"Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember"

A warm documentary honors the Latin lover who was more than a pair of dark liquid eyes.

Published August 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Perhaps the most revelatory movie experience I've had in the last few years was a Marcello Mastroianni festival that I saw at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. I had only ever seen Mastroianni in Fellini films ("La Dolce Vita," "8 1/2," "City of Women," "Ginger and Fred") where he was usually cast as the spectator at the still center of the director's surrounding circus. How astonishing it was to see the sheer variety of Mastroianni's performances: the sweet comic lead of "The Bigamist" (where he plays opposite a wonderfully hammy Vittorio de Sica); the heartbreakingly tender young romantic in Luchino Visconti's exquisite film of the Dostoevski story "White Nights"; the lecherous philanderer of "Divorce, Italian Style" (which should be on any short list of the funniest movies ever made), his eyes drooping with boredom when they're not aching with lust; and best of all his astonishing and daring portrait of "Il Bell'Antonio." It's hard to imagine any big star who had acquired a public persona as a great lover taking on this role, a bourgeois Italian husband so unable to overcome the macho division of women as madonnas or whores that he is impotent with his gorgeous young wife (Claudia Cardinale). Mastroianni's death, which came a few months after the festival, made me feel as if the movies themselves had been diminished.

The opening shots of the documentary "Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember" (a shortening of the Italian title, which translates as "I Remember. Yes, I Remember") show film running through a projector. It's a contradictory image, expressing both the passage of time and the power of movies to freeze moments. For the three-hour-and-18-minute running time of "I Remember" Mastroianni is back with us again. The documentary, directed by Anna Maria Tats (his companion for the last 22 years of his life), is by no means a great movie. I'm guessing that Tats's love for Mastroianni made her reluctant to cut the film, to lose any of the actor's reminiscences and musings. The film lacks shape and neglects some of the most interesting areas of Mastroianni's life. (There's nothing, for example, on his life during World War II, when he escaped from a German labor camp and hid out in a Venetian attic for the duration.) But mistakes made out of love are among the easiest to forgive. And since the moviegoers who'll be attracted to this film will likely bring their own love for Mastroianni to it, the movie is most liable to rekindle warm gratitude for all the pleasure he gave us.

Tats shot the film while Mastroianni, then 72, was making "Voyages to the Beginning of the World" for Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (about whose shooting schedule he says, "A good thing, this director. He's 88 and sleeps 10 hours a night") and, later, acting in a stage play. "I Remember" consists simply of Mastroianni, seated in various locales, reminiscing to the camera, punctuated by clips from his movies (most of them, unfortunately, not identified until afterward, if at all). Those reminiscences vary from stories about the people he worked with to stories about his family to notions about the art of acting to why he despised the persona of the Latin lover.

Apparently, there was no gossipy meanness in the man. He never tells a story at anyone's expense, and he's a gent when it comes to mentioning the co-stars he was involved with (among them Faye Dunaway and Catherine Deneuve, the mother of his daughter, Chiara, a wonderful young actress who startles me every time she appears in a movie and we see her father's huge, dark liquid eyes on screen once again). The funniest of Mastroianni's stories concerns Pietro Germi, the director of "Divorce, Italian Style," who initially didn't want to cast the actor and assumed that Mastroianni was making fun of him when the trademark tick he developed for the character was so close to the sucking sound that Germi (who had gum trouble) made constantly. The sweetest of Mastroianni's anecdotes concerns his parents, who went to his films faithfully though his father was blind from diabetes and his mother had been stone deaf for years. They would spend the screenings, Mastroianni says, quizzing each other, with his mother asking loudly, "What did he say?" and his father answering and then asking, "What did he do?"

For American moviegoers, "I Remember" reminds you of the work you miss by European actors. Mastroianni, who started as an actor in Luchino Visconti's theater company, remained active on the stage. Though the film includes a blissful few minutes of his performance in a musical called "Ciao, Rudy" (in which, dressed in Rudolph Valentino bullfighter drag, Mastroianni dances), we don't get to see the performances he speaks of in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (can you imagine?) and "Death of a Salesman." (Sadly, he tells us he could never convince Deneuve or Sophia Loren to appear with him on Broadway when offers were made.)

But there are the riches of the film performances he left, and many of the clips here are so fresh that, even if you haven't seen the films, Mastroianni is affecting. As in a scene from Marco Ferreri's "Bye Bye Monkey" where tears drown the cheeks of a grizzled Mastroianni while a young girl kisses him. And we see the comic flip side of that gratitude for the attention of a woman in the famous clip from "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (a scene reprised in Robert Altman's "Ready to Wear") where Sophia Loren performs a striptease for Mastroianni. I'm willing to go on record right here as saying this is the sexiest thing I've ever seen on film. Loren looks impossibly luscious, a glowing and abundant patron saint of carnality -- and Mastroianni knows it. He sits watching her, his hand covering his mouth or biting at his nails as if he can't believe that any man -- let alone him -- would be so lucky as to receive this vision.

The joke of Mastroianni's Latin lover persona is that his performances, and his presence in "I Remember," reveal a man more given to a shrug than a rapacious gaze, to being the pursued rather than the pursuer. Has any actor ever combined bewilderment and gentle irony as Mastroianni did? In "I Remember," Mastroianni reveals one unrealized dream role that now seems a lost golden opportunity. He wanted to play Tarzan, but an aged Tarzan, no longer so agile that he can swing from vine to vine, overshadowed by the specter of his legend. To Mastroianni, the idea was a comedy. But no one ever wanted to do it. "Nobody cares about Tarzan anymore," he says, and he gives one of those melancholy and amused shrugs, the gesture of his that stays with us, among the most graceful and touching responses to life's absurdities that the movies have given us. To have been made a gift of that can make you feel rich beyond your wildest dreams.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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