Sunday, July 12, 2009

Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember

Because he knew he probably hadn't much time left, Marcello Mastroianni held nothing back from his companion, Anna Maria Tato, who made the film, Marcello Mastroianni: Mi ricordo, si, io mi ricordo (1997). The result is one of the most moving personal testaments on film - so wistful and thoughtful, yet so unrepentent and proud of a life that he wouldn't have lived any other way, even if it had granted him another few hours or even a few more years of life. So enriched by a life that he chose to live a certain way, as a sensualist devoted to pleasures that sometimes weren't very good for him, Mastroianni refused to shirk the blame. "Let people live and die as they choose," he says at one point, as he puffs away at a cigarette, knowing well enough that they have cut short his life. (He died of pancreatic cancer before the film was released.)

He was not the greatest Italian screen actor, but for more than twenty years everyone wanted him in their films. And because he was Mastroianni, everyone wanted to see them. He was so contemptuous of his Latin Lover image, but he was a strikingly handsome man (even though he complained that his nose was too small).(1) And he was not afraid of either playing old men or of growing old. He mentions how he got the idea of reprising his role of Domenico Soriano, the Eduardo De Filippo character in Marriage Italian Style, but as an old man. And he phoned Sophia Loren to ask her if she would like to play Filumena opposite him again. "But Marcello," she replied, "I'm still young!"

He became Fellini's surrogate in La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), but he was also in the best films of so many other directors, like Bolognini's Il Bel'Antonio (1960), Germi's Divorce, Italian Style (1961), Zurlini's Family Diary (1962), and Monicelli's The Organizer (1963). He was one of Antonioni's few sympathetic male leads in La Notte (1961). He was a marvelous Meursault in Visconti's excellent but near-forgotten adaptation of Camus' The Stranger (1967). And he gave De Sica his greatest commercial successes opposite Sophia Loren in three films, the best of which is the splendid Marriage Italian Style (1964).

He played a homosexual persecuted in fascist Italy (once again opposite Sophia Loren) in Scola's A Special Day (1977). He was funny as an Italian actor struggling to make it in Paris in Yves Robert's undervalued Salut l'Artiste (1973). He was so subtle and dignified as an aging Casanova in Scola's La Nuit de Varennes (1982). He managed to keep his head above the ugliness of Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe (1973). And he was great as Pirandello's Henry IV in Bellocchio's otherwise disappointing film.

He wasn't an intellectual, thank goodness. But he was an extremely intelligent man. The best moments in I Remember are when he doesn't talk about films, but when he becomes philosophical, when he speaks about life, and its brevity. "It's ridiculous, when you think about it, around 50 cigarettes a day for 50 years makes almost one million cigarettes. It's enough to cover the sky over Rome. But why? You know it's harmful, and yet you continue. Does it help fill a gap? Even though I admit that it's harmful, I'm sick of Americans. They go too far. What do they want? To put smokers in a ghetto? Let people live and die as they choose."

He is haunted by an old memory of a train ride during the war. The lights had to be extinguished because of possible enemy planes. The train he was on was crowded with people. He lit a cigarette, and for a moment his face was illuminated by the flame. Suddenly someone kissed him passionately in the darkness. "I never saw who she was, if she was young or old. I never saw her. At the first stop, still in the darkness, the whole group got off. I never knew whom I kissed. I'm sure it was a woman, but was she pretty or ugly? In any case, the kiss was beautiful.It lent a romantic aura to my ridiculous journey. How many years have passed? Yet that moment is still present. It's one of my most vivid memories.

He speaks about his life as a "luxury tourist" - choosing roles in films because it will take him to a place (Greece, Russia, Argentina) he had never been before. He knew Proust, but he was also wise enough to expand on him: "Proust said: 'The only true paradises are those we have lost'. Those words are justifiably famous. I should like to add that there may be paradises even more pleasant than lost ones: those we have never seen, the places and adventures that we can sense. Not behind us like lost paradises that fill us with nostalgia, but ahead of us, in a future that one day, like a dream coming true, we shall be able to attain. Maybe the appeal of travel lies in this charm, in this nostalgia for the future. This force makes us fantasize, or fool ourselves, about travelling and finding, in an unknown station, something to change our lives. Perhaps you are no longer young when you are able to regret and love only the lost paradises. . . . As young men, the countries we don't know and dream about seem beautiful and mysterious compared to the places we live in. Perhaps the love of travel in linked to this dream that makes distant places more mysterious and more real than the ones we know."

The film is beautifully photographed by Giuseppe Rontunno, who worked with Mastroianni several times, on some of his best films. Anna Maria Tato had the good sense to place Mastroianni against beautiful landscapes, rivers and mountains, as he speaks of his past. In a strange way, it makes the past almost present in the film. In the last sequence of this very long (198 minutes), but never boring film, Mastroianni is standing with the mountains of Portugal behind him (where he was making his last film). He seems unusually frail, and is wearing a cape over his shoulders. And it is only until the last moment, when he points, that we see he is using a cane. "There's a wonderful tale by Kafka called The Next Village: 'My grandfather used to say that life is amazingly short. When I look back, it is all so condensed in my mind, I can't understand how a young man can ride to the next village without being afraid that the span of time in which a happy life unfolds is far too inadequate for such a ride.'

"When I was young, life seemed long and endless to me. Now, though, when I look back, I sometimes say: 'When did I make that film? Five years ago?' 'Fifteen years ago, you mean!' 'Fifteen tears ago?'

"When a young man mounts a horse for this ride, he thinks it will be an endless, eternal journey. Then, on reaching a certain age, he realizes that the next village wasn't that far away. That it really was a very short ride indeed. Life, at a certain age, you realize it has gone by. And the village is there, so close."

(1) In a famous 1977 interview with Dick Cavett, he confessed that he couldn't possibly be a Latin Lover because he was not "a tremendous fucker." Sophia Loren, who was sitting beside him, tried to excuse his remark because he didn't speak very good English, but Mastroianni defended his choice of words.

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