The triumph of the human spirit comes in varying shapes and sizes.
Nights of Cabiria, due to street September 7, is an astounding collaboration between husband and wife Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina. Fellini tells the story of the heartfelt optimist Cabiria, while Masina acts out her passions and confusions.
I have never been much of a foreign film lover, but that has been changing since the arrival of DVD. Thank God for that. Knowing what I know now, I would have hated to miss out completely on a film of such importance as Nights of Cabiria. After having seen this film, and a few others such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, I am left wondering about what else I have been missing all these years, and yearning to see more.
Nights of Cabiria tells the story of a lowly prostitute "living the life" in and around Rome in the post-war era. Cabiria, our title character, lives her life simply in her one room house on the outskirts of Rome. The film opens with Cabiria walking with her boyfriend on the banks of the Tiber River. She is laughing gaily and swinging her arms about in a joyful way as they approach the riverbank. She is thereupon punched in the head and left to drown in the river as her beau absconds away with her purse and the 40,000 Lira it contains. Cabiria is saved by some local boys and immediately after regaining consciousness runs away toward her modest home full of embarrassment and confusion, not willing to accept that her love would actually steal from her.
Cabiria later comes to accept the idea and returns to "the life" which has sustained her. She spends part of that evening patrolling the streets looking for work, but gets into a scrap with another prostitute who ridicules her naïveté by bringing up her now former beau. She relocates to try her hand on the upscale Via Veneto, where she is clearly outclassed by the higher priced upscale (and much taller) call girls that patrol the area.
She eventually finds herself witnessing a public battle between Italian film star Alberto Lazzari (played by Amadeo Nazzari in a self-parodying role) and his beautiful girlfriend. Cabiria is summoned to his car aft the girlfriend walks off, and later winds up, at the star's palatial estate. Even here, she is naïve enough to hope in some longing way that he will sweep her up and take care of her, even though she has no idea what lobster is, except through the movies. In the end, the girlfriend barges into the estate and Cabiria is locked away in Lazzari's bathroom where she spends the night with his dog, watching the star and his lover through the keyhole in the door.
Later, Cabiria joins her cadre of prostitute and pimp friends for a pilgrimage to the suburbs of Rome where a visage of the Holy Mother has been known to appear. Looking for redemption and a life-change, the crew pays the entry fee only to feel let down. Cabiria wanders off and winds up at a variety show where she is set upon by a local magician and hypnotist. He hypnotizes her and makes her believe she is in the company of a man who loves her deeply and is willing to care for her for the rest of their days. She is roundly ridiculed by the audience when she is awakened and feels duped yet again by a man she hardly knew.
But it is here that she meets Oscar, the accountant, who pursues her with such vigor; she cannot refuse his advances. He courts her in such a kind and gentle way she is convinced of his love. Eventually she succumbs to his professed love and tells him everything about her past, whereupon he duly proposes marriage. Cabiria then sells everything she owns, including her house and her belongings. She empties her bank account and hops a bus to join Oscar to celebrate their engagement. They take a walk through the woods and the viewer immediately senses the impending doom facing Cabiria. In the end, the film, and Cabiria's life is brought full circle as Oscar turns out to be another man who has duped her to steal her money. Devastated and crushed, we finally see Cabiria walking down a country road after leaving the woods, broken and broke. She is literally crushed. She is set upon by a group of performing teenagers on their way to a festival and as they romp around her full of joy, we see a smile of hope slowly alight its way onto her face, for she is, after all, the eternal optimist.
As terrific a film as this is, it would never have worked without Masina in the title role. She is more than captivating. She sings and sizzles. Masina conveys more with a glance than most actors can with a thousand words (perhaps the famous colloquialism was penned after this performance?). And she has at least that many expressions. She is so clearly a physical actor, the exact opposite of say Marlon Brando or Anthony Hopkins. In fact, she has been compared so often to Chaplin that it is worthless to do so, other than to say The Tramp could have learned a thing or two from this performance. In fact, Masina has stated publicly that this performance was largely modeled after Chaplin, and one cannot watch this film without thinking Masina would have been easily as good in a silent film. The smirks, the smiles, the frowns—everything about her makes us love her all the more. Not only her facial expressions, but the way she moves is entrancing. She jumps around with a staccato cat-like grace but also contains some liquid, energetic quality. As she dances in the street or runs away from the fence after announcing her engagement, one cannot be but fascinated by her abilities. There are also some truly funny moments here, such as where Cabiria gets entangled in a curtained entrance to a nightclub or walks headlong into a glass door she does not see, which ring of Chaplinesque physical comedy.
The video quality of Nights of Cabiria is less than stunning when compared to the finest works available on DVD. But that's not really a fair comparison for a 1957 work that had practically disappeared from the face of the earth. When compared to the older prints of the film that were available (and we get to see the comparison on the disc) the difference is more than remarkable—it is outstanding. Criterion has done a splendid job of restoring this classic film. The black and white picture is quite good all in all, with only a slight graininess at times. Contrast is dead on and the black level is deep and well saturated.
The disc is filled with extras, including an interview with former Fellini assistant Dominique Delouche, and an audio only interview with producer Dino De Laurentiis. The disc also contains a before and after restoration demonstration, the original theatrical trailer (with subtitles) as well as the re-release trailer. Lastly, the disc contains an excerpt from Fellini's The White Sheik in which Masina makes her first appearance as the character of Cabiria, and which was the inspiration for the film. Perhaps most importantly, the film contains the original, uncut version of the film, including a several minute scene called the "man with the sack" where Cabiria follows a Samaritan of sorts around to deliver basic necessities to poor people living in natural caves around Rome. Depending on who you believe, this scene was either cut because the Catholic Church felt it criticized them for not doing enough to help the poor and they insisted on its removal, or because De Laurentiis insisted it was not needed for pacing reasons and therefore "stole" the print from the post-production facilities (as he states in the interview on the disc). In any event, the scene was found not long ago and included in the 1998 re-release version of the film, and we get to see it here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only complaint about the film, and it is admittedly a relative one, is with the soundtrack. I have no problem with the fact that the track is mono. On the contrary, I prefer to have the original track, in its original format, but the sound here is a bit thin and tinny at times. Now, that is largely to be expected from a 1957 film, notwithstanding the fact that the track was re-struck from the original master. This is a VERY minor complaint, and it hardly detracted from my enjoyment of the film.
Nights of Cabiria is a classic in the truest sense of the word. A film about hope, the never-ending search for love and redemption, and the triumph of the human spirit, Nights of Cabiria is a first class story told by a master of his domain, and portrayed by the finest physical actress of all time. It is films like this that make me thank my lucky stars for Criterion and DVD, and the things they do together.
The film is acquitted and the court hereby instructs the prosecutor to spend 30 days in jail for even bringing a case against such a work. This is a clear case of prosecutorial misconduct. Case closed.
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