Nights of Cabiria: Turning Tricks by the Tiber


Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) was the first film to win the newly instituted Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was a humanistic drama about simple, poor people doing whatever was needed to get by; in one of the most significant roles, Fellini cast his wife, the hugely talented Giulietta Masini. Fast-forward a few years and another Oscar came Fellini and Masini’s way. Nights of Cabiria became one of their most beloved films, sharing similar traits with La Strada.

In trouble already in her first scene
In Rome, those who are less fortunate are trying to survive. We meet Cabiria Ceccarelli (Masini), a prostitute who’s in trouble already in her first scene. That’s when she’s pushed into the river by Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi), her current boyfriend, who runs away with her purse, which is full of money. Cabiria can’t swim and almost drowns, but is brought back to life by a group of rescuers. When she comes back home she realizes that Giorgio is nowhere to be found, but is in no mood to be lectured by her best friend, Wanda (Franca Marzi). Cabiria has to swallow the embarrassment of being utterly swindled and goes back to her life as a prostitute.

Over the following nights, she has random and interesting experiences, including an encounter with a movie star and a magician who hypnotizes her…

A touch of authenticity
There were many different kinds of inspiration for this film. Above all, it came from Masini herself whose performance as Cabiria the prostitute in Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952) had something that moved the director. He had borrowed the character’s name from the classic Italian film Cabiria (1914) and he also found inspiration from real life, a prostitute he met while making the film Il Bidone (1955), also together with Masini. That touch of authenticity was strengthened thanks to Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had his share of experience when it came to Rome’s criminal underworld; Pasolini made sure the dialogue sounded right. Coming up with money to make Nights of Cabiria wasn’t easy because of its subject matter, but Dino de Laurentiis delivered, perhaps recognizing what matters more than ridiculous moralism, even if he was reportedly the one responsible for cutting a seven minute long sequence where a man gives food to poor people living in caves. De Laurentiis thought the scene slowed the movie down, but Fellini’s instinct was right, and it was latterly restored as an important example of what poverty still looked like in Italy a decade after the end of the war.

The film is episodic in nature, exposing Cabiria to one experience after another that always ends pretty much the same way, in disappointment and heartbreak. The most touching of them takes place near the end. This is particularly the one instance where we in the audience wish things could end differently, even though we can see almost right from the start that Cabiria will be left hurting once again.

Masini is terrific in the lead, even if the character is a cliché (the whore with a heart of gold), offering a range of emotions, much like the film itself. Realistic and poetic, with a vivid music score by Nino Rota, illustrating the joy and tragedy of Cabiria’s existence as she soldiers on by the banks of the Tiber. 

Nights of Cabiria 1957-Italy. 117 min. B/W. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Directed by Federico Fellini. Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Music: Nino Rota. Cast: Giulietta Masina (Cabiria Ceccarelli), François Périer (Oscar D’Onofrio), Amedeo Nazzari (Alberto Lazzari), Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Franco Fabrizi. 

Trivia: Original title: Le notti di Cabiria. The film later became a Broadway musical, which was subsequently filmed as Sweet Charity (1969).

Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Cannes: Best Actress (Masina). 

Last word: “For Giulietta’s wardrobe, we went to a street market to shop for the clothes Cabiria would wear. Afterwards, because she wasn’t going to have pretty clothes to wear in the film, I took her to an expensive boutique to buy a new dress for herself.” (Fellini, “I, Fellini”)



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