Castellitto in the Big City: An Italian Star's Suave Seductions

He pops up all over European art house cinema, his haunting round eyes forever ringed with circles and his chin perennially grizzled, playing men tangled up in romantic confusions or embroiled in religious mysteries. Sergio Castellitto, Italian heartthrob for the intellectually inclined, is heir apparent to Marcello Mastroianni's suave cinematic seductions. The Walter Reade's 12-film retrospective provides an opportunity to ponder the Mediterranean male's latest incarnation.

"Marcello worked during the golden age of Italian cinema," the 51-year-old actor noted one evening on the phone from his home in Rome. "I'm honored by the comparison. But I've been working for the past 15 years in an Italian—and a European —cinema in crisis, and representing a masculinity in crisis as well. Managing relationships between men and women," he added cryptically, "has become a very difficult business."

Difficult, but immensely pleasurable in Va Savoir (2001), Jacques Rivette's enchanting farce about an Italian theater company on tour in Paris. There the company's lead actress, a Frenchwoman played by Jeanne Balibar, visits a former lover, while Castellitto, her insanely charming husband and the troupe's director, searches for a lost manuscript and falls for a bookish heiress.

Difficult, and marvelously complex, in My Mother's Smile (2002), Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio's richly surreal religious thriller. Castellitto plays a children's book illustrator—separated from his wife but deeply attached to his little son—who is shocked to learn that his mother has become a candidate for sainthood.

"In Italy," Castellitto explained, "the conflict between religious and civil society remains a very potent theme, particularly in Rome, where the presence of the Vatican looms like the White House. So the idea of this artist who must come to terms with his whole family and his mother's sainthood is a very powerful provocation."

Castellitto embraces the role of rogue outsider to hilarious effect in Caterina in the Big City(2003), Paolo Virzì's bracing social satire about a frustrated provincial professor who returns to his native Rome and enrolls his 13-year-old daughter (Alice Teghil) in a school filled with the spoiled brats of industrialists and leading intellectuals. "It's a film about how, in Italy, if you're not part of television's star system, you have the feeling that you don't exist," Castellitto explained. "As if television has taken the place of religion, as if it's the only ritual worth participating in."

Recently, Castellitto said, "megalomania" has pushed him into directing. In Don't Move, his 2004 screen adaptation of the bestselling novel by his wife, Margaret Mazzantini (opening in New York on March 11), Penélope Cruz burns up the scenery as a lonely, destitute woman whose affair with Castellitto's character provokes an existential crisis in him. Castellitto's popularity as an actor, he explained, allows him to choose his risks. "Success for me is decid- ing which stage you want to appear on each morn- ing," he said. "It's the great lesson of Mastroianni—he was a kind of actor-sailor. He worked with everyone, and crossed all the seas."

 
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