This award-winning Italian drama from 1957 is Fellini at his best! His then wife and muse Giuliette Masina gives a tour-de-force performance as Cabiria, an optimistic prostitute in the search for true love, albeit all she finds is disappointment and heartbreak wherever she goes and whomever she meets.

Middle-aged Cabiria lives in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of Rome though for someone who’s almost managed to pay off her mortgage she is a considerably better position than her fellow ‘ladies of the night’, among them her best friend Wanda (Franca Marzi). At the beginning of the film we see a happy Cabiria standing on a riverbank with her latest squeeze Giorgio (Franco Fabrizi) when suddenly, he pushes her into the river… but not before he takes her purse (filled with a lot of money) and does a runner. This opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film…
Just as she is about to drown (she can’t swim) she is rescued at the last minute by a group of young boys playing by the riverbank – lifting her out of the water and holding her upside down until her lungs are freed from water (Fellini never lost his sense of humour even when his movie characters were in a dire situation). Bitter, frustrated and angry with herself for having fallen for such a scumbag she chucks all his belongings on a pyre and burns them. Later that night she continues to offer her services along the dark streets of Rome, together with fellow streetwalkers. In typical Fellini fashion we encounter a motley crew of faces ranging from grotesque to attractive while cat fights, bickering and dancing between prostitutes and potential clients ensues. After having lost her temper yet again after a particularly nasty fight with a rival, Cabiria moves on to another, more upper crust part of town where her peculiar and impoverished appearance stands at odds with the more luxuriously dressed prostitutes. Alas, while trying her luck outside a rather posh nightclub she unwittingly witnesses a hefty argument between popular movie star Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari) and his young girlfriend Jessy (Dorian Gray – yes, you read that one correctly!) after another one of her jealous outbursts.

Why Alberto decides to invite the scruffy looking Cabiria to join him for a drink and not one of the other upper-class whores is not really explained though it might have something to do with the fact that Cabiria acts in a rather star-struck manner. After a detour the two visit a decadent club before Alberto invites Cabiria to his lavish home. Just as a late-night dinner of lobster, caviar and champagne is being served up and Cabiria is looking forward to getting up close and cosy with her idol, Jessy turns up out of the blue and Alberto – desperately trying to avoid another jealous outburst by his girlfriend – hides Cabiria in the bathroom. Disappointed but also happy to have met Albert Lazzari in person Cabiria lets herself out of his house the next morning. In the following days her life returns to the usual routine with the exception of a church procession, which passes through the area where all the prostitutes hang out (things can’t get more Fellini than that). While her fellow street workers make fun of the Catholic Church, Cabiria hopes to find personal salvation… but despite praying for a better life things soon return to ‘normal’ for her.

During another outing Cabiria visits a magic show in town. During the performance, a magician (Aldo Silvani) convinces her to play guinea pig on stage and reluctantly she agrees. Unaware that the magician has in fact hypnotized her she reveals her innermost desires (such as finding a loving husband and living happily ever after) while the audience cracks up laughing. Once she’s out of her trance and realises what has been going on she angrily storms out of the venue, only to be pursued by an overtly friendly man called Oscar D’Onofrio (Francois Périer) who confesses to her that he was among the mocking audience and fell in love with her at first sight. Initially suspicious of him, she soon falls prey to his charm and several rendezvous later she is so smitten that she accepts his rather sudden marriage proposal. Convinced that she finally has met her Prince Charming, Cabiria sells her home and takes out all her money from the bank before bidding her friend Wanda farewell at the bus stop. While enjoying a glass of wine in a restaurant, Oscar suddenly begins to act odd, something that Cabiria initially dismisses. He invites her for a stroll through the nearby woods while promising her to pick up the luggage later. As the pair arrives at a cliff overlooking a lake at the end of the wood, we already guess what might be happening… Terrified that Oscar, just like her previous lover Giorgio, will throw her into the water she hands him her entire dowry (700,000 Lire in cash) while begging for her life. Oscar takes the money and walks away without killing the sobbing Cabiria. Later that night she stumbles out of the woods, realising that her dream of finding love has once more been dashed by falling for the wrong guy, thus the film’s ending mirrors the film’s beginning. Realising that she’s back to square one and doesn’t even have her house anymore she joins a parade of young people as they dance and play music along the road back to town. The camera then zooms in on Cabiria’s face for the last time – her tears have made way for a smile again as if saying: Here I am, laughing adversity in the face… yet again!

NIGHTS OF CABIRIA was Fellini’s last of his ‘Trilogy of salvation and Grace’ films and earned Masina numerous well-deserved ‘Best Actress’ awards (among all the other awards the film earned). Masina’s portrayal strikes the perfect balance between yearning and embitterment; between disappointment and cynicism, which is not to say other performances are less impressive. Especially Francois Périer succeeds as the deceiving would-be-husband who preys upon Cabiria’s insecurities and weakness. Nino Rota turned out to be the usual reliable choice for the music while cinematographer Aldo Tonti masterfully depicts Cabiria’s world in b/w.

To commemorate Federico Fellini’s centenary the film has been released in Blu-ray format in a brand-new 4K restoration, though it might have done this classic masterpiece more justice if the subtitles weren’t in American-English…