Nights of Cabiria
Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957) transcends the well-worn cliche of the golden-hearted prostitute. The film stars Fellini's wife and constant collaborator, Giuletta Masina, as a woman named Maria Ceccarelli but known to everyone in her social strata as Cabiria. Cabiria was pushed into prostitution by her destitute mother when she was young and beautiful, and her difficult life has instilled in her a fierce, street-smart independence tempered by a song-filled heart.
Cabiria lives in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of Rome, yet is proud to have a place of her own with heat, electricity and running water. Apart from "a night or two," she has avoided the fate of other prostitutes who sleep under arches. While many of her fellow streetwalkers have been coarsened by the life, Cabiria retains an incongruous frivolity, dancing and smiling when the music plays. At a pilgrimage to seek the Virgin Mary's grace, Cabiria's pimp and the other prostitutes go through the motions and ask selfishly, but she's struck with a desire to change her life, though she doesn't know how. At her core, Cabiria still believes in redemptive romantic love, which makes her vulnerable.
Cabiria's nights as a streetwalker chronicle the heights and depths of Roman society. One night she's a companion to a movie star and is made privy, however briefly, to the champagne-and-lobster life. Then she spends a few hours in the company of a man who delivers food and clothing to the poor who live in caves. At each stop, however, her ideals and desires are exploited. She's a permanent second-class citizen.
And yet, despite all of the manifest injustices visited upon her, it is Cabiria's will to persevere that triumphs. The film's final shot makes clear that she is her own happy ending. After suffering an unimaginable betrayal, she's left penniless and alone on a deserted road. Suddenly, the road is filled with travelers caught up in festive singing. In spite of her recent heartbreak, Cabiria can't help herself. Upon receiving the travelers' well-wishes, a tiny smile forms on her mascara-stained face. In extreme close-up, her eyes come to life and move across the frame, directly meeting our own for a pregnant moment.
What can this mean? Her eyes seem both to ask a question—"Do you have in you what I have in me?" and to declare convincingly, "Nobody can take this from me."