Marcello Mastroianni

 

As Hollywood executives use to say, some actors just have it. “It” being an intangible quality that’s neither looks nor skills – although they don’t hurt either – but pure screen presence, or the unexplainable ability to personify the spirit of their times. This was especially true for Marcello Mastroianni (1924-1996), who to this day remains the icon of the Italian male for moviegoers worldwide.

Handsome, cool, ironic and wise in an unique, self-conscious and somewhat desperate way, he has been the face of Italy throughout its difficult passage from war-torn country to apparently unbeatable economic and intellectual superpower, to the disillusioned mess of today, destroyed by the corruption of its ruling class. He played leading roles in Neorealistic movies, in comedies, dramas and arthouse features – yet his sly smile always came through, always Mastroianni before his characters.

It could be argued that the confusion between the man and the parts he played was both the key to his success and his biggest enemy. He was famously annoyed by his fame as the archetypal “Latin lover”, for example – so much that he actively sought roles portraying desperate, lone or even impotent men – but this only bolstered the aura of sex symbol. The same goes for his supposed laziness (a trait commonly associated with Romans, whom he actually wasn’t, by the way): no matter how intensely he worked in theatres and movies, his laid-back roles just clicked with the image of an easygoing, indolent Italian prototype, and this was enough to convince people.

Mastroianni was, of course, also the protagonist of the Fellini films that made the whole world fall in love with Italy: La dolce vita, but also 8 ½, Intervista and other titles like Ginger & Fred or La città delle donne, where he actually became the beloved alter ego of the director himself. This partnership strongly benefitted both of them and Italian cinema in general, overshadowing other movies no less important than those mentioned above. To this day, watching most Marcello Mastroianni movies remains a great way to really understand the evolution of the Italian society, as demonstrated by his enduring fame as an Italian icon.