Wistful and willful, delighted and heartbroken, there has never been a face quite like Giulietta Masina’s. To see her in the beautifully restored 1957 “Nights of Cabiria” is to witness the indomitability of life itself, to experience one of film’s most memorable characterizations, a performance that remains as fresh and irresistible as it was 40-plus years ago.
“Cabiria” was a sensation when it was first released, winning the best actress award for Masina at Cannes and earning the best foreign film Oscar for its director (and Masina’s husband) Federico Fellini.
The duo had also collaborated on 1956’s Oscar winner, “La Strada.” Partially because that film stars Anthony Quinn, it’s better known in this country than “Cabiria,” which has also been hampered by poor print quality and indifferent subtitles.
Now, in a clean new print that has been retranslated and restores a missing sequence for the first time in decades, “Cabiria,” opening today at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar, is once again among the living. To see it is to understand why some critics, including Pauline Kael, consider this classic of Italian cinema to be Fellini’s best work, and to know how it is that Masina, with only a small handful of films to her credit, has become a legend among actresses.
Episodic by nature, “Nights of Cabiria” is a warm yet pitiless work that explores the life of a Roman prostitute (Masina) who’s taken the name Cabiria. Made in a neo-realistic, almost documentary style, the film examines a considerable swath of Roman society through this woman’s wide eyes.
An elfin but dynamic presence, with a bantam swagger and toughness that alternate with a touching naivete and a willingness to be hopeful no matter what, Cabiria is knowingly reminiscent of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The film is in fact filled with bits of physical business, like her getting caught in the curtains of a fancy nightclub entrance, that are conscious slapstick echoes of silent comedy.
Cabiria lives in a tiny one-room house she’s managed to buy from her earnings. With her uniform of tight skirt, ratty fake fur top, trusty portable umbrella and ankle socks, she is such a vital presence that it’s impossible not to feel that everything we see is actually happening to her.
No sooner do we catch sight of Cabiria, walking with her boyfriend near the Tiber on the blighted high-rise outskirts of Rome, than he pushes her in the river to steal her purse. Bad judgment in men, a willingness to be fatally attracted to deadbeats, is Cabiria’s eternal weakness, one she knows well. “I’m such a moron,” she hisses to herself, soaking wet and furious at her own gullibility.
Because Rome is Rome, Cabiria has spiritual experiences as well as secular ones. She accompanies some of the other prostitutes and a disabled former pimp on an unsatisfactory pilgrimage to a local shrine. Also, in a moving sequence that was cut from the film for reasons that have never been clear, Cabiria meets “the man with the sack,” a self-effacing individual dedicated to helping Rome’s destitute poor.
One of the film’s best-known episodes, and a delightful one, has Cabiria getting picked up by Alberto Lazzari, a major Italian movie star (played, in roguish self-parody, by Amedeo Nazzari). Cabiria’s delight in her good fortune, her astonishment at the star’s amusingly palatial villa, even the way she walks into a glass door, are delightful to behold.
The next man in Cabiria’s life, and her hope of happiness, is an accountant named Oscar (French actor Francois Perier), whom she meets after a local vaudeville show in which, under hypnosis, she’s revealed the hopes and dreams she still cherishes. What happens between these two is the climax of Cabiria’s story, and the source of one of the most indelible of all of Fellini’s closing sequences.
The director was especially fortunate in his collaborators. Writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, later a celebrated filmmaker, brought an authenticity to the language of Rome’s streetwalkers that the newly translated subtitles restore. And composer Nino Rota did one of the best of his numerous Fellini scores, in turn inspiring Broadway to turn this story into the musical “Sweet Charity.”
Finally, however, any discussion of “Cabiria” must come back to Masina. An actress who conveys emotions with a crystalline intensity, who can bring audiences to tears and laughter almost simultaneously, Masina makes Cabiria so indelible that Fellini said in later interviews that “I myself have worried about her fate ever since.”
Though we share his concern, we also know that in a sense we don’t have to. Through this unforgettable performance, Cabiria will endure as long as anyone cares to watch transcendence projected on a screen.
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“Nights of Cabiria”
* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult subject matter.
Giulietta Masina: Cabiria
Francois Perier: Oscar
Amedeo Nazzari: Alberto Lazzari
Franca Marzi: Wanda
Released by Rialto Pictures. Director: Federico Fellini. Producer: Dino de Laurentiis. Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli. Additional dialogue: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Cinematographer: Aldo Tonti. Editor: Leo Catozzo. Costumes: Piero Gherardi. Music: Nino Rota. Production manager: Luigi de Laurentiis. Art director: Piero Gherardi. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
* At the Port Theatre, 2905 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 673-6260.