A game changer film for me, the first time I saw Nights of Cabiria (1957) was by myself, on my futon, late at night in my graduate school apartment and I felt like heavenly angels emerged and dropped this film into my DVD player.
Federico Fellini directs actress (and wife), Giulietta Masina, as Cabiria, who works as a prostitute in a small town she is determined to leave. She has a stash of savings to do just that and when she finally does take off, you have the feeling that things are not going to go as planned. That stash of savings comes to signify so many things: her belief that she will find a man to truly love her, economic freedom, and the faith she has in herself.
As you might imagine (and it’s so much more dreadful than you can imagine), the stash of money is taken from her. The film ends with Cabiria, by herself, amidst a street crowd, with the most painful, dejected, and magical look in Masina’s eyes. After EVERYTHING, she is alone and as crushing as it is, there is something victorious in that.
What intrigues me about this film is the viewer’s feeling that things will not end well for Cabiria. You know it from the beginning, and the film never disguises or conceals this foreboding, yet you are completely enmeshed in her character. It makes me think of all the romantic comedies and makeover movies that deliver the exact opposite feeling — that you can overcome your dilemma, be it, romantic, professional, or otherwise. I love a good makeover movie, but it’s interesting how these genres operate on the notion of the protagonist as mastering her circumstances. Nights of Cabiria supposes that nothing in her external environment will ever truly ease up, and it’s up to Cabiria to figure her way.
This open narrative structure is something I follow in my own writing, and what this film does so well is fight to maintain that openness of narrative structure as it simultaneously develops the main character so thoroughly and honestly. The unfortunate casualty in the makeover genre tends to be the protagonist as she gets trumped in the plot process of winning out in the end. And this is ever so thankfully not the case in Nights of Cabiria.