Fellini's muse (his wife Masina) plays a prostitute who provides the fulcrum for a set of mini-stories set on the raggged edges of Rome.
Fellini's 1957 movie that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and was adapted as the Broadway musical Sweet Charity (itself filmed, with Shirley MacLaine). This is at once the last of Fellini's early, street-level, simple tales of marginal lives (La Strada, I Vitelloni) and the first of his more fantastical studies of big city absurdity (La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2).
Like La Strada, Cabiria uses the star presence of il maestro's wife (Masina, whose billing is equal with his), casting her as a waif-like hooker. She is introduced on the banks of a river, just as her latest boyfriend has decided to push her in and run off with her purse. She is picked up by a famous film star and taken away to his palatial retreat, but kicked out unnoticed when the star's girlfriend returns.
She joins a procession to a hysterical religious ceremony which does little for her, but is struck by the example (in a scene originally cut on the insistence of the church but restored in this re-released version) of a meek man who wanders the ragged edges of Rome dispensing charity.
The tone of these mini-stories varies from satirical farce through bitter satire to gentle melancholy, but Masina's fragility and Fellini's deft touch smooth over the transitions.
Fellini's genius was just starting to show, and such signature touches as the Nino Rota accordion score are well in evidence, but the film's heart is Masina, whose bursts of anger demonstrate a real sense of the desperation inherent in ageing cuteness.
Fellini contrasts bitter satire with gentle melancholy as his early genius begins to show.