My Hall of Fame
There are some people who want to be loved so badly, they’ll tell themselves anything just to keep going. Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is one of those people. In the opening moments of Federico Fellini’s moving, and at times, heartbreaking masterpiece “Nights of Cabiria” (1957), we witness from afar, as Cabiria laughs and runs with her boyfriend, Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi). Frolicking together, they wind up standing, side by side, next to a fast-moving river, staring into its beauty and mystery. It is during this moment of peacefulness that Giorgio grabs Cabiria’s purse and pushes her into the water, knowing full well that she can’t swim, and leaving her to die, all for a handful of cash. After being saved by some children nearby, Cabiria returns to her home and argues with her friend (Franca Marzi), that somehow it was just a mistake- she fell, and being scared, he fled with her purse, but surely he will return to her soon. Her desperation, and the desire to be loved by someone- anyone, is almost too much to endure.
If this opening five minutes seems a bit painful, brace yourself. It’s going to get worse. You see, Cabiria is a prostitute, and not a high-class one at that. She earns her living by having sex with people, any of which she would stay with forever, if only they’d show her any real affection (or for that matter, even some fake affection would suffice). Unfortunately for Cabiria, each one of her encounters is as meaningless as the last, fulfilling their needs, while leaving her empty. She is, quite possibly, the saddest character ever to grace the screen. Seriously, somebody just hug the poor girl! What is surprising is that despite her past, she continues to hope that love is waiting just around the corner.
“Nights of Cabiria” is one of the best films of all time for many reasons. It’s crafted perfectly by one of the world’s greatest directors, shot on location around one of the greatest cities in the world, and has a story that manages to touch its viewers in a way that is both comforting, and oddly unsettling at the same time. The greatest thing about this picture, however, has nothing to do with any of that. “Nights of Cabiria” is great because of Giulietta Masina and her intense, no holds bar, tour de force performance. Everything lives and dies with her, and how she manages herself on-screen. And it’s not just her character’s sadness that makes this performance incredible. It actually has more to do with her ability as an actress to move, in a very real way, between emotions. Sadness, anger, frustration, passion, and joy. She jumps between them all, keeping the audience enthralled, crying with her as she prays for a better life, and then laughing as she walks directly into a glass door. It is a performance that includes a bit of everything, and is one of the greatest of all time. It embodies a similarity in its heartbreaking effect to Kenji Mizoguchi’s “The Life of Oharu” (1952), but Cabiria’s upbeat outlook leave this film with an optimistic feeling that is a stark opposite to Mizoguchi’s harrowing tale.
I believe that “Nights of Cabiria”, even with all of it’s popularity, gets overlooked because Fellini made so many monumental films in his career. It’s stuck in between “La Strada” (1954) and “La Dolce Vita” (1960), with “8 1/2” (1963) coming just a few years later. When any artist creates that many “masterpieces” in such a short span of time, it’s easy for one (or some) of them to become overlooked (even if just slightly). “Nights of Cabiria” isn’t as flashy and obvious as these other classics, yet somehow it is my favorite. Perhaps it’s because it’s the most relatable. Or maybe it’s Masina’s performance. More than likely, however, it’s the simple fact that there are few things as touching and poignant as a lost soul looking for love, and having the upbeat attitude to believe that she will one day find it…somewhere.