Film review: Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) (Fellini, 1957) – the sadness behind the powerful smile

Federico Fellini redefined what a good movie should look like – what it should feel like with Le notti di Cabiria (1957.) Every tear you have ever cried seems insignificant in comparison to those of our heroine, Cabiria. We will regret every bit of hope we have ever put in humanity when we are confronted with the cards she has been dealt. This movie is a powerful statement about carrying on, no matter how bad it gets. No matter how ugly the industry, how wicked the the world, you just gotta shine on. Giulietta Masina is both the perfect darkness and the perfect sun.

Cabiria is a prostitute for as long as she can remember. Her mother pimped her out from a young age so she doesn’t know better than to sell her body to make a living. She is looking for love and a way out. She’s unhappy with her situation and who can blame her? She is naive, she thinks that eventually love will find a way to her so she puts up with men who are only after her money, and go through great lengths to get that money from her. That kind of naitivité could only prove fatal and in a way it did.

We follow her through a number of harrowing days and nights as she navigates the streets trying to find comfort and the kind of human connection that is not for sale. We follow her from getting robbed and drowned by her boyfriend to falling in love with a movie star on a fairytale-esque night out only to be waken up by the cruel realization that he already has a girlfriend and he was just waiting for her to return to him. In the end there is Oscar who may prove to be the antidote to all the poison she has been taking. But in the end he was poison too, and more lethal than any she had tasted before.

There are two moments in which Giulietta proves herself to be the perfect actress for this role: the final seconds and the theater scene. If you turn the sound off, the theater scene will look dreamy and enchanting. But with the sound on you hear the deception and humiliation that she is being subjected to by the magician who lured her on stage to tricks her through hypnosis  into thinking there is a man right there, who is in every way perfect for her and is taking her hand. You see her reaching out her hand but grabbing only air and the audience laughs. It makes you want to run up the stage and grab her hand so she is no longer alone.

When the hypnosis wears off, she finds out that the entire on-stage performance was an illusion, mirroring the fact that everything she ever dreamt of has been an illusion. She runs away humiliated, but a man follows her who tells her exactly what she wants to hear. She ends up getting married to the guy as he lures her in with beautiful promises but can keep none. When she has sold all her belongings and goes away with him to get married, he brings her to a cliff and because experience has taught her this much, Cabiria knows what’s going to happen – he’s going to steal her money and push her off. She begs him to spare her and gives her all his money. Humiliated and broken she finally walks away, nowhere to go as she sold her home. There is music all around but she is deaf to it. But the music is so happy and so loud that she needs to submit to it. She cracks a smile through her tears. Things may turn out all right, no matter how bleak they may seem now. There will always be the music around her. Happiness, children, dancing people who bring light to the darkest of days.

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As in most of Fellini’s movies, religious themes are very prominent in the movie. Cabiria wants a different life and she seeks this in men and in religion as the Madonna passes through Rome but finds it in neither. When the hope she put in men has proven to be in vain and the begging in church to be unfruitful in the end, she has to find strength within herself and that simple conclusion and how she gets to that point is what makes this movie notable.

The movie begins and ends the same yet are completely different. In the beginning she is also robbed and drowned yet she emerges in denial of what happened and by not acknowledging the horror and staying naive, she breaks down even further. The second time she anticipated it and is no longer in denial, instead she breaks down at the moment, but can be happy after she accepted the harsh reality.

Nights of Cabiria tells a beautiful story of a woman who can never get it right. She has been robbed of her chances from the moment her mother pimped her out. She spends her whole life trying to escape the life that was mapped out for her but finds no exit as every road she takes is a dead end (sometimes literally.) We can only hope that the smile at the end means she realizes that there might be a chance to escape that life after all. I will proudly admit I was in tears by the end of the movie. If only I was as brave as Cabiria, I could have cracked a smile then too. But I’m not.

Final verdict: 4*

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