The final scene of Being There (1979) has sparked years of discussion. Is Chance (Peter Sellers) really walking on water? What does it mean? Is he supposed to be a Christ figure? Is his apparent lack of intellect actually the supreme wisdom everyone thinks it is? Who, exactly, is being fooled here?
A number of schools of thought exist on the subject, as is the nature of film. Being There is more than a dark comedy or a satire of American media and social power. It has a philosophy. A man of extreme low intelligence who looks good, dresses in fine suits and speaks in platitudes is mistaken for someone of deep contemplation. He answers questions literally and simply, almost always within the context of gardening, and people endlessly mis-hear him. A Russian diplomat assumes Chance knows Russian because he laughs at a joke. Chance says he can't read, and a man jests about the busy nature of the American working man leaving no time for reading. Not understanding Chance’s limitations, people interpret his statements as metaphors. They take his responses and apply them to the context of the conversation. This is the way Being There makes the viewer think: How does Chance keep managing to say nothing, yet say everything? He doesn’t say what people expect, so his words are taken as profundity.
The film is a game between the characters and the viewer. Watching the film makes us constantly wonder when the universal simplicity of Chance’s words will crack. We expect to see the moment when someone realizes he actually can’t read, or asks him a question that can’t be answered with words of agreement, mention of tree roots, or the simple acknowledgement of “I understand.” Every piece of dialogue is double-layered -- there is the conversation Chance thinks he’s having, and the conversation the other person on-screen thinks they are having. The dual nature of the narrative culminates in Chance being seriously considered for presidential candidacy, followed by the seemingly miraculous moment when he walks atop a pond.
There are three primary schools of thought on Being There’s ending.
1. He is walking on water, but it isn’t a religious symbol.
Chance is actually walking on the water, but the act doesn’t have anything to do with representing him as a Christ figure. Throughout the picture, all of Chance’s actions stem from the honesty of his ignorance. He goes from a gardener to a confidant of billionaires to a presidential advisor to a presidential candidate himself, all without realizing. Chance walks on water at the end because he doesn’t realize he can’t. His entire worldview is established by television. Walking on water is akin to the Road Runner being able to run through a tunnel he’s just painted on a rock face. Chance strolling across the pond is a metaphor of the way he achieved so much throughout the picture simply because he doesn’t understand his limitations. it is symbolic of his lack of restrictions.
As Chance walks atop the water, the eulogy for billionaire Ben (Melvyn Douglas) is given in the background. The speech consists of Ben’s personal quotations and outlooks on existence. The one heard as Chance does the impossible is “life is a state of mind.” This phrase sums up the symbolism -- Chance’s state of mind is almost no state at all. His mind operates in a very different way from regular people, and as a state of mind, his life therefore follows a different set of rules and procedures. To him, walking on water is a possibility because his mind is not influenced by its impossibility. His mental handicap keeps him safe of the existential worries that the smart people in the movie suffer from.
Chance’s experiences reveal the idea that success isn’t about what you know, but who you know, and how you are perceived. Everyone saw Chance as a genius, a poet, an intellect, yet he was none of those things. He’s essentially walking on the unstable watery surface of life throughout the story.
With this interpretation, the scene does come across as truly fantastic -- the only such instance of a supernatural moment in the picture. But its symbolism is to be examined more than the literal implications of the moment.
2. He isn’t actually walking on water.
As a viewer, we can’t see beneath the surface of the pond. This offers the possibility that there is a submerged pier or some other standing apparatus just below the surface. Chance pokes his cane down into the pond and it submerges, but it could be off the structure.
The symbolic weight of the scene could remain in tact if this were the case, as he is still giving the illusion of walking on water just as he has given everyone the illusion that he is a genius economic advisor. Again, the film plays with the notion of perception. We think he's walking on water because that's what it looks like, just as it looked to the Russian as if he knew Russian. As the viewer, we are naturally restrained by our understanding of life and its limitations, and thus, for the first time in the film, see Chance the way all the other characters have. Visual trickery is required for us to be fooled this way since we understand the truth of Chance's mental status.
Critics and analysts like Roger Ebert dismiss this possibility. Ebert wrote, “The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier--a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more.”
3. He is walking on water because he is a Christ figure.
Walking on water immediately draws an unavoidable mental connection to Christ. Knowing this, Ashby had to have understood that interpretation would inevitably be made.
What does such an interpretation say? That anyone is capable of anything, so long as they aren’t sheltered by learned restraints? That all the great philosophies and ideas guiding the world are little more than the ramblings of idiot gardeners? That if Chance can do it, anyone can do it?
Chance as a spiritual being does have a legitimate foundation, though it seems using the Christlike image as a metaphor for someone who is too unusual to actually exist is a more reasonable translation. Religion does not play into the rest of the film, so a sudden religious message would be awkward and would overcomplicate the story’s true simplicity. Yet it is hard to believe that a person, even if they spent their entire life in one house watching television, would be as unintelligent as Chance. He is shown watching a wide variety of programming. Even though it is possible he never had any formal education, one would still imagine he would know more than he does. Three year-olds who haven’t been to school yet have more developed speech and comprehension than Chance often exhibits. His complete lack of influence makes him almost otherworldly -- or, Christlike.
Throughout Being There, we witness smart, successful people view Chance as an intellectual. We wonder how this keeps happening, and question why nobody can see that just because someone dresses the part, looks the part, and hangs out with high society, doesn’t mean they belong. Everything is a challenge to perception. Chance is, in fact, an empty vessel who has learned everything he knows from television, mimicking what he’s seen when the need arises. But when he walks on water, the audience becomes just like the intelligent people he has fooled all along. We watch him do something magnificent, just as his magnificence has been perceived by others.
Whatever conclusion a viewer enjoys, Ashby leaves us with an image that challenges our perceptions of our own lives. It makes us re-think the way we perceive ourselves, and wonder how we’re perceived by others. Chance proves that the two are likely different -- that the way we think of our own existence in the world is not the way others think of us. Life is a state of mind, as we only live within the images of our existences as they are in our heads. To others, we may be an idiot or a genius. It’s all about perception.