Man, he felt like a woman

From slapstick comedy to existential angst, Marcello Mastroianni made it all look so easy. And perhaps for that reason the subversive quality of many of his roles has been forgotten. David Thomson applauds a long overdue retrospective at the National Film Theatre
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The Independent Culture

Marcello Mastroianni was an actor who could hardly endure not working - though he was only 72 when he died in 1996, he had made close to a hundred movies. Actors in film had not worked that hard since the 1930s, when they were under contract to a studio and obliged to do as they were told. In his native Italy, Mastroianni was revered and adored - he had a way of seeming like Olivier and Archie Rice at the same time. He was a stage actor who had done classical roles, a movie idol who took the lead in some of the most important Italian films, and a beloved comedian in stories about love, sex, marriage and indignity. He could do it all.

Marcello Mastroianni was an actor who could hardly endure not working - though he was only 72 when he died in 1996, he had made close to a hundred movies. Actors in film had not worked that hard since the 1930s, when they were under contract to a studio and obliged to do as they were told. In his native Italy, Mastroianni was revered and adored - he had a way of seeming like Olivier and Archie Rice at the same time. He was a stage actor who had done classical roles, a movie idol who took the lead in some of the most important Italian films, and a beloved comedian in stories about love, sex, marriage and indignity. He could do it all.

But only in Italy. If you think of the other European actors or actresses of his time - from Sophia Loren and Catherine Deneuve to Gérard Depardieu and Vittorio Gassman - it is remarkable how seldom Mastroianni went outside Italy. There were a few films - like Leo the Last (1970), for John Boorman - but they were not successful, and they left the actor feeling naked without his own language. He was the son of peasants, after all, and never felt secure about himself or his education. But because he was so great an actor, his films ended up being seen all over the world. Thus he taught us all something about Italian male unease in a time of change.

He was a handsome man, with a hint of weakness that women warmed to. It was what equipped him for the great comedies of romantic dream and frustration - Divorce Italian Style (1961), for instance, directed by Pietro Germi, in which he was badly married and longing for a sexy new wife. The film is a very playful comedy, but in 1961, divorce wasn't the easiest of subjects in Italy. With his brilliant and rueful mix of lust, deceit, little-boy dream and grown-man subterfuge, Mastroianni made it acceptable, and helped the picture to become an international hit, with a screenplay Oscar nomination.

In 1963, Mastroianni played opposite Loren in Vittorio de Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. The film won the Oscar for best foreign movie, and it had enormous success outside Italy. Their chemistry would eventually inspire eight films. They were together again in Marriage Italian Style (1964), and by now the basis of such films was clear - the Italians had a way of being sly, stupid and funny in love and sex that made international entertainment. It was French farce, with a little less dignity. Mastroianni was a vital part of the scheme (it was his weakness that made him break his own rules).

Meanwhile, the comic actor could let his face fall straight, and with just a more conservative suit and tie he became the alienated intellectual for Fellini' s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Antonioni' s La Notte (1961). This was a new character in world cinema: educated yet disillusioned; sensitive yet oppressed by the problems of the world. He was inquisitive, yet bored at the same time: it was a type derived from the novels of Camus, Sartre and Graham Greene.

In La Notte, for instance, Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau play a married couple on the edge of infidelity, ennui and nausea. He is a novelist, but he inhabits a world in which literature is no more than another form of celebrity. The couple visit a dying friend in hospital; they inhabit the oppressive city; and they go to a party where the pressure of materialism is broken, briefly, by one true spirit - a beautiful young woman, with real hope, played by Monica Vitti. Mastroianni is drawn to her. In the same way, he could not stop the wanton advances of a disturbed girl in the hospital. He is chronically passive or resigned; his moral intelligence is in danger of going numb from dismay and indifference. So he is not really fit for Vitti.

La Notte is a film in which the style and attitude of the people are profoundly in tune. It requires rare depth and simplicity of acting, and Mastroianni was every bit a match for Moreau. At that time, they felt like the best actors in the world. The self-pity and the loss of hope made Mastroianni's face an icon for the early Sixties.

Just as important in terms of art-house popularity were his journalist in La Dolce Vita, and then his sitting in for Fellini himself as the director in a quandary in 8 1/ 2 (1963). Equally, a few years later, for Luchino Visconti - the director who had discovered and guided him on stage and who put him with Maria Schell in the film White Nights (1957) - he played Camus's existential hero in a film of The Stranger (1967). It was far less successful, say, than 8 1/ 2, but Mastroianni puts in a very fine performance - done back-to-back with Ghosts Italian Style (1967), a comedy in which he and Loren play a married couple who move into a haunted house.

This was a man always ready for bold departures and for films that threatened conventional masculinity. For example, in Bell'Antonio (1960), he was impotent, despite the pulchritude of his young wife, Claudia Cardinale. In the allegorical Leo the Last (filmed in London), he was a reclusive prince trying to become involved in the lives of underprivileged people. And in Jacques Demy's L'Evénement le plus Important depuis que l' Homme a Marché sur la Lune (1973), he was a man who was - inexplicably - pregnant. He even did his best to keep up with sexpot Sydne Rome in Roman Polanski's What? (1973), one more film in which man becomes a servile figure.

As part of its Mastroianni season, the NFT will screen I Remember, I Remember, a memoir of the actor, directed by Anna Maria Tato, his companion for two decades. Yet, I believe Mastroianni remained married to another woman, and he had affairs with Faye Dunaway and Catherine Deneuve (with whom he had a daughter who is now an actress). The documentary shows the older man becoming a character actor. The connoisseur needs to see La Nuit de Varennes (1982), Enrico IV (1984) (from Pirandello, directed by Marco Bellocchio), The Two Lives of Mattia Pascal (1985), Fred and Ginger (1985), for Fellini again, The Beekeeper (1986) for Theo Angelopoulos, a superb performance for Nikita Mikhalkov in Dark Eyes (1987) and for Angelopoulos again in The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991).

The NFT season includes only 24 films, so exceptional things are omitted. The film I miss most is Elio Petri's The Assassin (1961), in which Mastroianni plays a man suspected of murder - he always had an exceptional feeling for anxiety verging on guilt, and the film is a study in paranoia.

Mastroianni was modest, charming, eager - if not desperate - to be liked. And he worked hard enough to be caught up in many poor films. But when he was good, he had a face that could be read like dark, disquieting prose.

The Mastroianni season at the NFT runs until 31 August (tel: 020-7928 3232)

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