We last saw Italian actress Giulietta Masina and Federico Fellini team up in his film La Strada, in which Masina played someone so childlike that it was a relief her character was not sexually exploited. Here, Masina stars as the prostitute Cabiria – a bit more worldly, but in other ways still just as naive.
We learn over the course of the film that Cabiria grew up fast after being orphaned as a teenager, finding her way to Rome and into sex work. But she is still determined to have a respectable life – she owns her own house, which is really a tiny shack near the train tracks outside Rome. But it is all hers, bought and paid for, even if she’s had to scrimp and save for it. She is also a romantic hoping that one of the tricks might someday turn into a decent man who would marry her. She’s repeatedly disappointed in her romantic search, however – in the very first scene, she is on a riverside stroll with her latest schmoopie when he suddenly seizes her purse and pushes her in the water, knowing she can’t swim.
The rest of the film reads like a bit of a character study of Cabiria, watching her bounce back from that insult. She vents to her BFF Wanda (Franca Marzi) as they hang around their regular corner, on the hunt for johns. She shoots down a pimp’s efforts to recruit her, insisting she can take care of herself. She holds her own against some higher-class prostitutes who sneer at her second-hand clothes. She charms a famous actor (Amedeo Nazzari) after he’s been spectacularly dumped on the street, and he ends up taking her home – where all he does is give her a lavish banquet before hiding her in the bathroom when his girlfriend drops by to make up. She is unexpectedly moved by the kindness of a man who spends his own nights bringing food and clothing to the homeless people sheltering in the caves out in the Roman suburbs. Cabiria, we come to learn, is a quirky free spirit who secretly yearns to be a little less free, if the tradeoff is that she will finally feel truly loved.
Masina gives just as charming and endearing performance as she did in La Strada. Her Cabiria is almost the trope-definer for the “prostitute with a heart of gold” – she’s saucy, quippy and independent, determined to get what she wants and get it her own way. Except her big trusting heart keeps leading her into trouble – Wanda keeps telling her she trusts men too much, but Cabiria’s fervent hunt for love blinds her to any red flags. She also still has a childlike understanding of trust and faith – she believes in meeting her Handsome Prince who will one day come to sweep her off into a Happy Ever After. At some level she knows she’s looking for Prince Charming the wrong way, and joins some friends on an afternoon outing to a shrine, begging God to help her change her ways. But an hour later, when she feels no different, she angrily assumes God’s refused her prayers and storms back to her old life. A chance encounter with a hypnotist later in the film also gives a glimpse of the sad, sweet, and naïve girl hiding at her heart – and we understand all the better how her naiveté leads her to trust the next guy who later takes advantage of her.
And, we also understand the last scene. Cabiria suffers from several indignities over the course of the film – some she’s brought on herself, some just bad luck – and the end of the film finds her dejectedly walking down a street, in a little shock after her latest misfortune. As she walks, a group of friends who’ve been out for a picnic start walking nearby her, all of them in a party mood – laughing, cracking jokes, playing music. They’re all in such a good mood they even try sweeping Cabiria up in their fun, serenading her and greeting her warmly, turning the trudge along the street into an impromptu parade. And in the midst of her tears, Cabiria slowly starts to recover from her shock, smiling at them all; one way or another, she’ll be okay.