Marcello Mastroianni was a legendary actor who never tired of making fun of his own legend. His partnering of Sophia Loren in a long series of romantic comedies earned him the reputation of a droll Latin Lover, but there was more than one Marcello—and his real strength was playing weak men. Sensitively handsome, he was all promise and no threat.
Although his image will be linked forever with that of Fellini, who established him as his alter ego in La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Mastroianni first learned his craft with Luchino Visconti. And it was as the modest suitor in Visconti’s highly stylized screen adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights (1957) that he
became a star. (The film is being shown in an excellent 35mm print that does justice to its visual poetry.)
A few years later, Mastroianni was all abashed intensity in the title role of Mauro Bolognini’s crisp satire of machismo, Il Bell’Antonio (1960). He plays a handsome young husband, reputed a Don Juan, who finds himself impotent when he’s with a woman he really loves. Its script is by Pasolini and the dysfunction in question might well be a metaphor for the country’s body politic under
Fascism. The Organizer (1963), Mario Monicelli’s Zolaesque fresco set in turn-of-the-century Turin, gives us a Mastroianni far removed from his matinee-idol image—here, he’s a shabby, smelly, scraggly
militant socialist, on the lam from the cops. This unlikely revolutionary, one of his finest creations, is a memorable mix
of passion and whimsicality.
Eventually, of course, Mastroianni worked with almost every major Italian director. When he died two years ago, at 73, he had chalked up nearly 150 films. There are 22 in the show at the Walter Reade, which does
include a few duds (Pietrangeli’s Ghosts of Rome, Scola’s A Special Day, Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes)—and one towering revelation: Valeric Zurlini’s
Bressonian Family Diary (1962). Based on Vasco Pratolini’s autobiographical novel, it’s the story of two Florentine brothers (Mastroianni and Jacques Perrin), estranged for years, who find that they have nothing left but their mutual affection. Mastroianni’s restrained portrayal of Enrico, the harried elder brother, seems to me the finest work of his career.
The painterly images were shot by Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard, Amarcord), one of the world’s leading cinematographers. Zurlini’s film is that
rarity in Italian cinema: a quiet masterpiece.