There is nothing good about this film…. which is why it is so brilliant. There is no protagonist nor antagonist. Just lost people in a confusing world searching for purpose. It astounds me how much sympathy I felt for each character as they embodied the lost people that wander this world. To name a few:
Sylvia, bless her heart, was innocent and childlike, but quite stupid and rather sleazy, and her beauty showed to be her curse. Everybody imposed their concept of who she was and who they wanted her to be, especially Marcello who said something along the lines of “you are a lady, mother, lover, and house.” To which she ignored as it meant nothing to her. They see her as somebody with so much depth and whimsy, when in reality, she only welcomed the attention because that was her form of fulfillment. Her boyfriend was much more aware of this as he became more and more frustrated by how infatuated people became with something that wasn’t even there.
Maddalena was a bitter woman, for what we will never know. She was self-deprecating and destructive because she viewed herself as such a low person, which is maybe why she kept Marcello around. She refused to pursue what she loves because she was punishing herself for whatever reason. She refused to be serious because she was afraid to look at herself seriously because she was fully aware of how lost and broken she was.
Steiner reminded me a lot of the great Charles Foster Kane, except he was much better at managing his discontent life. In retrospect, his character was quite puzzling to me. Maybe it was Fellini’s way of saying even fulfillment can’t fulfill. That achieved perfection leaves nothing left to fight for. Though it disgusted me that he would be so selfish to take his children’s life and leave his wife widowed and depressed. He was a sicko. He should have just taken up a hobby.
Emma I related to the most. She was so disillusioned with how she wanted things to be that she believed her own lies and fantasies, which is why she kept coming back to Marcello. She searched for redemption and change in fantasy, divination, and her own twisted view of the future. Because the truth was much more painful than lying to herself that everything could be fixed. She never learned that, I myself had to learn, you can’t change anybody but yourself. Thinking you can will only subject yourself to even more pain from the people you are keeping around and enabling. I wanted to hug and hold her everytime she came on camera.
Rubini, Sr. was a lot like what his son was in the end: a man injecting himself with short-term fulfillment only to become empty again. But while this was ultimately Marcello’s reality, this was only his father’s escape from reality. He was happy to see his son, happy to party with him, happy to get drunk and shag some hot tail, until he came to the realization that him and his son’s relationship would never be anything deeper and that he had to return home. Of course he had obvious signs of mental disease, but to me, his relationship with his son was the biggest influence to his son’s demise in the end. Restitution with his father was something he would never have fulfilled.
And lastly, there is Marcello. Ah, Marcello. His job in itself yearns for synthetic fulfillment. But Marcello was a dog and a coward. He came into contact with all the emptiness mentioned above with his expressionless sentiment and disregard that only further damaged those around him. He was a lone wanderer veneered in privilege and beauty, constantly seeking for purpose and ways to fix his life. His quest initially may have been pure but it was thwarted by the influence of the victimized souls around him. He was smart; he knew he could seek fulfillment by his true passion which was writing and poetry, but Steiner’s death, in my opinion, pushed him over the edge until he came to the conclusion that fulfillment is like meter that you fill up until it decays in a small, given time. Like the ray on the beach, his eyes are wide open but he is truly dead. The only thing that will fuel him until the day he dies is the constant and temporary pleasure like the party at the end of the film. He is the greatest tragedy.
So yes, this film may have profound imagery and extended metaphors and symbolism, but the thing I drew away from it is that everyone in this world is or will be lost at some point. Its supposed to be disturbing because its an examination of ourselves, and no one wants to think bad of themselves. I only wish Fellini offered some sort of redemption for the character’s in the end, but alas, then it wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is now. He leaves us unsettled so he doesn’t decide our fate for us. He leaves it at a question: how are you going to fulfill your life?