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The Criterion Collection presents
"Madonna, help me to change my life. Bestow your grace on me, too. Make me change my life."
DVD ReviewLast year I saw a high school production of Sweet Charity. I came out of it thinking that it was horrible. Performances aside, the message of the musical was "You can never change for the better." I felt it was an attack on anyone in a life situation from which they want to get out. When I started watching Nights of Cabiria, I had no idea it was the film on which Sweet Charity was based. By the middle of the film, I figured it out. I couldn't believe Fellini had made a film with that kind of message. I expect it from Pasolini, but not from Fellini. I watched the rest, dreading the ending, where I would get the message that made me abhor the later musical so much. To my amazement, the film ended, not with a downbeat message, but with this: "No matter what life throws at you, you can make things better."
Nights of Cabiria was made on the cusp of Fellini's switch from neorealism to surrealism. And while Cabiria won an Oscar® for best foreign film, the truth is that it's not Fellini's best. However, this movie would be considered a masterpiece if it had come from most other directors; it only pales in comparison to the rest of Fellini's works. The story of a prostitute in Rome looking for love and better life, Nights of Cabiria is an episodic journey that is often entertaining, but can be too slow for its own good.
Cabiria is a woman who sees the best in people, even if there really is no goodness to be found. The film opens with Cabiria frolicking by a river with a man named Georgio. Eventually, Georgio steals her purse and pushes her into the water. When she is saved from drowning, Cabiria won't believe that Georgio would do something like that to her. The opening sequence is representative of the whole film: Cabiria trusts someone who then lets her down, and she goes on trusting. The amazing thing here is the way the story makes the audience believe that there is something good and wonderful in everyone's life, no matter how horrible their circumstances may seem. Fellini achieves this through Cabiria's dogged determination and a few well-placed acts of kindness.
Giulietta Masina, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this film, portrays Cabiria with wit and charm. Masina is sometimes known as the female Chaplin, and her performance in Cabiria is one of the greatest examples of that. Her facial expressions give the audience a window into Cabiria's mind. Unlike Sweet Charity, where Charity almost always has a plastic smile plastered on her face, Cabiria is often more sad or angry than happy, and indeed it seems as if the only moment of true happiness she has is at the end of the film. Cabiria is sassy and brassy, and Masina plays her to hilarious comedic effect. But while Masina can be very funny, she can also play someone who is genuinely hurt and disappointed. Balancing humor and true emotion in a film can sometimes be a tricky tightrope walk, but Masina and Fellini both play their cards just right and the movie never seems like it's making fun of Cabiria, nor does it seem as if she's simply wallowing in her own self-pity.
Several other actors have great performances here. Franca Marzi plays Cabiria's more cynical and realistic friend, Wanda. Amedeo Nazzari plays Italian film star Alberto Lazzari, who picks Cabiria up for a night; he is an interesting mix of coldness and warmth. At the beginning of the night, he turns to Cabiria because his girlfriend (Dorian Gray) walked out on him in a nightclub. Lazzari takes Cabiria to a club, where he's cold to her, but when he takes her back to his house, he warms up and proves himself to be a nice guy after all. François Périer appears as Oscar D'Onofrio in the third act of the film, a man who loves Cabiria for who she really is. Fellini and Périer do a wonderful job of using this character to shatter certain expectations the audience has. The role of Oscar in Cabiria is a wholly different creature than the Oscar in Sweet Charity, and it is the motivations of the two that make for the difference in the message. Also, Aldo Silvani has a small role as a hypnotist in a scene that presages Fellini's more surrealistic style.
In true neorealistic style, Fellini lets the picture speak for itself. There are no flashy camera movements, nothing to suggest the films Fellini would later make. Even the aforementioned hypnotist scene only suggests surrealism through the content of the scene, not the style of direction. The style mostly works, such as the scene when Cabiria is standing alone in the rain, and I would always rather see a movie with no flashy camera movements than a film that uses them badly (although Fellini could obviously have pulled it off).
If there is a problem with this film, it's in the pacing. Some of the scenes go on just a bit too long, and some scenes are downright boring. I think the problem is that we grasp Cabiria's plight from the opening; therefore, seeing her go through it over and over does not exactly keep the movie interesting. The character of Oscar arrives quite late in the film, although not so late that we no longer care about Cabiria. Overall, things just needed to be a bit tighter.
Interestingly, the Criterion version of Nights of Cabiria is the director's cut, with a new scene added in. Referred to as the "man with the sack" sequence, it shows Cabiria meeting a man, sack in hand, who feeds poor people on the outskirts of Rome. While this scene adds to the running time and slows the pacing of the film even more, it's an essential addition: First, because it takes us away from Cabiria's story for a few minutes; as the film has repeated the same point of Cabiria's loneliness several times by this scene, it's a welcome breather. Second, because it shows a man doing something truly charitable for people, which is necessary to see why Cabiria has such an optimistic attitude: it renews her faith in life. And lastly, it serves to remind us that Cabiria isn't the only person with problems; in fact, hers may not be so bad. It doesn't diminish her plight; it simply puts it in perspective. While other parts of the film could have been trimmed, this sequence is perfect the way it is.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Nights of Cabiria really comes to life here; I was very impressed by this transfer. While a few shots looked a bit grainy, overall the print is clear. Black levels are deep, but not so dark that they obscure details (considering the film is in black & white and takes place mostly at night, this is particularly important). There are almost no scratches, and the few there are don't distracting in any way. It's a pleasure to see this movie in such fine quality.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Nights of Cabiria is presented in its original mono, Italian soundtrack, free from distortion or hissing. A few of the actors, most notably François Périer, are dubbed into Italian, sometimes badly, but it is the original track, so don't worry. This is a dialogue-based movie, anyway, so a 5.1 mix would not have been a crucial asset. There is also an English audio track, which is just annoying. Cabiria may be headstrong in Italian, but in English she's downright obnoxious.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:40s
Criterion gives us the film's theatrical which, like most, goes on too long. We also get a very classy and tasteful re-release trailer which, unlike most, is short and sweet. Finally, the DVD comes with an essay by Fellini himself, in which he discusses the genesis of the film and the troubles he had in making it, as well as the "man in the sack" sequence. Interestingly, Fellini contradicts some of what his assistant says in the video interview. I don't know about you, but I think I'll take Fellini's word.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsWhile not Fellini's best and sometimes too slow for its own good, Nights of Cabiria is still a touching and moving film, light years beyond its bastard-daughter-of-a-remake, Sweet Charity.
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