Federico Fellini

The final shot of Nights of Cabiria (1957)

The final shot of Nights of Cabiria (1957)

  • Born: 1920
  • Died: 1993
  • Rank: 40
  • Score: 600.15
  • Awards: 4 Oscars (for Foreign Film) / NYFC
  • Nominations: 16 Oscars (4 for Director, 8 for Screenplay, 4 for Foreign Film) / DGA
  • Feature Films: 18
  • Best: Nights of Cabiria
  • Worst: Fellini Satyricon

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. Nights of Cabiria – 1957
  2. La Dolce Vita – 1960
  3. Amarcord – 1974
  4. La Strada – 1956
  5. 8 1/2 – 1963

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1956 – 6th – La Strada
  • 1957 – 6th – Nights of Cabiria
  • 1961 – 4th – La Dolce Vita
  • 1963 – 7th – 8 1/2
  • 1972 – 8th – Fellini’s Roma
  • 1974 – 7th – Amarcord

Given the later surrealist films he would make, it’s hard to remember that Fellini actually began in the neorealist movement in Italian film as one of the writers on Open City and Paisan. In 1950 he got the chance to direct and he made 4 solid films in a row before finally striking gold (metaphorically and literally as he brought home Oscar gold) with La Strada. But La Strada was the end of an era. Nights of Cabiria, his next film, which also won the Oscar began to change from realism into surrealism and we begin the strange descent into the decadence of Rome that takes a major step with La Dolce Vita. While Dolce and its follow-up 8 1/2 are great films, they are the first steps into the shameless self-indulgence of Fellini’s later films. Half his career lay ahead, yet he would only make one more film that ranked higher than *** (Amarcord) and made three bad films in that era (City of Women, the dreadful Fellini’s Casanova, and the incredibly awful, self-indulgent Satyricon). In the 80’s he seemed to recall the sentimentalism that sparked Amarcord and made two solid films (And the Ship Sails On, Ginger and Fred), but his last film was the decidedly mediocre Voices of the Moon, and then couldn’t even get full glory in the Movies section with his death as he died the same day as River Phoenix.

Nights of Cabiria – #6 film of 1957

Roger Ebert wrote in his Great Films review “Nights of Cabiria is transitional; it points toward the visual freedom of La Dolce Vita while still remaining attentive to the real world of postwar Rome.”

We each get the film for us.  It becomes apparent if you read Ebert that his favorite film of all-time is La Dolce Vita and given when it came out and his age, it is understandable.  Star Wars remains the defining movie for me, not the least of which because it was the first film I ever saw and because I have seen it over 500 times.  But while Dolce is Ebert’s favorite, I find in it the roots of the self-indulgence and the lack of discretion that would weaken Fellini’s later films.  To me, there is no better Fellini film than Cabiria, because he had honed his craft to the point where he could make such a fine film, yet still had enough self-control to keep it honed and tight.

Ebert is correct when he talks about the similarities between the two films.  In some ways they are the same film, looking at the underside of Rome at night, but while Dolce does it through a publicity man and goes for surrealism, Cabiria remains rooted in the neorealism that Fellini sprang from and as a result, the characters are more real.

Think of the heartbreak of the opening scene.  She walks along with her pimp towards the river and she is so distracted she doesn’t notice him looking around to make sure there are no witnesses when he steals her purse and pushes her in.  She survives the drowning attempt to return to her tiny little house (which she is so proud to own) and she struggles on.  In fact, the final shot of the film is her, somehow, smiling, in spite of everything that has come before.  She is an example of the triumph of the spirit of life, that somehow things must go on, for there is no other reason why she should be smiling at this point.

Cabiria is not just a high point for Fellini.  It represents the apex of Italian film-making.  The music is by Nino Rota, then unknown outside of Italy, today respected as one of film’s greatest composers.  It was produced by Dino de Laurentiis, long before he became one of the most famous producers in the world.  And one of the writers is Pier Paolo Pasolini, before he would embark on the one of the most controversial film careers in history.  And playing Cabiria?  Giuletta Masina, Fellini’s wife, in the best performance of her career, tougher than in La Strada, with a kind of focus she would never have again.