Federico Fellini's masterpiece is often cited to be LA STRADA, and it very well may be, but my favorite film by the Maestro is his companion film to LA STRADA, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. Reprising the same character in a different situation (not entirely unlike Chaplin's Tramp), Giulietta Masina turns in a brilliant serio-comic performance as a prostitute who embarks on adventures with people looking to use her in the hopes of making something of herself. Along the way, she becomes entangled in a plot by a man who systematically marries and murders women for their money. The comparison to Chaplin not only echoes through Masina's performance as Cabiria, but also in the film itself, which contains just as much heartbreak and outright hilarity as the Tramp's classic, CITY LIGHTS.
The first time I saw NIGHTS OF CABIRIA was a little over three years ago, and immediately I fell in love with Giulietta Masina's character. She's so endearing and charming, it's almost impossibly not become infected with love for her. Fellini's set-up is simple and affecting: a young prostitute looking for love in all the wrong places. The action takes place over three separate nights, with three different suitors. Each piece has moments of pathos and whimsy, and I think is most typical of Fellini's style. The final piece of this film is heartbreaking and miraculous all at once, as the third man, whom Cabiria had sought to marry, almost kills her, steals her purse and leaves her destitute - having brought all her savings to run off with him - only to return to the small village she came from.
The film is a companion piece to LA STRADA in that it invokes the same themes of hope and loss with a similar protagonist (Masina's character is basically the same in both films), and employs the magical-realism often associated with LA STRADA and much of Fellini's filmography. Furthermore, both LA STRADA and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA are films about love, and the ways in which the world can crush even the most adamant optimist and believer. Ultimately, though, you just have to get up and carry on; get over the problems life sets in your way.
Masina is amazing in such a part, and that's part of the reason the films are believable and touching. Like very few others, Masina can channel so many emotions at once it's incredible. From the simple joy of dancing in a nightclub (one of the funniest scenes in the film), to the horrific realization that your entire life has been ripped from right under you, she is a genius, and I can't get enough of her. Of course, neither could Fellini, which is probably why he married her.
For anyone who has never seen this, it's hard to describe the magic it works on you as a viewer. It entrances, overwhelms and ultimately enraptures you completely. You fall in love with this little prostitute with a heart of gold, and you simply cannot get enough. Cabiria is one of the greatest comedic performances ever committed to celluloid (it's up there with Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS and Michel Simon in BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING), and it should not be missed by anyone.