If you’ve been on the internet at all in the past few years, chances are you’ve come across the term “wife guy.” Know Your Meme cites 2017 as the year it reached its saturation point, but the concept of men who are performatively devoted to their wives has likely been with us since marriage was invented. If fidelity is a hard and fast requirement, then Federico Fellini wouldn’t qualify, being both a prodigious and flagrant adulterer throughout his life. But if quality and depth of collaboration can be factored in, he’s an overachiever: over the course of their fifty year union, Fellini wrote and directed seven roles for his wife Giulietta Masina; the best of them is arguably 1957’s Nights of Cabiria, which won Masina the Best Actress prize at Cannes and Fellini a Best Foriegn Language Film Oscar, and was released in the US sixty-five years ago this month.
The opening scene establishes the trajectory of Cabiria’s life so far with almost no dialogue at all. She is first seen from afar, traipsing about the barren-looking countryside outside Rome and heedlessly embracing a young man who will soon steal her purse and push her into a nearby river. Her rescue is similarly humiliating, saved by a group of street kids and then held upside down by her ankles until the water she’s swallowed gushes out. The boys are flummoxed as she runs away shouting the name of the man who wronged her until one of them explains, “That’s Cabiria. She lives the life.” This is his roundabout way of saying that she is, in modern parlance, a sex worker.
Like much of Fellini’s work, Nights of Cabiria is episodic in nature, though it lacks the colorful carnival feeling of later films like Amarcord or Satyricon, shot in a neorealist black and white and taking place, per the title, mostly after dark. Instead the director chooses to focus his camera on Masina’s remarkably expressive face, as if he knows it’s the most special effect the film has. Cabiria, née Maria, is a woman whose emotions, for better or worse, exist right on the surface. She falls easily and generously in love and dreams of the good life, but spends much of her time in the seedy underbelly of the city, beneath the bridges and along the riversides where her fellow street walkers conduct their transactions with clients, rain or shine.
While Fellini flirts with the “hooker with a heart of gold” narrative that would become more prominent in films like Trading Places and Pretty Woman, particularly in a brief interlude where Cabiria is picked up by a famous actor nursing a broken heart – she even gets her own “Big mistake, huge” moment – he never shies away from the more sordid aspects of her work: the interlude ends with her hiding in the actor’s bathroom when his girlfriend returns, and sneaking out after the two have made love. There are scenes where the prostitutes get into cat fights or have to hide from the cops. While Cabiria is proud of the fact that she owns her house and doesn’t answer to a pimp, her independence is still compromised just by the fact that she is a woman alone. Fellini often highlights this by emphasizing Masina’s small, ballerina-in-a-music-box stature, and many of her evening encounters seem as likely to end in violence as business. Of all his characters, Fellini once said near the end of his career, he still worried about Cabiria.
Neither as painfully naive as Gelsomina in La Strada nor as literally haunted as Juliet of the Spirits, Cabiria does share with both of those women a certain wary optimism about their lives. She dances to her own tune, often to the clear disdain of those around her (and some critics, too; Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called her outfit “weird” in his review), and there are shades of Chaplin’s Little Tramp in her flair for physical comedy and elastic features. How much of all this is an act on Cabiria’s part to keep her desperation at bay is an open question, one Masina’s performance wisely never answers definitively. She’s both fascinated and repulsed by charity. While her brash declarations to her friends that she’ll soon be leaving town often fall on deaf ears, it’s in her more unguarded moments of confession that the full extent of her longing becomes clear. In one of the few scenes that takes place in daylight, she goes with the other prostitutes to see the Madonna and make an offering. Among the teeming, sickly hordes, she begs the Virgin Mary to help guide her towards a better life, but becomes despondent when her friends immediately return to their old habits. “We haven’t changed!” she drunkenly wails.
A potential savior does appear, albeit nearly an hour and a half into the film, in the form of Oscar, an unassuming accountant who is in the audience when Cabiria is hypnotized during a magic act and cruelly induced into performing a mock courtship with an invisible man. She’s dubious of his intentions, but allows herself to be swept up in the fantasy he offers, even one where the primary connection between the two lovers is their mutual loneliness. His belated introduction should be a tip-off to viewers, but Cabiria blinds herself to any warning signs, spontaneously selling her house and belongings for a marriage dowry and leaving town with him, as she’s long vowed. By the time Oscar is leading her from a deserted wood to the edge of a cliff, the sinister echoes with the film’s beginning become overwhelming. She begs him to kill her; he takes the money and runs instead. Cabiria is once more left alone.
Or maybe not entirely. As she trudges back out to the road, she comes upon a group of teenagers in the midst of a carefree celebration, and is gradually enveloped in their merrymaking. “Buona notte,” one of them says to her, the final piece of dialogue in the film. A single black-streaked tear on her cheek, Cabiria looks directly into the camera, giving a soft nod to her audience, and to the man behind it as if to say, “I’ll be fine.” Sixty-five years after its release, and twenty-eight years after Fellini and Masina passed away within five months of each other, Nights of Cabiria stands as one of the great cinematic valentines from a husband to a wife – and a touching acknowledgment that loving someone, flaws and all, can be the role of a lifetime.
“Nights of Cabiria” is available for digital rental or purchase.