Best Foreign Language Film, 1957
Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Guilietta Massina
If you watch The Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita back to back, you may get a feeling of déjà vu. There are a number of similar “episodes” in both films, but what’s astonishing to me isn’t that Federico Fellini recycles the plot points in the first place, but that he was able to create two fresh and very distinct films regardless. With the plot resting firmly on the very able shoulders of Giullieta Massina, The Nights of Cabiria is a film which is alternately delightful and heartbreaking.
Massina stars as the eponymous Cabiria, a low rent prostitute who is robbed and almost drowned in the film’s opening minutes. After she’s rescued, she’s less angry at the fact of almost dying than she is that her boyfriend, Georgio, would try to kill her for so little money (40,000 lira – “They’d do it for 5,000,” a friend informs her). Cabiria’s relationship to money is an essential part of understanding her character. She accepts money as a necessity in life but doesn’t quite grasp the concept of greed, nor does she understand how money could be so important to someone that they’d kill for it. She also possesses what you could call a “pure” work ethic insofar as she refuses to accept money that she doesn’t feel she has earned. In one of the film’s episodes a movie star picks her up and takes her home, only to have his girlfriend show up. Cabiria spends the night hiding in a closet and afterwards refuses the money he attempts to give her. Money is more or less just paper to her; she doesn’t live her life in pursuit of it.
Cabiria has a keen understanding of the real value of things. In one episode she and her friends join in a pilgrimage and in the midst of the pomp and circumstance, she believes that she’s had a spiritual awakening. When it's all over, however, and the ceremonial aspects have faded away, she realizes that it was all false, that she had been caught up in the performance of religion and spirituality. “Nothing has changed,” she says recognizing that neither herself nor any of her friends has really been inspired to change their ways. No one is essentially better or worse for having attended; she and her friends are all exactly the same coming out of it as they were going in. The value of the experience, therefore, is no more or less than, say, the experience of running from the police. It’s just another thing that has occupied her time.
The loose structure of the story works particularly well with this film because it makes you focus less on the plot and more on the performance at its centre. Massina is simply terrific, the kind of actor who performs with her entire body, making the way that she moves as important as the words which she says. It’s a well-rounded performance which makes you really care about Cabiria, a character who, in other hands, you might write off as “stupid.” This is a woman who refuses to be hardened by the lessons life sees fit to teach her, who retains an unwavering optimism even in the shadow of heartbreak. There is a light that shines out of her and you want things to work out for her even as you fear that she’s setting herself up for yet another fall.
The protectiveness that the audience feels towards Cabiria is both a blessing and curse. On the one hand you’re invested in the film, but on the other hand you may find yourself too anxious about what’s going to happen to her to really enjoy the experience of watching it. This is the really big difference between Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita - I enjoyed Marcello’s adventures, but I never worried about him. I worry about Cabiria - she's too good for her own good.