Directed by Federico Fellini, a prostitute has her purse stolen and nearly drowns. Her life goes on, and she becomes interested in religion. A man who likes her innocence asks her to marry him, and she sells her possessions.
Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is running in a field with a man, and they hug. They stop by the river, and she takes her purse and runs away as she falls in the water. A small boy shouts as she flounders in the water. Others are alerted, and some boys jump in and swim to save her. They carry her across the field. Two men try to revive her by holding her upside down. She opens her eyes and sits up, asking where is Giorgio. She calls and looks around for him. She says she is going home and is given her shoes. She falls, and two men pick her up. She makes them let her go and walks off.
She knocks on a door of a block house and calls to Giorgio, but no one answers. She sees Wanda (Franca Marzi) and asks her where Giorgio is. Wanda asks what she wants, and Cabiria goes back to the block house and climbs in a window. Wanda asks how much she had in her purse.
Cabiria decides to stay there, and she quarrels with Wanda who goes out at night. Cabiria does not understand why he robbed her when she gave him everything. She thinks about death. She gathers his silk shirts she gave him and throws them on a fire outside. She walks down the road.
In Rome several prostitutes talk outside and sit in a man’s car. Cabiria arrives in the back of a scooter and gets out. She talks about the Fiat car. She dances, and a young man dances with her. A woman holds up a purse, and Cabiria fights with her. Women separate them, and Cabiria gets in the car. A man drives off with her and another woman. Cabiria says where she wants to go. The man suggests she go with him instead. She is dropped off and sees two other women walking there.
Later Cabiria is nearly hit by a car and yells. A hotel doorman sees her dancing, and she talks with him. He tells her to go away. The pretty blonde Jessy (Dorian Gray) comes out and bumps her. Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari) follows Jessy to a car. She asks him for the keys, and he gets in too. She gets out, and he stops her from leaving. She slaps him, and he slaps her back. She walks off and calls him a louse. He says it is over. Alberto gets in the car and sees Cabiria. He tells her to get in the car, and she does. He drives to a night club and tells her to get out. He suggests they have some fun and goes inside. She follows him in.
Two African women are dancing. Cabiria checks her umbrella and has trouble getting through a curtain. She sits at the bar near Alberto who is drinking. A young man comes in and talks with him, introducing Monica. The man says the Americans gave him a screen test. The entertainers recognize Alberto. Monica invites him to join their table, but he declines and dances the mambo with Cabiria. He stops and watches her move, and they dance together. He says that is enough and walks out. She follows him to his car, and he suggests they get some supper. She shouts at two streetwalkers as they drive off.
They enter a fancy inn, and he orders supper for two in his room. He tells a servant if Jessy calls, he is asleep. He learns Cabiria’s name, and she follows him upstairs. He has a large closet and puts on a robe. He lies down on a bed and summons her. She sits across the room, and he listens to Beethoven’s fifth symphony. She does not like it. A waiter brings a cart of food and leaves it. He offers her caviar and lobster but is not hungry. She takes off her fur and notices her blouse is torn. He asks where she lives, and she says where she works. She has her own house and has only slept under an arch once or twice. He stops the music and urges her to eat. She says she knows who he is and likes his movies. She says he and his house are nice. He pours champagne, and they toast as she sits on the bed by him. She starts to cry, and he asks what is wrong. She says they won’t believe it, and she would like his picture. He signs a photo for her while she takes a piece of chicken. She asks what the lobster is. He answers the phone and realizes that Jessy is coming up. He locks the door. He has Cabiria hide in another room and then opens the door. Jessy comes in, and he says he is working and is tired. She sits on the bed and starts crying. He does not like her jealousy and wants to call it quits. He tells her to get some sleep and call him tomorrow. She embraces him, and he kisses her passionately. She is afraid he no longer loves her. He says they could be together every day and kisses her. Cabiria sees this through a keyhole.
Cabiria is sitting on the floor with a puppy and wakes up. She looks out the window, and Alberto invites her to walk quietly through the other room. She sees Jessy asleep in the bed and goes out. He gives her money, and she leaves.
Street-walkers kid Cabiria about Alberto. They discuss the Madonna and miracles and consider going to see her. Wanda knows what she will ask for, and Cabiria asks what. The religious procession walks by on the street singing. Cabiria follows them, and a truck driver offers her a ride which she accepts.
Cabiria is walking at night. A man stops his car and gets out. He shines a flashlight at her and asks if she lives in the caves too. She says she has a house. He calls down a hole and gives a blanket to a poor man. Cabiria asks who he is who gave charity. In the morning she follows him and asks for a lift. He says later and carries his pack to give to others. Cabiria recognizes Bomba. The man calls her Elsa and gives her food. She asks when he will be back.
Cabiria is riding in the car with the man who says he does not do enough. He finds them easier at night. He takes her to her tram and asks how far away she lives. She gives him her full name and says she lives on the road to Ostia. Her parents died when she was little. He advises her to get some sleep. She gets out and thanks him.
Buses and cars arrive for a religious festival. Cabiria gets out of a car with Wanda. A man with crutches buys them long candles. People walk toward the shrine where some go on their knees. Wanda and Cabiria light their candles. Wanda says she may ask for a villa. Wanda tells Cabiria what to say in her confession. The man with the crutch is helped by his nephew.
In the church they hear a priest preaching. People sing and then shout their requests. Cabiria tells Wanda she feels strange. They kneel down. One at a time they pass by a picture of the Madonna. Cabiria asks for her grace to change her life.
Outside people are eating, and Wanda offers Cabiria a drink. Cabiria says no one has changed. She says she will sell her house and everything. She sees some young nuns and shouts at them. Wanda thinks she is drunk.
At night Cabiria goes to a magic show. A man in the audience volunteers and goes on stage. Cabiria declines, but many persuade her to go on stage. The man seems to be hypnotized and obeys the wizard (Aldo Silvani). The men who acted as if they were in a boat leave the stage, and the wizard tells Cabiria to stay. He asks where she lives. He says she would like to be married, and he knows a nice man who would marry her. He asks what work she does. She says she is fine as she is. She says she has a house. He introduces her to Oscar as she closes her eyes. The wizard puts a wreath of flowers on her head and says he will leave them alone. The wizard narrates what is happening. She picks a flower and dances with the imaginary Oscar. The wizard speaks as Oscar, and she converses with him. She asks if he loves her, and the wizard ends the spell. She falls down, and he helps her up. The audience cheers, and she asks what he made her do.
Cabiria leaves the theater after everyone has gone. A man in a suit has waited to meet her. He sympathizes with her. He says purity awakens the best in us, and he thanks her. He puts on an overcoat. She hears whistling, and he warns her about experiments with magnetism. She says she felt strange. He suggests a Fernet and has her sit at a café. He says he suffered tonight but liked her modest answer. A waiter brings the drinks. She drinks it down and asks what she did. He says it was a delicate love scene that affected him deep inside. She went to mass with her mother. He pays for the drinks, and they leave. He talks about fate. She asks what he wants from her, and he says his name is Oscar D’Onofrio (François Périer). She says that could be a coincidence. He wants to see her again, but she says she is tired. He asks when they could meet again, but she says she is busy as a salesgirl. She sees a bus coming and says goodbye. He asks her to meet him on Sunday at seven. He kisses her hand, and she gets on the bus. He waves goodbye.
Oscar is waiting in a crowded place, and Cabiria sees him. When he sees her, she tries to walk away. He apologizes for keeping her waiting and gives her a bouquet.
At night Cabiria tells Wanda and others about Oscar and how they went to a movie. She says he likes to talk with her and is good-looking. Then they had a pizza. She is meeting him again tomorrow. Wanda says cops are coming, and the women run away and hide.
Cabiria gets off a bus and is met by Oscar who hands her two gifts. They walk and talk. He says his parents died when he was a child. He describes them and his home. He was poor and looked for work.
Cabiria is lying on a bed, gets up, and goes outside her house. She talks with a friar who says everyone should be in God’s grace. She says she went to the Madonna. He asks if she is married. He gives her a picture of San Francesco.
At night Cabiria stands in the rain under an umbrella. A man stops his car and calls to her but drives off.
Cabiria and Oscar are holding hands as they walk. She is not sure we wants to go on seeing him. She wants to know what he wants to do with her, and he says he wants to marry her. He did not have the courage to ask her. She says they have only seen each other ten times, and that is not how it is done. She takes a drink of water. He says he knows her inner self and has no prejudices. He needs her, and they should stick together.
Cabiria runs and calls to Wanda, saying she is getting married in two weeks. She is selling everything. She says he is an angel and did not want to know anything about her.
Cabiria goes to a monastery and asks to see Father Giovanni and says she will wait.
Wanda asks Cabiria about what she is packing. Cabiria says she sold the dishes. She does not want to take her fur. She takes a picture off the wall and closes her suitcase. She looks outside and sees the poor family that bought the house. She gives the man the key and walks away with Wanda. She tells neighbors she is getting married.
They wait, and Wanda starts crying. The bus stops, and Cabiria says she will write to her. They embrace, and Cabiria gets on the bus.
Cabiria is dining with Oscar who has dark glasses, and he pays the check. He pours more wine, and she says he wants to get her drunk. She has a pile of money that she calls her dowry. She puts the bundle in her purse. She thinks about what she went through to get that money and starts crying. He takes off the glasses and suggests they go. She asks where they are going, and he suggests they take a walk. He says they can get her suitcases later.
They hold hands as they walk in the woods. She stops and kisses him. They walk on as she picks flowers. She asks if he is sad because he stopped singing. He suggests they watch the sunset.
They stand on a cliff and look at the view. She says there is justice in the world because after suffering happiness can come. She asks about boats and says she almost drowned once. She looks in his eyes and asks what is wrong. She backs away and asks if he wants to kill her. She demands that he say something, but he is silent. She suspects it is for the money. She offers her purse and drops it. She kneels down and prays that he kill her because she does not want to live anymore. He grabs her and tells her to shut up, denying that he wants to hurt her. He picks up her purse and runs off as she shouts while lying on the ground. After a while she picks up the flowers.
At night Cabiria walks slowly through the woods and on the road. Young people are playing music as they walk. They smile at her, and gradually she smiles too.
This sensitive drama portrays the difficult life of a prostitute in Rome and how men can take advantage of them. The innocence and inner joy of Cabiria despite her circumstances enables her to undergo ill treatment and still maintain a positive attitude about life.