Fellini's `Nights Of Cabiria' Is Back, Better Than Ever

Movie review XXXX "Nights of Cabiria," with Giulietta Masina, Francois Perrier, Amedeo Nazzari, Franca Marzi. Directed by Federico Fellini, from a script by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli; additional dialogue by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 117 minutes. Varsity. No rating; includes adult subject matter.

If a movie can't be shown, its reputation dims. For various reasons, "Citizen Kane," "The Rules of the Game" and "Vertigo" all disappeared from public view for years, only to be rediscovered and acclaimed as the best work of their creators.

Something similar has happened this year with the restoration of Federico Fellini's 1957 masterpiece, "Nights of Cabiria," starring the filmmaker's wife, Giulietta Masina, as a trusting Roman streetwalker who has a series of adventures - encounters with fame, religious hysteria, the illusion of romantic commitment - that should cure her of her optimism.

The movie ends with a betrayal, suicidal despair and a moment of grace that has been compared to the sublime finale of Chaplin's "City Lights." Yet it goes beyond even what Chaplin achieved in that moment.

As The Village Voice's J. Hoberman recently wrote: "Fellini has orchestrated a passage that defies synopsis. . . . Watching it is like hearing the sound of a heart break."

In its time, "Cabiria" was one of the most acclaimed and widely shown European movies. Pauline Kael, David Denby, Francois Truffaut and Vincent Canby called it his best work. But while Fellini's other classics became art-house staples, "Cabiria" ended up in distribution limbo for decades.

All that changed this summer with the release of a splendid 35mm restoration of "Cabiria" that includes seven minutes that have not been seen since 1957. The new "Cabiria" had its American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival, and opened to raves in New York last month.

Perhaps the most telling review came from Time Out magazine's Stephan Talty, who wrote: "Whatever you do, don't see `Nights' on the same day you see `Armageddon.' I did, and the chasm between the two is enough to cause permanent spiritual and psychological damage."

Indeed, the contrast between the emotional purity of "Cabiria" and the callousness of "Armageddon" is so extreme that they seem to be the products of different planets, not just different continents.

Fellini and Masina's unique collaboration appears to demolish the wall between life and art, film and audience.

"Whenever I perform in Federico's films," she once said, "the people are very humiliated characters who have suffered. I wish they could defend themselves, and that always brings out a struggle between me and the characters I play. I love and hate them."

Perhaps it's that struggle that makes "Cabiria's" final scene so illuminating, so perplexing, so impossible to duplicate in any form but celluloid.