Fellini’s final neo-realist film, Nights of Cabiria (1957), won him his second Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and garnered endless praise for its star Giulietta Masina (Mrs. Fellini) as Cabiria. It’s actually one of Fellini’s most effective films—probably the best of his neo-realist dramas. Fellini and Masina take what could have been nothing more than a grubby tale of a downtrodden—and seemingly doomed to be betrayed—low-rent prostitute and turn it into pure gold. It’s at once a devastating film and a strangely hopeful one—thanks in no small part by having Masina base Cabiria to a large extent on Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Hope and happiness are fleeting, yes, but so is misery for Cabiria. Constantly victimized and made sport of, she is nonetheless going to endure.
There’s not much story—merely a series of events and set-pieces. Cabiria starts out being nearly drowned for her money and ends up in an almost identical situation that will leave her in direst poverty. But neither the character, nor Fellini wallow in her hard-luck. Individual scenes are among Fellini’s finest. The entire comic sequence where she gets picked up by a movie star (François Périer) and ends up spending the night sleeping in his bathroom with his puppy when his girlfriend arrives is perfect. (And like nearly every segment, she ends up wandering down the road like Chaplin’s Tramp at the end of a two-reel comedy.) A religious pilgrimmage is probably the film’s stylistic highpoint, but almost as fine is the sequence where she gets roped into appearing onstage with a seedy magician/hypnotist (Also Silvani)—a segment that is both funny and touching, and which paves the way to her ultimate betrayal. Really, there’s not a false moment in this remarkable little film.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will presentNights of CabiriaFriday, Feb. 28, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com.