Nights of Cabiria is a touching, humorous, and poignant film about hope and survival. As the first film of the trilogy of loneliness, Federico Fellini pares the story of an endearing prostitute searching for love and happiness down to its fundamental substance. The result is a social criticism that is honest, impartial, and searing. We first see Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) walking by the lake with a lover who steals her purse, then throws her into the water. It is a familiar pattern with the hapless Cabiria: men who exploit her, then abandon her. She is not morally bankrupt, but deeply spiritual, interminably optimistic, and trusting. She attempts to project an image that she is confidently in control. Yet, we see that she is a victim of circumstance. She resorts to prostitution as a means of income in an economically depressed city. She is duped by pilgrims professing to witness a miracle. She is denied an evening with a celebrity when his girlfriend unexpectedly returns to reconcile. Nights of Cabiria is a simply told, profoundly affecting film about the misery of existence, and the triumph of the human spirit.
The imagery of water is a prevalent theme in Fellini’s films. It is the symbol of catharsis (as in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue) and eternity. (In Fellini’s La Strada, Zampano returns to the tranquil cadence of the sea after a heartbreaking revelation.) In Nights of Cabiria, the film begins and ends with water. It is an imagery that illustrates that life, itself, is cyclical – eternal – as the human condition. Water is also a symbol of purification. Cabiria’s soul remains untainted, despite her sordid profession (a theme that echoes the works of such writers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gustav Flaubert, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others). It is a humanist idea that people are innately good, but forced by their circumstances into acts of desperation (a familiar neorealist theme). The result is a powerful metaphor: a fusion of hope and misery, perseverance and suffering, a synthesis not unlike life itself.
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