Everything 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.