Fellini and Forgiveness
February 26, 2020
I “watched” a movie yesterday:I Vitelloni by Federico Fellini. I’m obliged to put “watched” in quotes here because watching is a strong word to describe what happens when a movie in a language you don’t speak plays on a screen behind you. Without actively looking up from what I was working on to read the subtitles — in my case a twice-hourly occurrence — it’s hard to write an actual review of the movie, as I’m certain there are many major and minor details that escaped me.
My impression was that most of the movie revolved around the character Fausto and his wife Sandra, both naive in their own ways. Fausto seemed oblivious to the consequences of his womanizing, while Sandra appeared hopelessly fixated on a vision of marital fulfillment that never materialized.
Again, this perception is limited by my inattentiveness, almost to the point where it doesn’t merit putting in writing against the possibility that my thoughts are way off the mark. However, as part of my attempt at building atomic habits, I’ve resolved to write something on every day I’m able to, so here we are.
However, I was particularly struck by the movie’s ending. Sandra, after spending the whole movie ignorant of Fausto’s escapades despite her brother having perfect knowledge of them, is devastated to learn the truth. She flees the house she shares with Fausto in a rush, and we spend much of the movie’s remainder following the estranged husband as he searches the countryside for her. At multiple points, particularly given Sandra’s well-established reliance on Fausto, it is strongly implied that she has cast herself into the sea. Eventually, however, he finds her at her father’s house (why this wasn’t the first place he checked is beyond me), and the two are reunited in harmony after a few strong words and stronger belt lashes from the in-laws. We leave them planning their new future together as they stroll down a wind-swept beach.
To me, the punishment did not match the gravity of the offense, though that says as much about me as it does about the movie. I couldn’t help but think that many modern-day directors would have had Sandra do something irreversible at that moment, something that couldn’t be walked off with a shrug and a smile. Was the moral of the movie that infidelity is alright so long as you express remorse when caught?
It’s not as if Fellini would have been breaking new narrative ground by this move. Fatal romantically-linked decisions have been around since at least Romeo and Juliet. And it’s also not as if the movie, produced as it was in Italy in the wake of World War II, had any reason to be overly sentimental. So why let Fausto off so easily?
My knee-jerk reaction was that this choice was a product of the hyper-masculinity that defined the age. While perhaps true, I don’t think this is the whole story, and my thinking eventually brought me to the topic of forgiveness. My belief is that the movie forgives Fausto just as Sandra does, and asks us as viewers to do the same. I’m also of the belief that “to know all is to forgive all”. In essence, if we were to fully know the subjective experience of everybody who’s wronged us in the past, the theory goes that we would understand why they did what they did and would no longer hold it against them.
What’s striking to me is that, as our 2020 selves are armed with more knowledge than any society before us, our tendency is to forgive less. I might be biased here in that I recently finished watching the latest Democratic debate, the better part of which was spent excoriating each other over alleged missteps from decades ago. But it seems to me as if gaining more knowledge about the world should give us a better perspective to know why others act as they do and to accept them as themselves accordingly — and yet that doesn’t seem to happen. Why is that? Why can I not accept Fausto’s change of heart as genuine unless he suffers irrevocable consequences first?
The best explanation I can give is that, even at our best, is is hard to fathom just how far we are from knowing all. Perhaps there’s a time, after we’ve discovered the crime and before we’ve discovered the mind and motives of the criminal, where we are simply incapable of forgiveness. Perhaps here is where the facts demand we act — or, barring that, that we withhold our mercy until time allows us to forget if not forgive.
Before I leave the topic, one last incident comes to mind. The way in which the parishioners of Emanuel Episcopal Church were able to look their murderer in the eye and forgive him, not a month after the time of the atrocity, has always struck me as one of the boldest expressions of the human spirit that I’ve ever heard of. If it were me in that same situation, I’m virtually certain that my reaction would not have been so noble. I believe in my heart of hearts that to know all is to forgive all. However, alongside that belief stands another: ignorance is bliss.