Mastroianni gives masterly performance in `Dark Eyes'

There are several reasons to see ``Dark Eyes,'' and most of them are Marcello Mastroianni, who is still - after nearly four decades and 150 films - one of the most commanding screen actors in the world. He plays a single character in ``Dark Eyes,'' which opens the New York Film Festival tonight and begins its theatrical run tomorrow. The character's name is Romano, and he's not the most impressive man you've ever seen. As embodied by the masterly Mastroianni, though - in a performance that won the best-actor award at the Cannes Film Festival this year - he becomes fascinating as he evolves over the course of the story.

When we meet him in the opening scene, searching for conversation in a shipboard dining room, Romano is a has-been. He talks eagerly and even cheerfully, but his face and especially his eyes have a vague sadness that complements his droopy smile. Although we don't know what misfortunes have gnawed away at his life, we sense their haunting presence behind his sociable manner.

Then a flashback whisks us into the past, and there's a whole new aspect of Romano for us to examine - a younger self whose jaunty words and buffoonish gestures give subtle hints of underlying insecurity.

Like the older Romano in the lonely dining room, he's the kind of character you could easily settle in with for a whole movie. Yet a few scenes and story twists later, Mastroianni transforms him once again, this time into a wistful swain who's tumbled crazily in love with a Russian woman ``taking the waters'' at a fashionable spa.

Mastroianni's great achievement is not only to bring Romano vividly alive in each phase of the ``Dark Eyes'' story, but to make Romano's personality a consistent presence despite all the changes it goes through. On shipboard, he's an aging loser. On his estate, he's a young joker with the mind of a clerk and the money of a rich wife. At the spa and later in Russia, he seeks passion without summoning the nerve to throw off old habits and commitments. What unites these different Romano-selves is Mastroianni's ability to show all three of them at work - one dominating, the others simmering just below the surface - every moment he's on the screen.

Two other reasons to see ``Dark Eyes'' are its photography and music. Sumptuously filmed in Italy and the Soviet Union by cinematographer Franco di Giacomo, this is an uncommonly handsome drama, with many images of striking loveliness - so striking that the plot and characters can seem less attention-worthy than the scenery that surrounds them. A lush musical score by the wonderful Francis Lai gracefully accompanies the on-screen activity.

What holds ``Dark Eyes'' back from greatness, despite so many things in its favor, is a weakness at the heart of its story. As strongly as he plays the main character, Mastroianni cannot overcome the screenplay's failure to weave Romano's experiences into a wise and revealing tapestry instead of just a lavishly filmed anecdote.

Deep in his being, Romano has a streak of hard-core superficiality that prevents him from deepening and maturing as he grows older. The filmmakers could have made this an obstacle for him to conquer, or depicted it as his tragic flaw. But they take neither course, choosing to exploit rather than explore Romano's shallowness. The story itself comes to seem shallow, as well - a diverting tale but never a profound one.

``Dark Eyes'' was directed by Soviet filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, whose previous films include ``A Slave of Love'' and the epic ``Oblomov,'' both as pictorial as his new production. Mikhalkov also wrote the screenplay, in collaboration with Alexander Adabachian, basing it on Chekhov short stories. The large cast includes Marthe Keller, the renowned Silvana Mangano, and Elena Sofonova, a highly promising Soviet actress.

The film, which has no rating, is generally tasteful but contains a few seconds of fleeting nudity.

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