Tragedy as a theme is often contained in subtle nods or hidden messages throughout much of cinema. For a film to interact with such a negative narrative concept for its entire running time is to take on a sincerely upsetting story. Fellini does so with Nights of Cabiria, his 1957 classic. Following the life of Maria Cabiria Ceccarelli (played by Giulietta Masina), the film is exactly what it says on the tin. We engage with and follow Cabiria for a few nights as she finds herself dealing with love, loss and everything in-between as she navigates the beautiful streets of Italy.
Masina’s leading performance is exceptional, a truly marvellous role that brings out one of the most engaging Fellini characters of all. We take the lovingly littered streets of Rome by force, riding the waves of Cabiria’s lifestyle. It’s all brought to life rather well by this performance, one that shows us a certain divide between aspirations and reality. Cabiria’s dream is to be swooped away on a wave of attractive looks and financial prosperity, but her reality is something that crashes into a mixture of sinister cynicism and foul play. Not from Cabiria herself, who, whilst being rather strong-headed, is a pure and generally likeable character, but from those around her.
Perhaps this likeable nature is the reason the film is so near perfection on the whole. It’s extremely hard not to fall for the erratic nature of our leading character, an easily engrossing performance beckons the audience with relative ease. Maybe the charm of Cabiria is that her situations are believable. You could easily place yourself into at least a small handful of the scenarios she finds herself in. It’s a sadly tragic tale, wrapped up in glimmers of optimism that linger in the back of my mind as I weave through the life of Cabiria, her blind grip on hope is at the core of the piece, and it makes for an exceptionally engaging time.
The advantageous merits of Fellini’s direction come through in full force here. He captures the nightlife and its various charms in such a beautiful manner. It comes from a high point of his career, picking up his second Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, only a year after he did the same with La Strada. It’s rightfully deserving of its place among award winners, with the premise of Nights of Cabiria being simple enough to engage a wider audience, yet showcases a varying depth and broader understanding of its characters. It has the soothing backdrop of Italy to prop up a handful of carefully crafted, thoroughly engaging cast members who do their best to bring out some exceptional performances.
The new touch-up from Studio Canal, much like The White Sheik, provides a crisp and immediately superior look to the film. Sweeping the streets of Italy and adding a refined quality to Fellini’s direction gives the film a renewed vigour when you compare it to other prints of this Italian classic.
Nights of Cabiria is a masterful meditation on picking yourself up and carrying on no matter how dangerously horrible the situation you find yourself in can be. Cabiria catches no breaks, nor does she ever find herself on the receiving end of happiness. In fact, it could easily be argued that, by the end of the film, Cabiria is in a worse position than she was at the beginning of her journey. Fellini brings us the proposition of there being no happy endings, and that life doesn’t improve. Nights of Cabiria showcases desperation at its most severe, yet the unwavering charm of Giulietta Masina pilots a strong and engaging narrative.