One of the most significant, as well as most memorable, figures in Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½ remains that of La Saraghina. La Saraghina, an enigmatic yet strangely compelling character, ushers the younger version of the protagonist Guido into the world of adult sexuality. This proves to have lasting consequences on Guido’s psyche, and informs much of what the man does, thinks, and feels in the rest of the film. 8 ½ ‘s “narrative”, non-linear and often allegorical, nevertheless present numerous conflicts that exist within Guido’s head; these conflicts, psychological and psychospiritual, form the spine of the film, providing the necessary dramatic thrust as Guido attempts to reconcile the apparently contradictory and warring aspects of his personality: in particular, the clash between his sexuality and his religious upbringing. The boy Guido’s encounter with Saraghina lies at the heart of this conflict.
The portion of the film dealing directly with La Saraghina begins with the adult Guido, a motion picture director, meeting with a high-ranking Catholic church official, hoping, it seems, to procure the blessing of the Vatican for his new film. During his discussion with the clergyman, which takes place outdoors, Guido spies a woman walking along with the hem of her skirt lifted up, presumably to prevent her from getting it dirty. The woman’s exposed legs – large, fleshy, unphotogenic—foreshadow the appearance of Saraghina. When seeing this, Guido slides the glasses off of his face.
Throughout the film, Guido’s wearing of eyeglasses symbolizes the layer of distance he wishes to keep from the rest of the world. Guido tries to understand the world in the same way a director acts on a movie set. He wishes to observe empirically, to watch, not acknowledging the deep effect that the elements of his life – people, memories –have on him. He attempts to remove himself from his life, to view it more like a film than reality. But when his glasses come off, it means that Guido can no longer deny, in this moment, what goes on in his life. To remove his glasses, then, equates with taking himself down to the level of real life, to embrace the memory presented before him. Suddenly, Fellini cuts to a new scene as Guido’s memories take him back to an incident from his childhood. A whistle blows as Guido looks on at the woman, and soon the viewers find themselves in a different location entirely, as a previously unseen priest blows the whistle during a child’s soccer game.
The flashback sequence contains a distinct sense of unreality, even when compared to the rest of the film, which hardly falls under the category of neorealism. “Guido! Guido! Let’s go see the Saraghina!” chirps a chorus of schoolboys to the young Guido; these mostly faceless little boys are abstracted tempters, somewhat akin to the little devil on someone’s shoulder, leading them away from “the good path,” are epitomized by the priests of the Catholic school Guido attends. An enormous white statue of some kind of saint or martyr looms over the children, a physical manifestation of the all-encompassing presence of the church in Guido’s mind, all the way up through adulthood. Even when his directing career seems critically and financially successful, he still seeks the approval of the church.
While the church might serve as the benevolent, yet domineering and sterile (stony and cold like the statue) God-like father figure, Guido finds himself shown a different way altogether: La Saraghina. Later on in the sequence, the confessor will say as much: “Saraghina is the devil!” Saraghina, indeed, in everything other than her immensity (which corresponds to the level of importance in Guido’s psyche) represents everything that opposes the traditional culture of the Catholic Church. An undeniably and entirely sexual creature, the antithesis of the harsh celibacy of the Church, Saraghina nevertheless plays an equally huge part in forming Guido’s character. Appearance-wise, she dresses all in black—the opposite of the white statue in the courtyard of the school. Her feminine features exaggerate to the point of resembling one of those old clay figures of fertility goddesses. Her breasts and hips, large and wide, go well past what society dictates beautiful woman to look like, yet she inexplicably manages to come off both rather ugly and absolutely sexy. She embodies the dual attraction/revulsion felt by Guido towards sexuality.
Saraghina lives by the sea, a detail that would do us much good to examine. In Fellini’s filmography, the beach serves as the setting for moments of great realization, or at least the opportunity for realization. Zampanó’s breakdown in La Strada, his reflection on his sins and the people he hurt in his life, occurs on a beach. Marcello’s final scene and ultimate rejection of greater transcendence in favor of material gratification occurs on a beach. The shore, where land and earth meet, symbolize the blurring of the boundaries between reality and the life of the mind. Seaside scenes in other Fellini films show the protagonist confronting their fears and desires while simultaneously seeing before them the real world; the shore asks of them, “Will you apply what you think and feel to your actions in the real world?” Some of Fellini’s protagonists seem to answer the question in the affirmative. Others do not. The heart of the ever-present conflict in Fellini’s oeuvre lies in the white sands of the shoreline. 8 ½ continues this pattern.
The aforementioned unreality of this sequence leads the viewer to wonder about what, in fact, happens in this scene. How about Saraghina’s little “performance” for the boys? Does she limit herself to just dancing the rumba for them, or is her “dancing” a visual representation of something far more scandalous, something perhaps that Guido could not deal with literally? It appears that the priests and nuns and Guido’s shamed mother view Saraghina as a “whore,” although they do not say it in so many words. By giving Saraghina their money, do these young boys pay her for a “deflowering?” The distinction ultimately matters little, but the comparison and juxtaposition of the two matter greatly. Sex equates with fun and enjoyment to the young Guido, or alternatively, fun and enjoyment equate to sexuality. Regardless of what actually happened between Guido and the Saraghina on the beach that day, the experience and the subsequent punishment he received had a large impact on his developing nature.
Guido’s walk of shame through the halls of the parochial school brings him past a series of portraits of saints, martyrs, or other impressive clergymen, all male. His “sin” contrasts with the reverence afforded to these symbols of the Church’s holiness. Femininity links to sexuality, which links to sin, which links to punishment, shame, guilt. and damnation. The bizarre, entirely androgynous and asexual nuns of the church blast Guido with cries of “It’s a mortal sin!” and “Shame on you!” Guido’s perceived options in life – either the church-approved way of life, nonerotic, devoid of vitality, but wholesome and the path to heaven; or the way of the Saraghina, carnal, sensual, exhilarating, yet scary and overwhelming, the road to hell—constrict him, and create in him an ever-present sense that his sexuality shames God, but that life without it, devoid of spark and energy, remains his only alternative.
Guido’s mother sits before him, weeping underneath a large portrait of a young boy, looking angelic and saintly: Guido’s idealized potential self; the Guido who existed before his dreaded encounter with the whore Saraghina. Guido’s mother exemplifies the “ideal” female form condoned by the Church. His mother acts as the matriarch, the homemaker, the nurturer; yet he cannot totally get away from seeing his mother as a sexual being after his encounter with La Saraghina. During the cemetery scene, Guido sees a vision of his mother. He goes to embrace her, but the embrace turns into a passionate kiss. Fellini’s camera obscures her face during the kiss. When Guido pulls away, his wife Luisa appears before him, not his mother. Luisa, to Guido, serves the role of the matriarch, the homemaker, the nurturer; just like his mother.
Another significant woman in his life, his mistress Carla, calls to mind Saraghina in her obvious sexuality and more curvaceous body. Both Carla and Luisa descend from the two important women of his burgeoning adolescence. They substitute for the always opposed symbols of womanhood that Guido found imprinted on him as a boy: the Mother and the Whore. Luisa and Carla become new archetypes, evolved versions of the earlier incarnations – the Wife and the Lover respectively. This comes to the foreground during the later “harem” fantasy scene, where Luisa pulls her hair back and wears an apron; very much the model of a traditional homemaker. Guido imagines her doting over him like a loving mother, while Carla, during the same scene, dresses far more provocatively and behaves flirtatiously. In his own fantasy world, Guido attempts to recreate the Mother and the Whore of his past using figures of his present. In the “real world,” Guido does the same; holding screen tests for characters based on Saraghina and Luisa for his next film, trying to bring to life the imagined idealized women he fails to understand in his reality. Even the rumba music that Saraghina dances to reappears in his harem fantasy, as Guido watches the nameless young black woman perform to the same song. Obviously physically attracted to the young woman, Guido still, it seems, associates Saraghina with his sexual urges.
A viewer can watch a portent of the rest of Guido’s sexual life as the scene comes to a close. The boy, despite the way the priests dragged him away, despite the horrid shrieking of the nuns, despite his mother’s hysterical sobbing, despite the sign on his back that reads “vergogna” or “disgrace,” despite the mockery of the other boys, despite the fearful confession with the old priest, still visits Saraghina’s home on the beach. He sees her sitting in a chair by the shoreline, where she sings with a incongruously angelic voice. Perhaps Saraghina cannot merely play the Devil. Even she must possess a little angel inside. Guido waves to her, their black clothes drawing a comparison between the two and a contrast with the stark white sands of the beach. She looks at him and merely says, “Ciao.” Ciao, meaning both “hello” and “goodbye,” reflects that in this moment, on the ridge between dreams and waking life, fantasy and reality, the mind and the body, Guido enters a world of sexual confusion – of both the excitement and the terror – while leaving the world of innocence. Guido does not, until perhaps the very final scene of the film, which also, tellingly, takes place on a beach, ever truly leave that moment; the day when he found himself split between cold white stone of the church and the dark mystery of woman.