Her work with Fellini, especially on La Strada  (1954) and Nights of Cabiria  (1957) – both winners of the Oscar for foreign language film – was an examination of innocence that has yet to be surpassed.
Whether she played a feeble-minded peasant in the earlier movie or a common prostitute in the latter, Masina was funny, beguiling, and heartbreaking.
Cabiria plies her age-old trade in a run-down Roman suburb. Not that the film ever shows her in a truly sexual situation. In fact, Masina's Cabiria is practically asexual in her childlike lack of guile. Even her wardrobe – anklet socks and a ridiculous fuzzy fur jacket – suggest a clown far more than a seductress.
Still, Cabiria apparently has earned enough to buy her own home, a tacky cinderblock cube that is an unintentional parody of middle-class tastefulness.
Her problem is that she wants desperately to fall in love.
Hanging out with the other working girls she can talk tough, moving through life with a swagger borrowed from Mae West  and the occasional impish gesture that is pure Charlie Chaplin . But in her heart of hearts Cabiria is lonely.
She has no luck with men. In the opening scene her current beau lures her down to the Tiber, grabs her purse, and pushes her into the river. She barely escapes drowning.
Later she is thrilled to be picked up by a drunken movie actor who takes her to his palatial home. But she ends up spending the night locked in a bathroom when the actor's girlfriend shows up unexpectedly.
She has a last chance with a mousy accountant who proposes marriage. But by now Cabiria should know enough to distrust men who seem too good to be true.
Cabiria contains Masina’s greatest performance. On top of that, it proved that besides being one of screen's great surrealists, Fellini was also one of its great humanitarians.
Fellini was not alone among filmmakers in his fascination with the fate of the innocent in a wicked, wicked world. The work of his contemporary, Spain’s Luis Buñuel , rests on the conviction that no good deed goes unpunished.
But having Masina in his corner gave Fellini an edge.
Seen today, Nights of Cabiria is sad, touching, wistful, and funny ... and not at all objectionable.
But back in 1957 the film came under fire from Italy’s official censors, who for moral reasons refused to allow it as an official entry to the Cannes International Film Festival .
(“Prostitutes? Here in Rome? I am deeply offended.”)
Thinking fast, Fellini arranged a private midnight screening of the film for an influential Roman cardinal. After viewing the film in a seedy back-alley theater, the churchman gave it a clean bill of health. The censors backed off and Cabiria went to France, where it was met by standing ovations.
But the cardinal did demand one trim in the film. Fellini, who did his research on late-night prowls through Rome’s tackier neighborhoods, had encountered “the man with a sack,” an individual who went about distributing food and clothing to the poor from a sack on his back.
In the film Cabiria accompanies a similar character as he distributes food to the homeless living in caves. There she recognizes among the paupers a former prostitute. It's a chilling premonition of the fate that may await her as well.
According to the cardinal, the presence in the film of “the man with a sack” suggested that the Church wasn’t doing a good job of caring for the poor. Fellini reluctantly trimmed those scenes, which were restored only a few years ago.
Ironically, there was no objection to one of the film's most disturbing passages, a trip by Cabiria and her fellow hookers to a shrine where the Virgin is said to heal cripples.
Shot with real penitents attending a religious festival, this sequence is a mob scene filled with spiritual hysteria – quite the equal of the flagellants' procession in Bergman's The Seventh Seal . Cabiria (and the viewer) leaves deeply upset by it all.
A postscript: Giulietta Masina died in March 1994, only five months after the death of her husband.
Her last words: “I'm going to spend Easter with Federico.”
That love is evident everywhere in Nights of Cabiria.
Other films in the series “While the City Sleeps: After Dark”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- February 4: The Big Sleep  (1946) Not Rated
- February 11: Sleepless in Seattle  (1993) Rated PG
- February 18: Nights of Cabiria  (1957) Not Rated
- February 25: After Hours  (1985) Rated R
- March 4: Dark City  (1998) Rated R
- March 11: Date Night  (2010) Rated PG-13
- March 18: Blade Runner  (1982) Rated R
- March 25: L.A. Confidential  (1997) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements While the City Sleeps , the 2013 Adult Winter Reading Program.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.