Marcello’s Hands: A Picture Worth Exactly A Thousand Words

That’s Marcello Mastroianni.

If I could sum up life in a gesture — this is how I feel all the time.

But what exactly is his gesture saying?

You look at this and likely see something very different than I do. That’s the tricky thing with an image or a text — the viewer/reader/listener is half of the equation. First the creator sees herself in her creation, she presents it to the world, and you the reader/viewer/listener consider it. And then you see yourself, reflected, in what you see, read, or hear. You’re separated by the material like a sheer screen between you; on which you each imaginatively connect to the story, and thereby each side finds meaning in the medium.

Obviously, the director Federico Fellini intended to convey a specific message. He’s expressing himself through Marcello’s hands with this image. But what is he saying?

Well, that depends. Doesn’t it? It depends entirely on what you see on the screen.

Whatever you interpret it to mean is how and why we have relationships with films and novels. Without your unique sense of identification they would all stay lifeless as the words on an insurance actuarial table. A writer gives words order, a filmmaker creates a universe, but without a reader or viewer, their work remains as inconsequential as the deep void of space. No one owns a text or can claim any inherent meaning. Like celestial bodies, they invite interpretations. There are seven billion moons in the sky. We each have one.

Perhaps you know this is a still from La Dolce Vita.

It’s from the final scene of the film. I don’t want to ruin the film for you so I won’t tell you much more than this:

After a party, Marcello has wandered away from the madding crowd. He does that often. A man of warring desires, he vacillates between low and high cultures of Rome’s cafe scene in the early ’60s — a tragically sexy time in world history. Marcello’s caught on the horns of the temptations of his day. At this moment, he sees a beautiful innocent girl at a distance. He’s seen her before. She beckons him. But he can’t hear what’s she’s saying. The sea roars too loudly. The noise of life drowns comprehension. Unable to understand her message, he decides he must stay with himself. His hands convey his inarticulate message.

“Everybody is half-dead. Everybody avoids everybody. All over the place. In most situations. Most of all the time. I know, I’m one of those everybodies. And to me, it is terrible. So all I’m trying to do, all the time, is just open people up so they can feel themselves and let themselves be open to somebody else. That is all. That’s it.”

Nina Simone said that.

I’m one of those everybodies. Most of the time, I avoid everybody. Yet, beyond the immediate selfish impulse to cloister, there is a deeper desire to do the opposite — to connect and be open to others and to myself. I agree with Nina — it’s terrible. And so, I think about Marcello’s hands.

Do you see how they are before him? Pointed up, skyward, spread apart like a broken prayer. I say that because he’s Italian. It’s impossible to divorce Italians from their church.

At the beginning of La Dolce Vita, the film’s director, Federico Fellini opens with the unforgettable image of Jesus hovering over Rome. It’s not the Second Coming. Rather it’s an enormous statue of Jesus, airlifted by helicopter, bound by straps like an airborne crucifixion. Jesus floats over the people of the Eternal City.

Following him in a helicopter of his own, is our man, Marcello. He’s a journalist — well, a tabloid journalist. (His photographer is named Paparazzo. It’s from this movie the term paparazzi was popularized.) As a boy Marcello was a heroic figure to me. His life looked incomparably sexy and filled with adult intrigues. I did not understand it all but wanted to live those scenes I saw.

The image of Marcello never changes. It’s the same now as it was then.

As a teen, I first saw La Dolce Vita. When Marcello throws up his hands, to let the far-away girl know that he can not join her, I related as only a teen can relate. He turned away because he was confused, he couldn’t understand her. Simple as that. Life calls.

Later, after losing out on moments that never come again, I saw something wholly different. Having witnessed more death, after receiving a deeper understanding of the incalculable loss of missed moments and chances, I saw in Marcello’s hands a broken prayer of acceptance of a life without good or evil. Marcello didn’t need a stoney Jesus to serve him salvation. He submitted to life. To conquer one’s ego is a miracle any person can achieve. If only for a moment.

Now, these days, when I see Marcello’s broken prayer hands — I think of Nina Simone.

Everybody is half-dead.

I agree with Nina. It is terrible. And Marcello’s hands are my unholy answer. At the end of La Dolce Vita, the girl calling to Marcello is a symbol of unsullied purity and youth. And unseen, is the fish that Fellini used as a symbol of the Great Evil. For Marcello to reject the innocent girl was to turn towards the symbolism of the corrupt life of adults and the Great Evil — hidden and flourishing among humanity. Heavy shit, no doubt. So, then, why does Marcello choose this? His hands say it all. For me. And for life.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Spread before him, Marcello’s hands suggest a sad acceptance and loss of innocence. Yet, also, they urge me to stay meaningfully open despite the corruption of (adult) life.

Nina Simone warns us that everybody avoids everybody. I’ve heard former alcoholics say fear is the opposite of faith. Marcello’s broken prayer hands, turned away from innocence, symbolically signal his faith in the terror of life. That is all. That’s it.


Zaron Burnett III is an American writer, living in Los Angeles. If you ask him, he’ll tell you, he’s not afraid of spiders. This is true.

You can find him on Twitter.

This originally appeared in Inklings, the digital magazine from Human Parts.

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