The Greatest Movie of All Time: Ethan Putterman on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria


What is the greatest movie in history? Taxi Driver? Star Wars? The Godfather? The Searchers? The question begs a sparkling list of Oscar winners that film reviewers on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes rank among the very best.

Of little dispute, you will find Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull or, among the devout of film aficionados, masterpieces such as Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief.

Yet this necessarily begs the question, what movie do Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg themselves regard as number one? Although none agree, what all do agree is that Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) is top five or, top ten best of all time.

Last year discussing the Italian director in a self-penned essay in Harpers, Scorsese remarks, “You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.”

And few go such a long way at defining cinema as 8½ and La Dolce Vita – or Nights of Cabiria, for that matter. Unlike his most celebrated films though, Nights of Cabiria is less a redefining of art than a commentary on humanity.

According to Ethan Putterman, former professor at the National University of Singapore, who has taught a plethora of the great director’s movies for years, in courses on existentialism and twentieth century culture and politics, they’ve all got it wrong.

“Without a doubt, the greatest movie of all time is Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Period. Full Stop. It is the most overlooked and underrated movie of the past hundred years, and the sole film that belongs in a time capsule for the next hundred.”

According to Putterman, Fellini’s 1957 classic, the Italian director’s second after La Strada (1954) and also starring his wife, Giulietta Masina, captures the essence of the human condition in a way that no other film ever has.

“There are great movies yet few so revealing about our deepest longings, the overwhelming odds of human beings to be happy in the world.”

Winner of Best International Feature at the Academy Awards in 1958, it is the story of an scrappy prostitute struggling to survive Rome’s streets in the postwar years, played with great comic effect by Masina. Praised as “a little Chaplin,” by an early reviewer, Nights of Cabiria is “often mistaken for a comedy” and subpar to later films, such as 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, according to Putterman.

“Assuming Fellini framed each shot carefully, and drafted the whole of the storyline, than it is a commentary upon the world like nothing else.”

Banned by the Catholic Church and dense with symbolism, “it has everything of value and worth in the world telescoped into a ninety-minute piece of celluloid: humanity, barbarism, faith, redemption and even resurrection. Imagine the depth of Bob Dylan’s greatest song, and that’s what Fellini delivers to the screen.”

The movie begins with Cabiria being brought back to life from the dead and it ends with Cabiria resurrected a second time. “Any mention of God is drowned out by airplanes or put into the mouths of prostitutes and lay preachers.” There’s even a hypnotist with devil’s horns played by Aldo Silvani and a prostitute called ‘La Bomba’ who lives in a cave. Filmed after the Allied bombings and before the rebuilding of Rome under the Marshall Plan, the run-down, poverty-stricken streets of the film are not filmsets but real areas around the Acilia, Castel Gandolfo, Cinecittà, Porta Maggiore and Tiber River.

For those who’ve seen the movie, the most memorable part of all is the heartrending ending, one of the great examples of Italian realism in the 1940s. Having survived attempted murder (at the start), beatings and robbery, nothing is able to crush Cabiria’s spirit; strength of will against impossible odds.

Surviving the worst experiences life has to offer, she is surrounded by children in party hats on bicycles playing music, dancing and spinning is circles. “We’re getting lost and we can’t find our way home,” shouts one of the children joyfully.

“Yet again, they’ve got it all wrong,” according to Putterman, “it is rich with symbolism as it breaks the fourth wall at the end.” Notably, during an interview in the 1950’s, Fellini said eighty percent of life is spent in imagination, daydreaming and sleep with just a small fraction left for rational thought.

“Although we change, the human condition doesn’t, and it’s why Fellini speaks to us today. What we need to see, feel, and hear is everywhere in Nights of Cabiria, and it is why it’s absence in the pantheon among the greatest films of all time is a loss to humanity itself. ”

Knowing the depth of the director’s mind, the intensity of his brilliance, nobody should just watch it as realist filmmaking.” Although sharing a lot with contemporaries, like Vittorio de Sica, Fellini is in his own category, always.

Later remade into a Bob Fosse musical, Sweet Charity (1969), starring Shirley MacLaine, a classic in its own right, Putterman believes the spotlight disappeared on the original as European and American moviemaking turned grittier and glossier. “Fellini moved on and so did Hollywood.”

With the death of the video stores, it is difficult to find Nights of Cabiria in the original Italian with subtitles. “The dubbed version destroys everything, and is distracting, so don’t bother with Amazon Prime,” says Putterman.

The effort to locate a print with subtitles will make all the difference even if you must see it at a film festival as he did in New York City a decade ago. “The only movie I ever saw that got a standing ovation afterward, and it was made half a century ago.”

So, is it really the greatest movie of all time? Such an elevated status is hard to claim by any film, and certainly any work of art shot in black-and-white a half century ago.

“It’s like a Dylan tune at the songwriter’s pinnacle, or Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby,” says Putterman, “it’s that great.”

Produced by Dino de Laurentiis, the 1957 original by Rialto Pictures is distributed by Canal Films.

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