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NIGHTS OF CABIRIA

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Giulietta Masina, Francois Perier, Franca Marzi, Amedeo Nazzari, Aldo Silvani
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  September 7, 1999

Film ****

There is one particular beautiful, sad sequence in Nights of Cabiria that almost defies description.  Cabiria (Masina), the waif-like prostitute, is invited up on stage by a hypnotist.  The rowdy crowd hoots and cat calls, and she responds with hot, steely defiance.  The hypnotist (Silvani), turns out to be pretty good.  He puts her under a spell and makes her believe she is dancing with the man of her dreams, whom he unceremoniously dubs “Oscar”.  Her eyes are closed, but we can see the overwhelming emotion on her face as she responds to the hypnotist’s words of love before the now hushed audience.  Her resistance melts away before our eyes.  Expressing her past hurt and fearing it’s too good to be true, she begs her invisible man to tell her he really loves her.  The hypnotist ends the awkward situation by releasing her from his influence.  She doesn’t remember what she did.  The audience is laughing.  She still meets their disdain with defiance, but something is different now.  Her vulnerability is showing through her feisty fašade.

Giulietta Masina brings this wonderful character to comic and tragic life in her beautiful and fully realized performance.   Her husband, director Federico Fellini, crafts a remarkable, striking story around her with his film.  Nights of Cabiria plays like an eloquent poem to the lonely hearted.

Cabiria is a prostitute unlucky in love.  She makes her way through the seedy sections of Rome with spunk and fiery determination.  Her guard comes down only rarely, and we can see why:  each time she allows her suspicion to melt away, she is punished.  The opening scene shows her frolicking carelessly with a lover by a river; he snatches her purse and pushes her in.  Unable to swim, Cabiria is rescued by some locals.  When she comes to, she is not shaken by her near death experience.  She springs to fervent life, livid about the man who robbed her.  Later, crying tears of anger, we see her ritually burning all the man’s possessions left in her house.  We like her immediately.

Like Chaplin, Masina sometimes hits upon ways to accentuate the pathos with a little humor.  On one night, she is escorted to a beautiful mansion by a famed film star (Nazzari), who has just broken up with his girlfriend.  But the pattern repeats:  as soon as Cabiria seems willing to submit to her good fortune, a cruel twist of fate intervenes.  The girlfriend returns…he asks Cabiria to wait in the bathroom while he “gets rid of her”.  They end up reunited and sleeping together; Cabiria winds up sleeping on the cold floor of the bathroom with a dog.  The next day, she departs, forgotten and unnoticed, but manages to smack her head on the glass door she didn’t see.

Her escapades provide the film with its plot; but her character is what involves the audience on an emotional level.  Cabiria wins us with her pluck and spunk, but her vulnerability and propensity towards tragedy inspires in us the sincere desire to comfort and protect her.

Another amazing scene occurs during a ceremony for the Virgin Mary.  Cabiria, with friends, take part.  She tearfully begs for mercy from the Madonna.  Later, after having the one drink we are told she cannot handle, she flies off in a fury, denouncing the whole affair and defying the believers, who fortunately respond to her as crazy instead of malevolent.

The hypnotist scene leads to another strange twist of fate:  an audience member approaches her to tell her how moved he was by what she did on stage.  His name, coincidentally enough, is Oscar (Perier), sharing the name of Cabiria’s imagined lover.  Once again, we see her respond with cool suspicion, until his sweet, loving and generous nature start to wear down her walls.

Here’s where Fellini’s technical brilliance shows through:  in creating the relationship between Cabiria and Oscar, we can’t help but notice certain subtleties that remind us of what we’ve seen before.  He invites her to have a drink (“Are you trying to get me drunk?”), and we’ve seen the effect alcohol has on her.  When she sells her house, we notice her putting the large wad of cash in her purse, and we think of the pocketbook snatcher from the opening sequence.  The couple takes a walk through the woods…she seems particularly helpless, and we hold our breath wondering if the other shoe is about to drop, especially when the two end up by the side of a body of water.

In his autobiography, I, Fellini, the maestro wrote, “I, myself, have worried about her fate ever since.”   Cabiria may be destined for heartbreak, but something about the film’s final shot, where she momentarily looks into the camera and smiles, lets us know she will be okay.  She may not bloom.  But she will survive.

Video ***1/2

Kudos to Criterion for another exemplary transfer of an important, classic film.  Nights of Cabiria has been painstakingly rescued from a washed out fate.  The black and white photography is glorious, and comes across with bright whites, deep, pure blacks, and a rich range of grayscale in between.  Images are sharp and crisply rendered throughout, with impressive detail ranging from the foreground to the background.  Even the restored missing “man with a sack” sequence is in surprisingly good shape.  Very few aging artifacts abound; the new print is strikingly clean, with no grain or compression evident in the transfer at all.  A wonderful viewing experience!

Audio ***

The original mono soundtrack was restored as well, and it sounds terrific.  Nino Rota’s beautiful score comes alive with remarkable fullness and dynamic range.   Dialogue is clearly rendered throughout.   The audio is free from noise or other disruptions.  Though an English dubbed track is included, you don’t want it…listen instead to the beautiful original Italian.  (NOTE:  If you choose English, be warned that the restored “man with a sack” scene is only in Italian.)

Features ***

Fans of Criterion’s restoration demonstrations won’t want to miss the six-plus minute one included here:  what Rialto, Canal Plus and Criterion have done for this movie is nothing short of miraculous.  There are also two interviews; a video one with Fellini assistant Dominique Delouche, and an audio one with producer Dino De Laurentiis, who discusses the “man with a sack” sequence, and why it had been missing for so many years.  There is an excerpt from the Fellini film The White Sheik, which first introduced Masina as Cabiria.  To round off, there are two trailers:  one original, one for the Rialto re-release.  A worthwhile package.

Summary:

Nights of Cabiria is an elegantly heartbreaking masterpiece, and one of Federico Fellini’s greatest achievements.  Ms. Masina’s award-winning performance is half the joy of watching the film; Fellini’s subtleties and sense of drama and comedy is the other half.  With this beautiful and nicely packaged DVD offering from Criterion, fans of classic cinema can share in Cabiria’s nights time and time again.