Nights of Cabiria—in Italian: Le notti di Cabiria—is a 1957 Italian drama film directed by Federico Fellini and starring Giulietta Masina, François Périer, and Amedeo Nazzari. Based on a story by Fellini, the film is about a prostitute in Rome who searches for true love in vain.
The film is sometimes viewed as bleak and depressing. Cabiria is a practical but defenseless working woman who barely survives at the low end of Rome’s prostitution trade. Instead of the glitzy Via Veneto, she prefers to work the area around the Archeological Passage, because she can commute there on the subway. During the day Cabiria lives in a squalid industrial park and at night she frequents the seamier parts of Rome, meeting all manner of desperate characters and suffering repeated mishaps and heart-breaking misadventures. Her unfortunate situation is compounded by the fact that she seems naive and so desperate for affection. She continually encounters men who are disrespectful or self-centered. She wanders into situations that ultimately leave her embarrassed or humiliated.
The film begins with a happy laughing Cabiria standing on a riverbank with her current boyfriend and live-in lover, Giorgio. Abruptly things take a turn for the worse when he pushes her into the river and steals her purse full of money. She cannot swim and nearly drowns. Later she meets a famous movie actor and is swept into his world for a few hours. She is dazzled by his presence and his attention. But things end rather badly when his girlfriend shows up, and Cabiria is unceremoniously shooed into the bathroom and told to keep quiet while he makes love to his girlfriend in the other room. Mocked and made fun Cabiria never gives up hope that true love is just around the corner. Indeed when she next meets a sympathetic man, she falls head over heels in love and wants to trust him at all costs. She sells everything she has and marries him only to be taken advantage of once again. He too turns out to be money-hungry and nearly pushes her over a cliff to steal everything she has in the world.
What makes Fellini’s movie anything but a tragedy is Cabiria herself. She is a plucky, feisty elf of a woman, who never stops hoping or dreaming of a better life. Rather than let herself become overwhelmed by sadness, she retains hope with a smile and a spring in her step. Soon after each man’s treachery, Cabiria is on the streets with others in her profession, dancing to music. Just when we think she must surely be defeated, she rises once again. The film ends with her surrounded by a group of young people who sing and dance and revive Cabiria. Once again she finds the will to continue, realizing that she is not alone, and returns to naively believing in life and love. She succumbs once again to the crazy circus of life—that is the human existence.
In the story “Dreaming Sophia” I make reference to Cabiria, in a description of Sophia’s mother: “And just like Fellini’s Cabiria she believed that even on her worst days, if she kept going, just around the corner she would find something beautiful to cheer herself up.”
Federico Fellini’s made films during the movement known as Italian Neorealism, shooting on location, with amateur performs. But there is also a poetic quality to this movie with concludes in a bittersweet way. Cabiria is the embodiment of the strength of a loving heart and spirit in the face of all the pains that life can throw at you.