Noted Films

film 3 of 5

Nights of Cabiria

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

I’ve come back to this, and tried to view it calmly and dispassionately. I have a conclusion, I’m afraid. Nights of Cabiria is really overrated! That judgment has to take Giulietta Masina into account, since she is as central to this film as any performer or performance has ever been. As everyone always says—let me jump in here, and say it too!—she is as astounding. But this time I find her astounding to be calculated, almost strategical. I feel like I’m being set up!

Is Masina responsible for this, or was it her director/husband (Svengali?) Federico Fellini? (Or is it the entire film industry, throughout its entire history?) Doesn’t matter, maybe. It’s proof, it’s pudding. Masina was often, was eventually quite obligatorily and maybe sloppily compared to Charlie Chaplin. The comparisons are somewhat apt, but Chaplin is a force of nature, and he does it all naturally and infinitely. Nights of Cabiria feels like a bill of goods, a conscious or even cynical bid. Weird comparison maybe, but to me it reads more like Zlata than Anne Frank. And beyond Masina’s (astounding!!) final close-up, the whole Oscar character/subplot seems over-determined, inorganic, implausible. Anyway, beyond reputation, and beyond that stupendous (and still calculated) conclusion, this is a messy and variable assemblage. (Come to think of it, the end of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) rather strains credibility as well, and in the exact same way!)

Still, there are lots of good things. The settings are really striking, partly because of their presumed, probable authenticity. Audiences may have been shocked in 1957, but this kind of naturalism, or properly attending to this population—Cabiria is a prostitute—needn’t and shouldn’t corrupt at all. Know that there are such people, and key first and last on the fact that they are people. There are some fine set pieces, like the opening assault and its aftermath, the big evening with the movie star—get a load of that dance!—the Catholic procession.

Actually, that one is pretty strained too. Sig. Fellini doesn’t really care about such things, does he? (The same goes for the film’s restored, now much vaunted Good Samaritan sequence. It’s cool, and meaningful, but it feels external not only to this world, but to these sensibilities. If Fellini was destined for indulgence—the subject of 1960, the increasing substance of 1963, 1965, 1969, 1976 and yes, for all its acclaim, 1973—at least that indulgence is his, honestly and with conviction.) The procession comes from and even copies a similar sequence La Strada. It certainly anticipates the soon to be flights of fantasy in the soon to be classic Fellini films. But here he’s betwixt and between. Not at all a problem, but certainly not a perfection either. Ditto, the film entire.