable. And I found myself hooked in a rare movie that successfully turns the viewpoint in 180 degrees without basically altering the character from the start.

At the heart of the movie is a firecracker of an actress named Giulietta Masina. She delivers is one of my favorite female performances of all time. It’s not the bravura type but a fine-tuned and balanced walk between comedy and drama. Masina exceeds my expectations in both genres. She can be vivacious and expressive feisty – very reminiscent of Lucille Ball and Amy Poehler. And yet she also possess raw instinct for drama. Some of her scenes are so devastating – it really breaks your heart.

I was not expecting to be so enraptured by a Fellini movie. I thought the Italian filmmaker’s “La Dolce Vita” was okay and I could not even get into “8 1/2” that I did not bother finishing it. My watching “Nights of Cabiria” is the first time I have appreciated Fellini’s genius. My guess is that the earthier portrayal of reality here provides his signature surrealism a more truthful and emotional weight. I was also impressed in the way he structures the movie. The movie seems to meander in its chronicling of Cabiria’s misadvantures. But when the film arrives at its conclusion, you realize the film has been building all along to a heightened climax from the very first frame. “Nights of Cabiria” closes on an intense surreal note and afterwards, I inexplicably wanted to laugh with the movie, hold its hands and embrace.

This review is part of AROUND OF THE WORLD movie series.
“Nights of Cabiria” represents the country of Italy.

Grade: A+

Giulietta Masina
François Périer
Amedeo Nazzari
Franca Marzi
Screenplay by
Federico Fellini
Ennio Flaiano
Tullio Pinelli
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Directed by
Federico Fellini