Federico Fellini made Nights of Cabiria in 1957, between his contributions to the waning days of Italian neo-realism, La Strada (1954) and Il Bidone (aka The Swindle, 1955), and his first full-fledged, phantasmagoric films, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963). Poised between realism and dream, it's a darkly shaded fairy tale that unfolds in a place that's recognizably postwar, poverty-stricken Italy, but also the gaudy world of grotesque faces and offhand magic that reveals itself more fully in the director's later films.
Like most Fellini films, Cabiria is anecdotal, a series of set pieces that revolve around the title character, a plucky prostitute played by the director's wife and longtime collaborator Giulietta Masina. The story itself is somewhat glib and sentimental -- which perhaps explains why it was later so easily adapted for a Broadway musical (Sweet Charity) -- with its hard-luck heroine rebounding from one episode to another, but the telling holds one's interest and gives the film its lasting originality.
Cabiria is a creature of bottomless naïvete and we see things through her eyes. A movie star's luxury apartment becomes a mysterious maze, a religious celebration becomes a chaotic crush of wailing hysterics, a shabby hypnotist's act is an occasion of supernatural splendor. Cabiria is both highly sensitive and oblivious to her surroundings -- today we would say she is in denial -- acutely registering and then reinterpreting each incident with a survivor's cunning.
The film's climax comes when Cabiria is ensnared in a situation that shatters, temporarily, her steely optimism --it's an effectively devastating moment. And though the film doesn't achieve the wrenching pathos of La Strada or reach the imaginative heights of 8 1/2 , it's still essential Fellini, aided immeasurably by a masterfully comic performance by Masina and, as usual, a note-perfect score by the inimitable Nino Rota.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.