The film opens with a couple. The scene shows the woman, played by Giulietta Masina, standing by the river, looking happy and swinging her purse. Her boyfriend, played by Franco Fabrizi, who has portrayed the contemptible womaniser in Fellini's earlier film I Vitelloni, looks around and suddenly snatches her purse and pushes her into the water. Unable to swim, she nearly drowns, and survives thanks to some passers-by. However, instead of showing gratitude, she tells them to leave her alone. Why should she live, Cabiria (that's her name) doesn't want to believe that her boyfriend pushes her into the river just for the money.
Le notti di Cabiria, or Nights of Cabiria, is about Cabiria, about her yearning for love and a different life, and her unhappy adventures. A prostitute with a heart of gold, Cabiria is a stock character, and the story of a prostitute looking for love in vain runs the risk of being hackneyed and sentimental, but Giulietta Masina's comic, child-like qualities and expressive face combine with Fellini's genius to work wonders. Her Cabiria is reminiscent of her previous role of Gelsomina in La Strada, in her purity, innocence and naiveté, but if Gelsominia might be reduced to symbolising the heart (as opposed to Zampanò, the body and Il Matto, the mind), Cabiria is more complex and has greater depth. The character isn't sentimentalised- she can be tough, she drinks and fights, she knows it's a tough life she's having and a brutal future ahead and refuses to accept it like other prostitutes, she doesn't want to let go of dreams and hopes, she prides herself in owning a house and not relying on a pimp, she insists on not needing a man, until the cruel hypnotist exposes her vulnerability in front of an audience and makes her prey to another despicable man. The hypnotism scene is 1 of the saddest in Le notti di Cabiria. Another is the scene after the Madonna sequence, when Cabiria has an outburst that no one around her understands, when she shouts that there has been no change at all and everything remains the same, when she loudly asks the nuns if Madonna bestows them mercy. Indeed there is no change at all- we follow her story and see her pushed by a boyfriend, mocked by other working girls, picked up by a bored famous actor and then treated by him like a dog, exploited by a hypnotist, taken advantage of by another man... The film is haunting and deeply sad. But if the circumstances don't change, neither does Cabiria. She survives and finds consolation in music and dance, and we feel that in spite of everything, she maintains her saintly purity and remains hopeful.
(Stills from Le notti di Cabiria. Source: jacquioakley.com)