Rome, 1957. A woman, Cabiria, is robbed and left to drown by her boyfriend, Giorgio. Rescued, she resumes her life and tries her best to find happiness in a cynical world. Even when she thinks her struggles are over and she has found happiness and contentment, things may not be what they seem. Written by
Life is a river: not gently flowing, but a hostile swallower of the marginal.
Gorgeous early Fellini, often considered the mid-point in his career, between the more obviously reflective, supposedly realistic early work, and the bleak extravaganzas that followed. But Fellini was never a neo-realist in the dull way Rossellini was: his use of landscape was always heavily symbolic or subjective. Here Cabiria lives in the middle of a bleak wasteland, which perhaps serves to figure the emptiness of her life, the sterility of life for women in macho Italy, or a comment on post-fascist Italy itself.
It doesn't really matter. The sentiments of the film are actually quite trite - women are treated badly in Italy, etc. What's riveting and astonishing is not the experiences of Everywoman, but the experiences of one particular woman. Although there is a great variety of locales, and Cabiria seems to be always moving forward, the film is actually a melodrama. Cabiria never escapes, whatever her adventures, wherever she goes, she always ends up where she started, at home. Even when she finally sells her home for a supposed new life, her last (in the film; we just know the circle will never be broken) mirrors her first in a depressing circularity.
Yet the film, for all its melancholy, is anything but depressing. Fellini is most famous for being an indulger of frail male egos, but CABIRIA's strength lies in its imaginative sympathy with its heroine. The film's structure mirrors her situation - the film has no plot as such, just an accumulative series of self-contained episodes which follow the same pattern: escape, hope, betrayal. In each episode, the further Cabiria moves away form her 'neo-realist' base, the more dream-like (verging on the fantastic) the film becomes, as if she is stepping into an enchanted world (this is made literal when she follows the actor into the nightclub, like some mythic warrior entering the dragon's lair). And each time she gives into the dream world, the illusion is rudely shattered - the scene at the hypnotist's is as heartbreaking as anything in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. So while the reality/illusion dichotomy is facile as an idea, it is extraordinarily powerful as cinema experienced through character.
Fellini's filming is as beautiful as anything in 50s cinema, that decade mirabilis: more restrained and grounded than later, with less obvious flourish, but the mixture of realism and dream is made all the more convincing with the gentle, coaxing camera movements, beguiling us as well as the heroine, but with the strange editing, and sometimes disruptive composition giving us a distance she can never have.
Giuletta Masina gives the most sublime performance by an actress in Italian cinema- an exuberant mixture of hope and resignation; her gorgeous big eyes not quite ready to give up yet, even at the end, although the submitting to the youthful racket seems as hopelessly bleak as 8 1/2. Her seemingly unprepossessing body is actually an instrument of unparalelled grace, and the comparisons with Chaplin are not unwarranted - when you see this performance you'll realise how unexpressive most actors' bodies are.
The Chaplin model is not always helpful - there is a mawkishness and emotional manipulation towards the climax that almost grates, but by then you so adore Cabiria, and so hate everybody else that thought doesn't really come into it (although doesn't it seem that many male viewers seem to prefer her as helpless). Throw in a lovely, playful Nino Rota score and you're in movie heaven.
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