The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: September 2 - 9, 1999

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Dream lover

Marcello Mastroianni at the MFA

by Chris Fujiwara

He was worshipped as the ultimate Latin lover. Yet the qualities Marcello Mastroianni most consistently projected in his films were weakness, weariness, sadness, and uncertainty -- all of which suggest an ambivalence well outside the usual stereotypes of male sexuality. The MFA's upcoming series of 19 Mastroianni films, many of which are rarely screened, reveals that one of the suavest of stars was, above all, a master of various shades of debility.

In Too Bad She's Bad (Peccato che sia una canaglia, 1954; screens September 9 at 8 p.m.), Mastroianni as a Roman taxi driver plays straight man to Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica, a lovable daughter-and-father pair of thieves. Already in this film from the early stage of his career (Mastroianni started in films in 1947, in Riccardo Freda's adaptation of Les misérables), a crucial aspect of the mature Mastroianni persona is apparent: his subservience to a woman, a condition to which, for all his protests, he submits willingly, if unconsciously. About the rest of the film there's little to say; directed by the prolific Alessandro Blasetti, it's a pleasant example of the medium-level Italian comedy of the '50s.

Three years later, the masochism latent in Mastroianni came to the surface in Luchino Visconti's White Nights (Le notti bianchi, 1957; September 10 at 8 p.m.). Based on the same Dostoyevsky novella that Robert Bresson later filmed as Four Nights of a Dreamer, White Nights casts Mastroianni as a lonely dreamer who falls desperately for a mysterious, equally solitary girl (Maria Schell) whose life is dedicated to waiting for the return of her lost first love. The theatricality of the sets (with El Greco skies and de Chirico industrial cityscapes for backdrops), the painterly light, and Nino Rota's pointillistic score create a completely rarefied experience. As always in Visconti, a certain studiedness in the artistic effects causes us to keep the film at a distance, to distrust it. In his successful films -- and White Nights is one of them -- there's a complementary emotional pull into the world of the film.

Much of this pull comes from Mastroianni. His spontaneity and willingness to act with his whole body (he even does a great Jerry Lewis dance routine to Bill Haley's "Thirteen Women" in a juke joint) contrast with the shining expressiveness of Schell, an old-school movie diva who has one faucet for spirituality and one for girlishness. Mastroianni has just the self-abnegation, subtlety, and likability needed to keep life from draining out of Visconti's fastidious, lingering compositions (the actor would use the same qualities to elevate a much draggier Visconti, 1967's The Stranger, which is not in the MFA series).

la dolce vita Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (1960; September 18 at 2:45 p.m.) made a big impression on contemporary audiences with its depiction of amoral high life, and it made Mastroianni, at 36, a star worldwide for his portrayal of a journalist who eventually renounces his aspirations toward a principled existence. The film has 50 good minutes, the first 50, setting up the Mastroianni character's discontinuous, women-laden life and detailing his bemused courtship of an easily distracted Anita Ekberg (as in Too Bad She's Bad, Mastroianni's the straight man to a woman with a very large bust). These early sequences also set up the film's most striking effects, like the way the sci-fi organ and woodwinds in Rota's score accord with the play of light on metal and glass in the photogenic Roman night. After that, we're trapped in two hours of near-constant boredom pulled together, if at all, only by Mastroianni's humor and his ability to suggest that he's not quite complicit in the film's predictable critique of modernity.

If the womanizing of the hero of La dolce vita suggests a secret lack, the condition of Mastroianni's next character, Il bell'Antonio (1960; October 10 at 3:30 p.m.), makes the lack explicit. Antonio is a reputed ladykiller and the son of a decaying Sicilian macho (a haywire performance by Pierre Brasseur, Europe's answer to Lee J. Cobb). After the collapse of Antonio's unconsummated marriage with a beautiful rich girl (Claudia Cardinale), it transpires that he's impotent with women he loves and can function sexually only with women he doesn't respect. Directed by Mauro Bolognini and co-written by Pier Paolo Pasolini, this dark film is a Sicilian horror story clotted with a sick aura of hypervirility. The theme of impotence is logical and inevitable for Mastroianni, just as the aestheticization so often apparent in his acting finds its ideal image in the incredible final shot of his face turning to stone.

The troubled fatigue the actor projected for Fellini and Bolognini took on the distinctive tonality of another director, Michelangelo Antonioni, in the magnificent La notte (1961; September 16 at 8 p.m.). Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau play a successful novelist and his wife. Over the course of a visit to a dying friend in the hospital, an afternoon spent by Moreau drifting around Milan while her husband rests at home, a stop at a nightclub, and a night at a lavish party at a villa where he becomes infatuated with the host's daughter (Monica Vitti), the two come to terms -- sort of -- with the realization that their marriage is in trouble.

The second in Antonioni's "trilogy" of black-and-white films featuring Vitti (between L'avventura and L'eclisse), La notte is the most underestimated. It has some of Antonioni's subtlest, most intricate work -- the detailing of Moreau's excursion, the puzzle-like mise-en-scène of the villa -- and it has his most moving portrait of a couple on the verge of disaster. The edgy, stubbornly alert Moreau always seems to be waiting for something to happen, or trying to make something happen while Mastroianni -- the classic Antonioni male -- is all passivity, polish, and refinement thinly covering over a lack of faith in himself. The stars do some of their best acting with their backs to the camera: the most characteristic effects in Antonioni films have to do less with facial expressions than with geometry.

It wasn't all high seriousness in Mastroianni's early-'60s films, though he managed to infect even the lightest of them with panic, bewilderment, and doubt. Divorce -- Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana, 1961; October 2 at 3:45 p.m.) says that in southern Italy, you can't get a divorce, but if you catch your wife with another man and kill her, you stand a good chance of getting off with a light sentence. This becomes the premise of a plan by a nobleman (Mastroianni) to fix up his wife (Daniela Rocca) with a lover so that he can kill her and marry his 16-year-old cousin (Stefania Sandrelli).

Mastroianni's performance is a funny parody that offers sleaze in two flavors: appearing mostly as a languid, rather effeminate dandy with slicked-back hair, a stupid moustache, and a mouth twitch, he also emerges from time to time in full Latin-lover flower, with curly hair and an insane gleam in his eye. A big hit in America, perhaps because it let audiences revel in the patriarchal attitudes that it seemed to criticize, Pietro Germi's sour farce helped launch a series of bad comedies that, though Italian in origin, seemed aimed at an American audience. Mastroianni was in several of them, including Vittorio de Sica's shockingly empty Marriage -- Italian Style (Matrimonio all'italiana], 1964; September 11 at 3:30 p.m. and September 15 at 7:45 p.m.).

Mastroianni gave one of his defining performances in Fellini's 8-1/2 (1963; September 24 at 7:45 p.m.) as Fellini's alter ego, a director unable to start his next film. 8-1/2 has been loved, analyzed, and belittled so much, and has influenced so many films, that one must be, or pretend to be, insanely naive to contemplate adding to or detracting from its luster. Let me just suggest that without Mastroianni's elusive, spoiled-child air, which absolutely commands one's affection, and without his ability to show a person thinking, imagining, and anticipating, the fantasy/reality circus of 8-1/2 would be much more oppressive than it is. Also, one of the advantages of Fellini's frequent recourse to "subjective" shots, in which people look at and address us in place of Mastroianni, is that keeping the actor off screen prevents his charm from becoming cloying, as it often threatens to do during this highly star-centered film.

Ginger & Fred As he aged into his 50s and beyond, Mastroianni, less burdened with the expectations placed on stars, permitted himself an interesting range of outcasts and cranks. He was a gay man in Fascist Italy in Ettore Scola's delicate A Special Day (Una giornata particolare, 1977; September 25 at 3 p.m.); he was virtuosic as the seemingly delusional hero of Marco Bellocchio's lush Henry IV (Enrico IV, 1984; September 23 at 6 p.m.); and he brought wiliness, dignity, and implications of dementia to the role of an aging tap dancer in Fellini's elegiac Ginger & Fred (1986; October 23 at 3:30 p.m.). He continued to work right up to his death, in 1996, at age 72, leaving a great legacy, many of whose highlights you can see at the MFA.

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