The latin lover: For thousands of post-war cinema- goers Marcello Mastroianni has been the quintessential European male. At 70, the charm still works. And his role as the great seducer turns out to have been more than just acting

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HE LIT the last cigarette in the packet and ordered another cafe noir in the small garden of an hotel in St-Germain-des-Pres. At 70, the pleasures of a lifetime are not to be denied.

Marcello Mastroianni used to talk with wry despair about the prospect of finding himself in old age, but now that he has arrived he looks remarkably undamaged. The sweep of silvery hair, the healthy tan of creased but unwrinkled skin, the wide, amused mouth, the brown eyes with their soulful pendant pouches, the trim torso inside a chic indigo work-shirt, all seemed in good order, betrayed only by a barely perceptible trembling of the hands as he held the cigarette and lifted the cup.

In his new film, playing a man of roughly his own age, he had to be made up to look much older. We Don't Want to Talk About It, set in a remote small town in Argentina 50 years ago, finds him giving a persuasive performance as a mysterious elderly foreigner who falls in love with a young dwarf, marries her, and loses her when she glimpses a wider world. After more than 150 films since his 1947 debut in I Miserabili, and a filmography that features the names of Fellini, Visconti, De Sica, Antonioni, Scola, Malle, Demy, Altman and many others, perhaps this is his Death in Venice, the film that adds a final layer of resonance to the long career of Europe's favourite leading man.

To one whose reputation both on and off the screen is that of an effortless seducer of the most beautiful women, the part offered a risk. 'I need something that excites me a little,' he said. 'A challenge. I need to have pepper in my ass] Frequently in my career I've been condemned to make love stories with beautiful women. Well, not condemned, exactly. But evidently my relationship with women today in cinema is different now. So I said, this story is different. I like the idea. I said, why not? If it works, OK. Good. If it doesn't work, it's not so terrible. What happens in Africa is worse, eh?'

He had not heard of the director, Maria Luisa Bemberg, until a friend spoke highly of her. 'I said, this is good. I believe I have a world record - I have made eight films directed by women. Not another actor in the world can say this.'

Are men and women directors the same proposition?

'No. I can tell you with women it's even better. Perhaps with a woman something maternal comes up, I don't know. Kind. Nice. Beautiful. I never heard any of these ladies raise the voice.'

HIS CAREER took off on the tide of post-war Italian cinema, when the neo-realists - Rossellini, De Sica - were succeeded by the fantasists, Fellini and Antonioni, who deployed sophistication and irony to offset an unstoppable charm and a physical beauty that might otherwise have been no more than the attributes of a standard-issue matinee idol.

It was in the months after the war that his talent was discovered, while he was studying to be an architect at university in Rome, 50 miles north of the village where he was born. Giulietta Masina, the actress who was later to become Fellini's wife, had agreed to return to her alma mater to make a guest appearance with the student dramatic society. In the audience was an associate of Luchino Visconti, who recommended the young Marcello to the illustrious director.

A dozen years later it was Fellini who made Mastroianni an international celebrity when he kick-started the Sixties with the release of La Dolce Vita, a glittering, scandalous expose of Rome's new demi-monde. Mastroianni - as Marcello Rubini, a newspaper journalist - became the prototype of the new European man, an elegant package of paradoxes: sleek, vulnerable, potent, detached, vain, affectless, free of commitments or responsibilities, even of priorities. Someone for whom even the dubious intellectual rigour of existentialism would involve too much of an effort. This man waited and watched, immune to sensation, expecting only mild disappointment. And when we looked at Marcello Rubini, through whose dark glasses we observed the decadence of this new Roman society, we felt sure that the man we were seeing was really Marcello Mastroianni.

At the time, of course, what people wanted to know was where Marcello got his sunglasses, or his watch, or his sports car. What had it been like, travelling around Europe in the early Sixties and seeing people - the first Carnaby Street mods, for example - modelling themselves on him?

'It made me a little . . .' He squirmed in his chair, acting out a kind of feline smugness, as if someone were stroking his tummy. 'Yes.' That swooping Italianate ih-yayessss. 'I remember that in La Dolce Vita I used to drive a Triumph car, an English car. It became fashionable. My glasses, too. I received from America letters from two, three gentlemen that asked me what was the watch I wore. Crazy. Somebody wrote even to Sophia Loren, because we were together. They thought maybe she would ask me and give them an answer. It made me laugh a little. I didn't give it much importance. I was so happy making beautiful films, films that I love very much, with the director as my friend.'

Had he been aware at the time of the iconic significance of his role? 'No. I remember an expression, the first time I read it in the American magazines - this kind of anti-hero. Before it was all heroes in the cinema - a hero was Gary Cooper, or Clark Gable. But in the films of Fellini and Antonioni was born the opposite. A man who finds his limits . . . his impotence . . . his erotical fantasies, like a child . . . So, not a hero. A man more fragile, in more intellectual stories. Another kind of hero.'

Mastroianni went on to appear in four more Fellini films, including his favourite, 8 1/2 , in which he played a film director - Fellini's dream of himself. 'I think it was like an X-ray of a man of this generation - a man of intelligence, sensitivity, waiting for something important, but then in the end the king of compromise. I knew that I had to be himself, more or less. There are other films I love very much, but I consider this one very important, for all of us in this profession.'

ANOTHER cigarette. 'I say always to women, 'Forget actors.' Actors are not capable to love seriously because we are full of love. People love you, and when you are loved in this way you become an egoist, and you are not capable to give back. So you should look instead for an employee from the post office, or a builder, or a camionista . . .'

For 45 years Mastroianni has been married to the same woman, Flora Carabella, a composer's daughter whom he met at university. Their daughter Barbara, a furniture designer, is now 43. But neither he nor Flora has ever bothered to conceal a succession of lengthy affairs linking him with such actresses as Jacqueline Bisset, Monica Vitti, Faye Dunaway and Catherine Deneuve, by whom he has a second daughter, Chiara, aged 22, also an actress.

'I think this is very Italian,' Mastroianni said, 'a double situation. Even because it means we can say, 'I don't know what to doooo] I have to take care of everybody]' When we do this, it's because evidently we need both, we need two different personalities. Perhaps we don't know exactly what we want. 'My white shirt, or my blue shirt?' We can't decide, so we take both.'

Do you still need both?

'More or less, yes. I have an admiration for those who still have the same woman or have the same man. But I have the impression that this is very difficult.'

Has your relationship with your wife changed over the years?

'She understood that probably actors are children. We have a good relationship. Good, good friends. That's more important.'

And it doesn't change?

'Si.'

But if actors aren't serious people, if they're incapable of loving seriously, then they can't be seriously hurt, can they?

'We cry sometimes. But six months later, we ask, why did I cry? Because I was offended in my ego, or was it really pain? Um. We can have doubts about that.'

I asked Mastroianni if he kept a woman's photograph in his wallet, and if so, which woman. No, he said, rather emphatically, taking out his tiny notebook and his credit-card folder and shaking them over the table to prove the point. What is it women love in him? How did he come by that ability to make them want to look after him - unimpaired despite regular use? Where does his sense of masculinity come from?

'I am not so masculine. Masculinity . . . I don't know.'

Was your father like you?

'No. He was a cabinet maker, a worker. My grandfather, too. I think I am normal, no more than this. No.'

THERE'S a moment towards the end of the new film when a travelling circus arrives in the small town, with tumblers and jugglers and dwarfs and a single elephant. Integral to the story, it's also an elegant acknowledgement of Fellini, who died last October, followed five months later by Masina.

Rome is a little emptier now. Three years ago, Mastroianni sold the grand villa he designed and built in the Sixties. 'To live in a villa is not proportionate with the life that we live,' he said. 'It's finished, this time of la dolce vita.'

Does he miss the Fellinis?

'Oh, yes. You know, when you love somebody very much it's stupid to repeat the same things. You don't think they're going to disappear. You think, when I come back to Rome, they'll be there. It's true. You know? Not to be sentimental or stupid, but it's difficult to accept the idea that they've disappeared like this. I wasn't even jealous when he made films without me. Why? Because for me it was important to be his friend. To be in a film or not to be in it was not so important.'

'We Don't Want to Talk About It' opens in London on Friday.

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