In many cases even today men look to women to escape from their lives. They go to different women because each appeals to the man in different ways. These women are supposed to supply comfort and assurance as well as pleasure for the man. I think this is the route Marcello is taking in his downward spiral. The women that play this role are Emma, Maddalena and Sylvia. Some women influence him more than others, but I think that each woman represents three different time periods in Marcello's life.
Maddalena represents his mistress. He knows of her and eventually after being with her confesses that he loves her. The time period Maddalena represents is the escape period. Marcello knows Maddalena will give him what he wants. When pleasure is involved Maddalena is the one to call on. Her relationship to Marcello is rather different. She meets up with him at a bar and they leave together. They eventually sleep together
and that's it. They see each other briefly throughout the movie. The important part was when Marcello confesses to loving her. She runs off with another man after confessing that she is a whore. The idea here is that Marcello uses Maddalena as an escape. He loses his chance with Sylvia and Emma is in his past. He feels that Maddalena will be with him and he is wrong.
Sylvia represents the new life of Marcello. Sylvia is a representation of a new beginning, a sign of purity in Marcello's life. Marcello feels new and fresh when around Sylvia. Marcello's relationship with her is very brief. They meet at the church for the first time. This is where she first notices him. They go out to a party and he falls in love with her. He cannot fathom her beauty and wishes on her to stay with him. This relationship is based on Marcello's fantasy of a happy life.
Emma represents the old life of Marcello. The life that he regrets and tries to forget. Like all problems they don't go away by forgetting about them. Emma is Marcello's fiancee. She loves him dearly, but she cannot get the same commitment back. This relationship is strange and twisted because one day he is saving her and concerned about her welfare. The next day he leaves her in the road and says he cannot stand her. The third day he is in bed with her cuddling. I think Marcello is confused with life and has no direction. This is a major part of his downward spiral in life.
Marcello's salvation doesn't lie within Maddalena, Sylvia, or Emma for a few good reasons. In Emma's case she is not the salvation simply because she cannot reach Marcello. All through the movie Emma tries to reach Marcello and express her love, he just doesn't care. A prime example is when she tries to kill herself. She received his attention for a half day. He then forgot about her and went on with his life. Emma was hoping to receive some kind of attention after this incident, but received known. Another example would be when she told him off on the deserted road. He kicked her out of the car in a last attempt to win his heart. She failed and the only thing she received was a one night stand.
Maddalena is clearly not the salvation for Marcello because she is a whore. Right at the pivotal time when Marcello gave in to Maddalena and said he loved her she went away with another man. She is distinctly a woman that looks after her own interests. She would not be concerned with saving Marcello.
Sylvia would be the only chance Marcello would have for salvation. She is new in town she is youthful and very beautiful. She could help Marcello start from the beginning and form a new life. This never happens and Sylvia doesn't save him. First, she is married, and she lives in a different country. They say love conquers all, but Sylvia is an entertainer. She has many friends and many people that look up to her. She really isn't a savior because she doesn't recognize Marcello all that much. When they where alone on the top of the church is the first time she really recognizes his existence. Then when they are alone and about to kiss the wolves distract her, and they do not kiss. Lastly, the water fall scene again nature distracts her from kissing him. The point is that if she was so easily distracted by water or a faint sound of a wolf in the background than she must not think to much of him. Also, she has so much going on, she may not have the time to fully recognize what Marcello feels for her. After Marcello loses hope with Sylvia he is hurt and his life once again goes in circles downward till there is almost nothing left of himself to identify with.