Cabiria is happy. Of course, Cabiria is usually happy, but on this night, beside this river with this boyfriend, Cabiria is almost deliriously happy. It is the kind of happiness that has transformed into exhilaration over a rush to judgment: the judgment that everything just might be going entirely right for a change. And then, without warning, the boyfriend beside this river on this night brutishly pushes her over right into the water. While Cabiria is in the drink, he doubles down on his caddishness by stealing her purse which, it just so happens, is overflowing with cash.
How could things possibly get worse? After all, what is worse than exhilaration being stolen and immediately turning into disillusionment? If this disillusionment is accompanied by being in water against your will, there is only one way for it to get worse. Yes, Cabiria never learned to swim. And she is only saved from the ultimate indignity of drowning by a group of boys who pass by at the most opportune of times and saved from her last gasp of life by some inordinately helpful people.
All Cabiria can do in that moment of near-resurrection is express scorn toward those who saved her and set about in search of the boyfriend, Giorgio.
The search ends in disappointment and a return home. In a very short period of time, Cabiria has made the long trek from bliss to bitterness. She is fortunate enough to have a friendly neighbor named Wanda willing to expend effort on helping her neighbor continue her emotional journey toward forgetting all about Giorgio, but Cabiria will having nothing of it.
With a simmering pot of discontent inside her soul, Cabiria instead heads out to her job: walking the streets as a prostitute. While plying that trade near an upscale nightclub, she watches a fight take place between a girl and a man she recognizes from the movies. The fight is over the girlfriend deciding to break up with him. Cabiria cannot help but notice the existential distance that separates the girlfriend from herself. Despite the fact that Cabiria is far from glamorous, the recently rejected movie star offers to take Cabiria to another upscale nightclub. More than upscale, this club is like walking into rich people’s heaven. Everywhere she turns are more signs of the distance between herself and the elite. As the night wears on, the movie star becomes increasingly less cold toward and a closeness actually begins to develop. But before Cabiria can say she had sex with a movie star, his girlfriend reappears and she gets hustled to the side.
After she leaves the club, she witnesses a procession by the church against prostitution. Her fellow hookers taunt the marchers, but Cabiria feels oddly drawn to them. She is on the verge of actually joining their march when trucker stops her in search of a good time. She crawl into the vehicle rather than join the church crowd. Much later that night on her way home, Cabiria spies a man offering food to those poor, hungry people who occupy the caves near where she lives. The man is an utter stranger, but impresses her with this act of charity. She joins her friends on the way to church and offers a prayer in hope of a better life.
When Cabiria enters a music hall, she is coerced onto the stage to take part in a hypnotism act. The hypnotist uses the opportunity afforded by her suggestibility to coax her into acting out all her deepest wishes and hopes, including her romantic dream of an ideal boyfriend named Oscar. The audiences goes wild with laughter over the exhibition. Upon realizing that she has been a tool for the amusement of others, she becomes enraged and storms out.
Outside is a man who has been part of the audience who is waiting to talk with her. He explains that his name actually is Oscar and empathizes with her over the cruelty of the hypnotist and the audience. Fate, he suggests, has played a part in their meeting under these circumstances. Hesitant and aloof as a result of the suspicion that she is just going to be hurt again by Oscar, she is cautious when meeting him for futures dates. Eventually, she falls head over heels and is exhilarated once more at the prospect of marriage.
Cabiria withdraws her life savings from the bank and shares it with Oscar following the wedding. To her astonishment, Oscar actually declines the 700,000 lire she offers. They go for a walk in the woods and approach a cliff that looks out over the lake. Oscar has become fidgety and a bit sullen and Cabiria arrives at the conclusion that the push into the lake from Giorgio is about to be replicated with Oscar. Before this humiliation can be enacted, she tosses her purse at Oscar and collapses to the ground sobbing as Oscar reaches for the money and disappears.
Finally gathering herself together, Cabiria wills herself to stand up and make her way back through the woods. As she starts off down a long road back to town, she encounters a festive group of young people playing music, whipping around in their scooters and dancing. They soon form into a procession of exhilaration that actually succeeds in bringing a smile to Cabiria’s face even as the tears stream down her cheeks. Cabiria is happy.