"Hey, Shorty," the truck driver calls to Cabiria on the dingy videotape of "Nights of Cabiria," Federico Fellini's 1957 masterpiece about the ruin of an altogether winning but hopelessly naive prostitute in Rome. Another night, another assignation on the Passeggiata Archeologica, a hookers' staging ground near the Baths of Caracalla.
Cabiria, portrayed with Chaplinesque gusto by the spectacularly expressive Giulietta Masina, scrambles into the truck and it departs. Dissolve to daytime. Cabiria watches the approach of a religious procession.But that's not at all what Fellini intended. In a critical seven-minute scene of the film as originally made, Cabiria finds herself dumped by the truck driver in the middle of the night on the outskirts of the city. ("And he calls this a short cut," she calls out to nobody.) There she meets a mysterious figure who trods through poverty-stricken precincts dispensing food to the destitute from a bag on his back.
By the time the film was released, this scene had been cut. The reason isn't documented, but Fellini, who died in 1993 at the age of 73, and his biographers blame the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican had various objections to the movie, particularly its depiction of priests as venal dispensers of hokum.
As for "the man with the sack," as the eliminated scene is referred to by scholars and film buffs, it may have been believed that the church was made to look remiss in its responsibility to take care of the homeless.
Whatever the machinations behind the scene's disappearance, in July, when a cleaned and restored "Nights of Cabiria" is to open in theaters in New York and other cities, the man with the sack will be back in place and accompanied by revised subtitles that add nuance and texture throughout the entire film.
For lovers of old movies and the restorers of same, a revived "Nights of Cabiria" is another battle won. It doesn't happen often, but in an age of cookie-cutter fare at the multiplex, a few great refugees from the movie palaces are finding their way back to the big screen.
The trend began several years ago with renovations of films like "Lawrence of Arabia," "Spartacus," "My Fair Lady" and "Vertigo," all of them big productions given major overhauls by Hollywood studios.
Of an artier nature and different kind of provenance, "Nights of Cabiria" lands just as solidly in the genre of classics revived. In the public domain for years, the film was picked up by Canal Plus, the giant French television and film company, which is carrying out the restoration in Rome.
In the United States, the film's theater distribution is being managed by Rialto Pictures, a New York company that puts together revivals of old films, most recently Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt."
With the help of an Italian interpreter, Rialto is also redoing the subtitling. "I know what should be revived and `Cabiria' was always at the top of the list," said Bruce Goldstein, the company's president. "Certain films are of their time. This one epitomizes the age of the European auteur, the great golden age of the art film."
Rialto, Goldstein said, is only interested in theater runs. But studios obviously undertake restorations with an eye to residual revenues from video and television. Of course, not every old movie is worth a restoration, which sometimes adds up to around $2 million. And one should be careful with the term restoration to begin with.
Sometimes so-called restored films are improved but imperfect prints made from other imperfect prints. In a true restoration, the work begins with original negatives.
Video editions of classic films are most prone to mislabeling, but now and then a video ranks as a true restoration. For example, last month Paramount released a 45th-anniversary video edition of "Shane," George Stevens' classic 1953 Western.