Masina shines at heart of 'Nights of Cabiria'

October 23, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The hooker with a heart of gold is such a cliche by now that it's easy to forget someone once made it look new.

"Nights of Cabiria," the 1957 drama by Federico Fellini that is being shown at the Charles with refurbished sound and image, is a slender film that Fellini's critics have called both his nadir and his masterpiece. For now, leave that argument to the rumpled, whey-faced lot who thrive on such debates.

Aficionados will be interested to see a sequence involving a charitable stranger (the Man With the Sack) that has heretofore been missing from the movie (speculation has it that the Vatican objected to Fellini depicting charity as outside the purview of the church).

Shirley MacLaine fans may want to see the movie that inspired "Sweet Charity," the musical adaptation that Bob Fosse directed in 1969.

But there is really only one reason to see "Nights of Cabiria," and that is to drink in the fragile, transcendent, ethereal presence known as Giulietta Masina.

Masina, who married Fellini in 1943 after appearing in one of his student radio plays, went on to become the director's leading lady, feminine alter ego and muse. Although she received most of her critical plaudits for her role as the pathetic captive of a brutal circus performer in "La Strada," it's in "Nights of Cabiria" that she glows in all her radiant vulnerability.

Masina plays Cabiria, an aging prostitute who lives in a one-room cinder block shack on the outskirts of Rome. We meet her on a romantic walk with her beau, which soon turns sour when he pushes her into a river and steals her purse.

"Nights of Cabiria" is just what its title promises, the life chronicle of a lady of the evening whose hopes for love and happiness can't be dashed by even the most heartless of rotters.

Its detractors are correct: "Nights of Cabiria" is slight and episodic, and it doesn't offer much beyond its simple observation of the heartbreaking line between self-delusion and perseverance. But Masina is transfixing as the movie's core, whether she is erupting into a dervish of passionate rage arguing with her best friend (the sensationally zaftig Franca Marzi) or wielding her awkward umbrella like a geisha's fan while flirting with a famous movie star.

Her face is perpetually lit from within. When Cabiria spies two well-dressed competitors she delivers a withering, incandescent glare; later, when she is hypnotized at a music hall, she is the embodiment of beatific, angelic grace.

Masina is often called the female Charlie Chaplin and the comparison is apt; she shares Chaplin's winsomeness and subtle wisdom.

Moving with a dancer's jaunty ease to Nino Rota's signature musical score, Masina -- like all the great clowns -- embodies humor and deep melancholy in equal parts.

'Nights of Cabiria'

Starring Giulietta Masina

Directed by Federico Fellini

Not rated

Running time 117 minutes

Released by Rialto Pictures

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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