I was completely blown away by this movie. It's absolutely stunning.
The film is sort of a series of vignettes, the misadventures of Cabiria the plucky prostitute. It's not a hooker with a heart of gold story, nor is it a courageous underdog making it (or failing to...) against all the odds kind of tale, though it has some elements of such storylines. But the story isn't really the point - it is more like a side effect that arises from the circumstances. It's as if the camera was following Cabiria, the protagonist, because there was nothing better to do, or rather, because her face is so fascinating that one can't help but be mesmerized.
And this is really the essence of this film - Cabiria, played by Giulletta Masina, is absolutely riveting. The woman has the most incredible face I have ever seen in my life. I could stare at it for hours. She can express more depth of emotion just by moving her eyebrow ever so slightly than 1,000 monkeys making emo records could ever dream of. The action of the film is not the events that happen in it, but rather, the play of emotions across that exquisite visage. It's incredible. The final shot is absolutely transcendent.
The film is carried entirely by her person. She sets the tone of the film in a really remarkable way. It's remarkable, in that the events portrayed are actually pretty depressing - Cabiria gets a raw deal, a lot. And yet it's not a depressing movie, partly because of the lovingly humor with which she's portrayed, with moments verging on slapstick. Although there are some rather devastating moments, ultimately, I think the movie has an uplifting effect. I see it as a sort of triumphant celebration of human spirit. This sounds incredibly cheesy, and it would be, if the film were explicit about it, or tried to convey this by valorizing some kind of epic character. But here, it's a film about a very marginal character, a kind of anti-hero, who is not valorized with grandiloquent dialogue or lofty action. All the camera really does is pay attention to her. And in this most humble setting, this unnameable quality that I want to call spirit, or humanity, or something like that, shines forth, needing no ornamentation. It's absolutely sublime.