Dark Eyes

February 6, 2013

darkeyesEverything about Dark Eyes is blatantly geared toward setting a feast for the exceptional Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni. And, in those limited terms, the movie has provided a feast, as well as the 1987 best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, plus a likely Oscar nomination in next year’s Academy Awards. In other words, it’s a crown to a career.

Maybe this blatancy is what has caused the crown to rest so uneasily on Mastroianni’s noble head. The movie is so clearly a designed tour de force it unbalances whatever kind of point the film might otherwise have had. There’s even a sequence in a health spa that overtly recalls the same situation in Fellini’s 81/2, the 1963 film that gave Mastroianni perhaps his greatest role.

This is not a criticism of Mastroianni’s performance; he’s splendid. Dark Eyes, which is based on a mélange of Chekov short stories (especially “The Lady with the Dog”), taps exactly into the romantic melancholy that Mastroianni embodies like no one else.

The film begins with the feeling of a classic: During a sea cruise, an idle passenger happens upon another traveler whose faded finery and world-weariness suggest a story waiting to be told. And Mastroianni tells his tale of a long marriage of convenience to a much wealthier woman, marked by much philandering on his part.

But the marriage is interrupted when Mastroianni meets, at the spa, a lovely Russian woman. They soon part, but she seems to have spurred some genuine feelings, and Mastroianni goes to beautifully mad lengths to find her in Russia again, at least until he feels the pull of his customary lack of moral will.

Perhaps only Mastroianni could make this romantic and cowardly man so sympathetic. And the movie sometimes comes alive with the delicacy of Mastroianni’s acting: When he lopes across a garden party at his wife’s lavish estate, and slumps himself, drink in hand, into a lawn chair, we have an entire index of this character’s easy, empty life until now. The romantic high point comes when the Russian girl’s hat is windblown into the spa’s mud pool, and Marcello (resplendent in white suit) walks directly into the black goo to retrieve the chapeau.

These and a number of other nice moments are squandered in the uncomfortable clash between Italian warmth and Russian heaviness. Soviet director Nikita Mikhalkov (A Slave of Love) doesn’t seem able to engage the sweet feelings here; even as you’re admiring the film’s finer touches, you’re aware that they aren’t meshing together very well. Mikhalkov obviously wants to pay tribute to Mastroianni, but he isn’t a supple or expressive enough director to catch the actor’s grace. Dark Eyes clunks when it ought to soar.

First published in the Herald, November 19, 1987

This is one of those reviews where I really, really should’ve established the character’s name and then gone with that. Typing “Mastroianni” that many times is a chore. He did get Oscar-nominated, by the way.

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Rasputin and Beyond Obsession

February 5, 2013

rasputinThe Russian historical film Rasputin has been sitting on the Commissar of Cinema’s shelf for the better part of 10 years, having been, until recently, considered unfit for consumption.

The ban probably stems from the film’s surprisingly tame view of Czar Nicholas II. According to the film, the czar is less the evil tyrant of Bolshevik tradition than a fretful wimp held captive by his wife’s obsession with Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who eased the suffering of her hemophiliac son.

During World War I and through his death in 1916, Rasputin held hypnotic sway over the royal family and indulged his own obsessions. In the film, he’s the evil one—swaggering, fornicating, threatening, and strangling live chickens—and the czar and czarina merely dupes.

It’s a great story, filmed often before, with Conrad Veidt, Lionel Barrymore, and Christopher Lee among those essaying the meaty role. This Rasputin, potently played by Alexei Petrenko, is surely the most disgusting of all, with his limbs frequently jittering into freaky motion and his beard stringy with yesterday’s lunch.

The palace life is a bit like Disneyland, complete with theme rooms (hot springs, walls painted to resemble a seascape), Rasputin’s harem (some of his women wear false beards to resemble him), and mannequins standing guard. In such an arena, Rasputin’s madness seems almost at home.

Naturally, since Rasputin died one of the weirdest deaths of the 20th century, the film has a built-in big finish. In short order, Rasputin ate poisoned cakes and wine, was shot and beaten repeatedly, and finally was dumped into a river, where he took the hint and expired.

Oddly enough, director Elem Klimov doesn’t play the death scene to the hilt; he even leaves out the river-dumping. His direction overall is lumpy and stuttering; the film doesn’t have much grace, but it’s vivid and entertaining in individual scenes. It may be unfair to judge Klimov’s overriding scheme, since the film has been cut by 40 minutes for export.

A different kind of obsession is portrayed in Beyond Obsession, an Italian-made film from the director of the once-notorious The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani.

An American oilman (Tom Berenger) becomes obsessed with a gorgeous Italian floozy (Eleonora Giorgi) in Morocco. She’ll have nothing to do with him, however, because she is obsessed with her father (Marcello Mastroianni), who is currently in jail for killing her mother. He, in turn, is obsessed with her. Pretty soon he becomes obsessed with Berenger for hanging around her.

That’s a lot of obsession for one movie. Too much, probably. And a lot of business is none too clear at first—including the odd nature of the Giorgi-Mastroianni relationship, and her pupose in walking the streets at night.

In another film, these mysteries might tantalize the viewer. In Beyond Obsession, they’re pretty irritating, especially given the obvious discomfort of the multilingual cast in just talking to each other. In particular, Berenger (the TV star in The Big Chill) clearly has no idea how to play his character. It’s the kind of performance that can take you beyond embarrassment.

First published in the Herald, 1985 (?)

Klimov’s film, originally titled Agony, was withheld for a while, but apparently released around the time he did Come and See. The longer version of Rasputin is seeable, these days. Beyond Obsession is also known as Beyond the Door.