Voyage to the Beginning of the World

At one point during Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, Anna Maria Tato's engrossing 3-hour, 20-minute documentary on Marcello Mastroianni (1923-96), the great Italian actor bemoans the fact that he was once considered an archetypal "Latin Lover." And while there's something disingenuous in his demurral -- "I was never handsome," he adds (yeah, right) -- one can understand his displeasure with the dismissive phrase. It's not just, as he points out, that he's played characters who are gay, impotent and/or repressed; it's that even at the peak of his languid appeal -- as in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1962) -- there was a troubled undercurrent to his suavity, something restive and unsatisfied, something very modern.

Mastroianni was in his early 70s when the documentary was made, but he still possessed much of that same charm. Though frail with age, the deeply mellifluous voice -- "50 cigarettes a day for 50 years," he says with only mild regret -- is still beguiling; the famous ironic gaze still radiates bemusement.

The film is divided almost equally between interviews, with the actor studding his anecdotes with quotes from Proust and Chekhov, and film clips which touch on most of his triumphs and a few of the inevitable follies of a long and adventuresome career. The memories don't come in chronological order and, despite the film's length, there are a few notable omissions -- no mention of his working with Antonioni, for example, or of one his most challenging roles in Visconti's The Stranger (1967).

Some of the film clips aren't identified and viewers unfamiliar with the actor's oeuvre will occasionally be baffled, though rarely bored. For the cognoscenti there's enough rare footage, including the actor doing a tango from the stage production Ciao, Rudy and a staged "screen test" for a post-8 1/2 collaboration with Fellini that never came about, as well as enough stops at cherished places -- somebody re-issue Pietro Germi's Divorce&endash;Italian Style (1961), quick! -- to compensate for the film's meandering quality.

Many of the interviews conducted for Tato's documentary were filmed on the set of Mastroianni's last movie Voyage to the Beginning of the World, directed by the 88-year-old Portuguese film maker Manoel de Oliveira. It would give this reviewer much pleasure to report that it's a worthy swan song for the actor, but unfortunately it isn't.

Mastroianni plays a Portuguese director named Manoel (hmmm ... ) who is traveling through rural Portugal with three actors, heading toward a small village where one of the actors was born. The actor's father had left the village and raised his son in France, so the voyage is a return to a home he's never really known, with Manoel acting as sort of tour guide cum philosopher.

Much of the film consists of the four in a car, contemplating the passing scenery while Mastroianni drones on epigrammatically. What should be moving -- an old man trying to convey to a younger generation his memories of a vanishing world -- is merely boring, the four actors never seeming like more than stick figures reciting de Oliveira's script.

Late in the story, when the quartet arrives in the village and the actor Gautier confronts his elderly aunt (Isabel de Castro), the film suddenly comes to life -- their scenes together brim with emotion, with feelings of loss and reconciliation. It's a wonderful sequence buried, like Mastroianni's last performance, in a film of unconscionable tedium.

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