Translated from Hungarian by Marie-Josée Sheeks
A man, a girl; between them, a narrow bay foaming with sea water.
The girl, Paola, is shouting something to Marcello. Gesturing in reply, the man — reeling in a blurred stupor from a night of debauchery — indicates that he can’t hear her because of the breaking waves. Her message however is unequivocal: as a viewer, I feel an irresistible urge to immediately hurry across the shallow estuary to her. It seems that proximity would solve his lack of comprehension. The distance is slight, and the apparently ankle-deep water of the little bay could be forded without incurring significant discomfort. Although Marcello cries out, “I don’t understand!”, my impression is that he doesn’t want to understand. Perhaps he is already beyond the point of being able to receive her message to “come here!”
Here? What “here”? What is at the root of the protagonist’s incomprehension and apparent paralysis? To understand, we must first retrace his path throughout the film. The dolce vita, the sweet life, is the downward spiral of the path of self-destruction. Progressing through stages of increasing inertia, Marcello touches on its various aspects, beginning with his love-hate relationship of boundless sensuality and his inability to wrench himself from its digestive clutches, his increasingly corrupt work as a tabloid journalist, and his debonair albeit debased love affair until it dissolves into oblivion. As his self-identity gradually crumbles, by the end of the film he has apparently lost all ability to control his own behaviour, as he scatters his remaining pearls in favour of cheap desires. What unfolds before us is a situation of increasing alienation, decadence and disequilibrium, a confused triumph marching into nothingness, towards complete self-annihilation. Marcello is heading full speed ahead on the wrong motorway; the girl is gently indicating the last possible exit.
Some of the scenes in the movie seem to reflect how our lives always face us with fatal choices between rise and fall. When, for example, Marcello’s aging father figuratively wakes up in the flat of a prostitute after a night of carousing, he proceeds to escape, almost in a panic, to his untainted rural lifestyle, ignoring his son’s perplexed reaction. Another fateful event is when Marcello’s intellectual, erudite, affluent and artistically-minded friend Steiner horrifically murders his family and commits suicide, thereby (notwithstanding his milieu which provides a venue for the lives of mundane divas and divos) shattering his seemingly lofty and refined life, and claiming the originally divine roles of the creator and the destroyer. With his final acts, Steiner not only annuls ex post all that he has done until then — a gentle caress of his child’s cheek, his refined pontifications, his sublime performance on the church organ — but outright sinks them into evil. Everything in the film turns out to be superficial and false not only the outrageously crude and mendacious world of the media, but also the so-called aristocrats who amuse themselves at parties filled with empty babbling, slimy flirtation and dabblings in necromancy (where are indeed the “best” of society?). The refreshingly sober atmosphere of Steiner’s salon, also serving as a reference point for Marcello, turns out to be — even compared to these two other worlds — the greatest sham in the entire film. After the collapse of this ideal, Marcello throws himself into even greater, unprecedented debauchery and decadence, trashing the remaining shreds of his dignity. My hope remained that the first rooster crow of dawn would finally chase the demons away and that Marcello would finally, somehow, be overtaken by self-disgust. Namely, that he would take the initial step by recognizing the untenability of his situation. As François Fénelon [i] wrote:
“As the light grows, we see ourselves to be worse than we thought. We are amazed at our former blindness as we see issuing from our heart a whole swarm of shameful feelings, like filthy reptiles crawling from a hidden cave. But we must be neither amazed nor disturbed. We are not worse than we were; on the contrary, we are better. But while our faults diminish, the light we see them by waxes brighter, and we are filled with horror.”
However, we wait in vain for the reptiles to swarm: a sunrise stroll on the beach brings not clarity, but the ultimate, apparently definitive, descent into darkness. The black, glassy and expressionless eye of the beached stingray “just keeps staring”, as Marcello notes. It seems as though this eye reflects the gaze of the protagonist himself as he sinks into self-destruction, watching his own suffering with detached cruelty, all while gradually losing his own true vision. This is satanic nihilism, just as the eye of the stingray is the eye of Satan. It is no wonder that Judas, the traitor, suffers in the greatest depths of hell. All betrayal is ultimately self-betrayal. Facing the hoi polloi of the “intelligentsia” at their infamous revelry, Marcello even encourages them to continue. He drags his own ideals through the mud right before their eyes, all without even getting his thirty silver pieces in exchange.
Meanwhile, he seems to no longer even notice the light in Paola’s eyes. Her gaze is that of the seer — while seeing everything, it does not judge, and reaches out to Marcello with loving understanding. The latter, in his precipitous downward spiral, might just be capable of perceiving the girl’s gestures in the distance and her cries muffled by the breakers, but not of understanding their meaning and significance. In Paola we see a portrayal of true, ethereal beauty; beauty devoid of the lasciviousness of an overripe fruit whose sweetness is already turning into decay — a flavour which permeates to a greater or lesser extent all of the other female roles in the film. The very antithesis of Paola is the blonde bombshell splashing in the Trevi Fountain: a bundle of lust under a thin veneer, a woman in appearance alone, she is but a soulless bamboletta, her head jerking this way and that, depending on whither the men thronging about her happen to drag her slender waist. Overcome with a fit of romancing on the dance floor, Marcello gushes to her: “What are you? You are everything!” The truth however is that she is nothing, while Paolina — symbolically — is everything.
In the final scene, Paola and Marcello change places: in the light of the gaze of this girl (heretofore a secondary character) Marcello, who has lost his way chasing troublesome impulses, suddenly becomes ancillary to a play that is far beyond him; that is, his sheer irrelevance becomes apparent. She is innocence in the face of decay, love in lovelessness, home in homelessness, loyalty in betrayal, and, ultimately, truth in the face of lies. In her very simplicity, she, the only character in the film who is free from lust, apathy and greed, stands before us, thus virtually taking on the role of a main character in the film’s final frames. Paola’s smile is that of the child, of the “poor in spirit” and of the wise: ultimately resembling that of an angel, before whom Marcello kneels down in the sand. The latter comparison arises particularly when her character, demure and artless, is contrasted with those of the vulgar and debauched revelers. Marcello expresses this himself the first time he meets the girl in a restaurant where she is working as a waitress, when he compares her to one of the angels (angelotto) portrayed on the frescos of Umbrian churches.
What, then, is the opposite of the self-destruction to which Marcello has subjected his life? It is liberation from all that is superfluous and illusory, breaking free from the imprisonment of the phenomenal world, and ultimately, directing oneself towards a genuine self-realization that goes beyond the boundaries of the ego: the possibility of salvation. Paola’s smile is untouched by all the mundane tempests; her warmth radiates as if from far way, from beyond time and space. It is from this perspective of infinity that she gazes, without any sentimentalism or attachment, over the troubled cycles — perhaps eternal, perhaps inevitable — of rising and falling. The Jesuit priest Nazareno Taddei reached a similar conclusion when, in a 1960 review (which earned him a two-year ban from the Catholic Church) published in the periodical Letture, he wrote the following:
“The girl smiles cheerfully at Marcello as he walks away. Would she have smiled at the man’s rejection if her invitation had arisen from personal feelings? As the film ends on a close-up shot of her smiling, Paolina seems to be saying: ‘Truly, I exist independently of you, even if you reject me. As you retreat with your horde, I will always remain here. You walk away, beyond this gulf that divides us, but perhaps as you wander upon your path, you will find me again. I exist’. It is the smile — as well as the tactics, and the reality — of divine mercy.”
We have all had the experience of trying to chase a hapless fly out through the crack of an open window as it desperately, repeatedly flings itself against the glass. However ineffective its efforts, at least they are aimed in the right direction: towards the light. Who indeed has ever seen a fly deliberately head towards the darkest corner of a room? “In the phenomenal world, God is mere concept; in God, the phenomenal world is mere chimera”, writes Sándor Weöres [ii]: Marcello meanwhile seeks to disappear from his own sight (and ultimately, that of God), into a “dark corner” of a tumultuous labyrinth, filled with endless struggle and flirtation with daemons. If Paola is the intermediatrix of a higher level of consciousness and ontological state, then she can no more be “grasped” in the physical sense than the dancing reflections of the sunlight flickering on the water; as an indicator of the source of salvation, she is just as elusive. In the high mountain ranges, she is compass, but not a sherpa. Grace is her guidance. That is, salvation comes not in the form of a rescue proffered by an ‘external force’, but only through the efforts of the Self. None other than myself can climb the mountain. The shallow inlet that separates Marcello from the girl becomes, due to a lack of will, an unbridgeable chasm.
As Meister Eckhart said:
“God is always ready, but we are very unready. God is near us, but we are far from Him. God is within and we are without. God is friendly; we are estranged.”[iii]
Thus Marcello’s final gesture also gains meaning. With his outstretched hands and complicit smile, he seems to be telling her: “we both know I’m a lost cause”. At the same time, his face darkens, as though suddenly shadowed by a passing cloud. He lifts his left hand before his face, as if wanting to bury himself in it, but changes the movement in mid-air to wave a hesitant, negligent goodbye before turning away. Before being definitively swept up in the fray, he looks back one last time. The girl’s smile, however, is imperturbable: instead of a grim pronouncement of a final judgement, it radiates both the light of eternal sight and a warm certainty that they will meet again.
Still, we might recall the lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy, immortalising the parting words of the greedy Ciacco as he roils in the mud of the third circle of hell:
“(…) But to the pleasant world when thou return’st,
Of me make mention, I entreat thee, there.
No more I tell thee, answer thee no more.”
This said, his fixed eyes he turn’d askance,
A little ey’d me, then bent down his head,
And ‘midst his blind companions with it fell.[iv]
[i] The Spiritual Letters of Archbishop Fénelon: Letters to Women. I originally found this passage cited in Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.
[ii] Sándor Weöres — A teljesség felé (‘Towards Wholeness’ — not available in English).
[iii]Meister Eckhart: Selected Sermons, “The Nearness of the Kingdom” https://b-ok.cc/book/1061969/ed2ada?dsource=recommend
[iv] Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto VI (translated by the Rev. H. R. Cary) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8800/8800-h/8800-h.htm