Although the linear plot of The Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria, dir. Frederico Fellini, 1957) is a traditional device, its randomness is not. There is not always a causal link between episodes in the film. Events just happen, linked by the person at their center, Cabiria. She is looking for something in the film, be it a husband, an escape from her humdrum existence as a prostitute, or religion. The film opens with a scene that shows a boyfriend pushing her into a river and running away with her money. Its next to last scene shows her new husband, in whom she thinks she has finally found the love and escape she was searching for, on the verge of pushing her off a cliff. Although he does not, he does run away with the money she has saved—a large amount. In between these events she argues with her fellow prostitutes, only one or two of whom are real friends, the others competitors; she walks the streets; she spends time with an aging actor; she goes on a religious pilgrimage; she is hypnotized and testifies on stage about her hopes for the future in front of a crowd. The plot struck me like the plot of a religious pilgrimage. In a sense, it is.
The genius of this film lies in the choice of the main actor, Giulietta Masina, who portrays Cabiria. She’s an incredible actor. She acts as much with the expressions on her face, with the motions of her short, often awkward body, as she does in more conventional ways. Her Cabiria is a comic figure, but not a slapstick one. She doesn’t fit in with anyone. She has a sharp tongue and has made enemies. She has a better view of the world than it has of her. She can’t read human character very well. She longs most of all for a better life, a better existence, one with meaning. We can see this in her face, in her actions. (She was Fellini’s wife.)
Other notable points in the film: the secondary characters, especially the other prostitutes, each of whom is a distinct individual. Fellini frames scenes in creative and innovative ways. Each scene is unostentatiously artful.
In the final scene, Cabiria finds assurance and hope in the joyous activity of a group of young people with whom she falls in after leaving the cliff. They don’t talk with her. They promise her nothing, except that life continues, and that it has moments of joy.
Oddly, I find similarities between the comic acting style of the early Carol Burnett (especially in her pantomimes, her enactments of silent film-type characters) and that of Masina. Did Burnett knew this film? Masina is the better actor. Charlie Chaplain was probably an influence on Masina and Burnett too.