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Italian director Federico Fellini and his wife, actress Giulietta Masina earned international acclaim for La Strada (1954), which won an Oscar® as Best Foreign Film. Fellini's follow-up, Il Bidone (1955) a drama about small-time con men, was a flop both in Italy and abroad, but working on Il Bidone led the couple to their next big success, Nights of Cabiria (1957), a film that Pauline Kael called "possibly Federico Fellini's finest film, and a work in which Giulietta Masina earns the praise she received for La Strada."
Masina plays Cabiria, a plucky prostitute plying her trade on the streets of Rome. The film begins with Cabiria betrayed and abandoned by a man she trusted. Ever the optimist, she longs for love and happiness, and eventually it appears that she's found them. But even when they prove elusive, she goes on believing.
A centerpiece of the episodic film is an evening spent with a famous movie star who's had a fight with his girlfriend. The dazzled Cabiria enjoys a bit of la dolce vita, but with her typical luck, ends the night locked in a bathroom. Fellini had originally come up with the idea for a short film about a little Roman prostitute who accompanies a famous actor on a night on the town a decade earlier, but nothing came of it. In The White Sheik (1952), his first film as solo director, Fellini cast Masina in a small role as a prostitute named Cabiria. As he later recalled in a series of interviews with Charlotte Chandler that became the book I, Fellini (1995), that was the role in which Masina "revealed herself capable of being a tragicomic mime in the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton, and Toto. In La Strada, she emphatically reinforced this impression. Gelsomina grew out of her brief Cabiria portrayal, and at the time I sensed that Cabiria had the potential for an entire picture based on her character."
While shooting on location for Il Bidone, Fellini met a real-life prostitute named Wanda, who fascinated him. As he told critic Arthur Knight of the Saturday Review, Wanda was "an independent creature with a hard cover of anger for her terrible lonely pride." She also inspired him to plan a film around such a character, and he began doing research during nocturnal walks around the city, observing Roman prostitutes at work. As he developed the script with his co-writers, they recalled the earlier idea about a prostitute's evening with a famous actor, and incorporated that into the story. Besides adding comedy to the pathos, they also added optimism to Cabiria's character. But even so, Fellini's producer was dubious about the prospects for a film about a whore, even one with a heart of gold. So the director turned to producer Dino De Laurentiis, even though he had to agree to a deal that bound him to make five films for De Laurentiis.
Nights of Cabiria premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where Masina won best actress. Influential French critic Andr Bazin, who developed the auteur theory, wrote admiringly of the film, and anointed Fellini as a true auteur. But before it could open in Italy, there were rumors that the Vatican was putting pressure on the censors to ban the film because of its sordid subject matter. Fellini arranged a private screening for a powerful cardinal, who saw it and gave approval, asking for only one cut. Oddly, it was a scene that had nothing to do with Cabiria's profession. In the scene, Cabiria encounters a man with a sack, who hands out food and other items to the needy. (Fellini had met such a man when he was walking the Roman streets at night doing research.) Fellini speculated that the cardinal wanted the scene cut because helping the needy was the church's responsibility, and the cardinal thought the film implied that the church wasn't doing its job. When Nights of Cabiria was re-released in 1998, the deleted scene was restored.
Nights of Cabiria was the inspiration for the hit Broadway musical Sweet Charity (1966) and the 1969 film version starring Shirley MacLaine. Although Fellini allowed his screenplay to be used as the source, he discreetly expressed displeasure about the adaptation, saying "my name is on the credits, but I disagreed with [director] Bob Fosse's way of doing it on so many points, I prefer that the film be regarded as his creation."
Nights of Cabiria won an Oscar® as Best Foreign Film, but the reviews in the U.S. were mixed. Although critics praised it, some were squeamish about Cabiria's profession. Bosley Crowther's critique for the New York Times was typical of many, praising it for "the little details that illuminate the pathos of life's ironies," but expressing distaste for the film's milieu: "It has a sordid atmosphere and there is something insufficient about the character of the heroine." Forty years later, after the release of the restored version, the current New York Times critic Janet Maslin re-evaluated the film, calling it "a cinematic masterpiece," and "a deep, wrenching and eloquent filmgoing experience."
Roger Ebert, also writing at the time of the film's re-release, expressed the connection that he, audiences, and Fellini himself felt with Cabiria: "Of all his characters, Fellini once said, Cabiria was the only one he was still worried about."Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini (screenplay); Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli (story and screenplay); Maria Molinari (novel)Cinematography: Aldo Tonti; Otello Martelli (uncredited
Music: Nino Rota
Film Editing: Leo Catozzo
Cast: Giulietta Masina (Maria 'Cabiria' Ceccarelli), Franois Perier (Oscar D'Onofrio), Franca Marzi (Wanda), Dorian Gray (Jessy), Aldo Silvani (The wizard), Ennio Girolami (Amleto, 'il magnaccia'), Mario Passante (Uncle of Amleto), Christian Tassou, Amedeo Nazzari (Alberto Lazzari).
by Margarita Landazuri