Julietta Messina as Cabiria, embodies three already established archetypes we have come to know as: sexy beast, innocent girl and mother. But viewing this film in 2016 the character of Cabiria fulfills a number of modern archetypes as well, most notably the “Ophelia” archetype for unrequited love.
Messina throughout much of the film is dressed in some form of Breton stripes. Breton stripes were originally designed for French sailors to be easy to spot in the water in the event that they fell overboard. This makes them an interesting choice for Cabiria, someone who is literally thrown in the river at the beginning of the film. It’s as if by wearing these stripes the character is figuratively signaling that she is lost and asking to be found.
The rational friend and neighbor Wanda is the voice of reason when Cabiria’s flights of fancy stray too far from reality. Wanda with her own version of Italian Lace sewn into an unfinished frock, looks to be on the verge of marriage mid-day on a Wednesday. It is both beautiful and comical, and adds a certain feminine element to this lovely and deep rooted depiction of female friendship. We bear witness to this when Wanda plays referee as Cabiria’s temper gets the best of her over and over again. Wanda repeatedly serves as both hawk and anchor when there is trouble on the horizon, and is steadfast no matter how “quirky” circumstances become.
I don’t feel like it is too far of a stretch to posit the notion of Cabiria as a modern archetype in herself. Despite having been made more than 60 years ago Nights of Cabiria perfectly illustrates the transient relationship with money that we are so accustomed to today. While she is proud to be able to provide for herself it is apparent that Cabiria has aspirational ambitions and a frivolity when it comes to money that communicates that there are more important things to happiness.
Cabiria’s delusions of grandeur are a point of contention with her counterparts “on the corner,” and this can be witnessed in the disdain they hold for each other. Which is not to say that she feels completely at home in the “haute-y taute-y” sections of Rome either; although her luck does seem to be better and almost mystically destined in those encounters.
The symbolism in this film reads like explicit poetry. In the beginning of the film the boys that save Cabiria from the river exclaim “She lives the life…” A wonderful encapsulation of both criticism and fact. Cabiria does not let the graces and misfortunes she encounters impede her freedom. She continues to “go with the flow” and this is beautifully demonstrated in the many tracking shots of Cabiria walking down roads.
Without presenting any spoilers, I think it is important to know that the theme to Nights of Cabiria is also the closing song and is entitled “And Life Goes On…”