Imagine Cinderella’s story if she’d never made it to the ball. Or Pretty Woman if Richard Gere had hired the girl standing next to Julia Roberts. In a way, one need not imagine these alternative universes since there is always Federico Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria that allows at least one version of how this fairly tale might play out if fate dealt the heroine a different hand.
In fact, the comparison to Pretty Woman is even more valid since the Cinderella story at the heart of Nights of Cabiria is herself a prostitute. One major difference is age; despite being past her prime as a streetwalker in Rome, however, Cabiria always seems to exude an implicit confidence the next customer buying her wares will be her ticket to better times. In fact, the very first image of Cabiria is one in which she stands on the banks of a river, laughing. Shortly thereafter, the latest man in her life and live-in boyfriend, thrust her body into the river and since she never learned to swim, Cabiria almost drowns. Meanwhile, in addition to trying to kill her, her boyfriend has also made off with all her money. After a brief period depression and anger, it is not too long before Cabiria is on the prowl for the next man who will humiliate and abandon her. It is her cycle of life.
Nights of Cabiria suggests that a put-upon woman who remains optimistic that things can and will turn out better has to stake at least some responsibility in the process. Happily ever after does not just suddenly show up in the form of a fairy or a due in an expensive car who is not just handsome and rich, but nice. Cabiria is Cinderella’s normally sunny disposition put to the test every day without recognizing opportunities to put an end to her cycle of short-term happiness, inexorable humiliation and inevitable abandonment.
Nights of Cabiria earned writer/director Federico Fellini his second straight Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film; an award he would go to win two more times over the next two decades of a career elevated him to realm of all-time great international directors recognized by just their last name, including Bergman and Kurosawa. The actress who plays Cabiria also took home a prestigious award for her contribution when she was named Best Actress of the Year at the Cannes Film Festival. That actress, Giulietta Masina, also happened to be Fellini’s wife at the time.
In 1966, a musical titled Sweet Charity debuted on Broadway, receiving a host of Tony Award nominations but winning just one for director Bob Fosse’s choreography. That musical was based on the Fellini’s screenplay for Nights of Cabiria and three years later Bob Fosse also choreographed and made his debut as a film director for the movie based on the musical based on the original movie.