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Marcello Mastroianni: The Italian Man
by Julian Hart

In his 1979 treatise on the creation and power of stardom, Stars, Richard Dyer articulated the defining principles surrounding modern celebrity studies, most notably in how audiences understand and identify with the people they consider celebrities. To Dyer, celebrity status is a paradox:

“As it combines the spectacular with the everyday, the special with the ordinary, and is seen as an articulation of basic… values, there is no conflict here between the general lifestyle and the particularities of the star.” 

The clash of normalcy and notoriety inherent to stardom can be both an economic incentive and an indelible social critique, begging wider cultural conversations on what it means to be a person. The result is the formation of celebrity as an amalgamation of desire and reflection, a person who both embodies and transcends social archetypes. An actor like Marcello Mastroianni is an example of this, whose career is defined by an attestation to real people and an aversion to dichotomies of good versus evil. That is, while there are the usual grandiose parts that would be present in an extensive, hundred-plus filmography, Mastroianni is known for his parts portraying average males. So, what might the career of Italian film icon Marcello Mastroianni reveal about ourselves, Italy’s socio-political climate during the mid to late twentieth century, and how we construct codes of identity?

Following the Second World War, international film industries exploded with promising new talent and artistic film movements that redefined what the medium can be. Post-war Italian cinema was one of the first to expand upon the extremities of film, resulting in the artistically distinguished neorealist movement, ingenious and unique filmmakers, and resonating actors and actresses. Neorealist pioneers like Vittorio Di Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti recontextualized reality in film. Later directors, including Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, would evolve out of neorealism and create their versions of reality. The actors and actresses of later twentieth-century Italy, including the careers of Aldo Fabrizi, Monica Vitti, and Sophia Loren, provided faces to this new Italian cinema.

At the same time, post-war Italy was undergoing a shift away from the ideologies surrounding gender and sexuality stemming from its previous fascist state. During the war, conventional gender and social roles were heavily propagated by Mussolini’s government, including anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, and pro-naturalism. The hegemonic ideal was the dominant male as virile and nationalistic, associating masculine ideals with conservative jingoism and preserving the fascist rulers as cultural and political authorities. Once the fascist state ended, Italian society began to shift away from the gender relations put forth by Mussolini-era propaganda, with women becoming increasingly distanced from the obedient and motherly housewife ideal and more towards having agency in society (e.g. gaining the right to vote in 1945, an increased presence in the workforce).

It is impossible to ignore the talents of Marcello Mastroianni, one of the most prominent Italian figures in media history, from this context. Starring in some of the most acclaimed and adored films of European cinema, Mastroianni has become the male face of Italian cinema. Though having acted since 1939, his most promising and seminal works occur in the 60s and 70s, right when Italy overcomes its post-war troubles. His unique and deliberate blend of theatrical stunts, mannerisms, physicality, and world-weariness offers a remarkable portrait of the masculine ideal in post-fascist Italy. Reality is a showcase for Mastroianni, a place to reign and display his effortless charm and allure. The signature aspect of Mastroianni’s acting style is suaveness with a latent devotion to physical comedy, using all aspects of the body to captivate the audience while maintaining his coolness and charisma. While he frequently pairs with reality-shaping auteurs, Mastroianni transcends the confines of the film’s reality and makes it his playground. 

The early portion of Mastroianni’s career can be indebted largely to the postwar Italian cinema and the rise of the Commedia all’italiana (Comedy Italian Style) genre, a comedy subgenre predicated on the creation of sadness and hardship formed out of bleak post-war settings. The original Commedia all’italiana movement existed from the late fifties and into the seventies, in which prominent figures included filmmakers like Mario Monicelli, Ettore Scola, and Lina Wertmüller, as well as stars like Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti, Vittorio Gassman, and Mastroianni. The genre is probably best exemplified by Pietro Germi’s Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce Italian Style), for which the movement and genre originated its name. There is a mix of neorealism (in this case, an emphasis on Sicilian society and honor codes), pop culture (the film is more or less a reaction to the success of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, literalized in the plot and Mastroinianni’s casting against type), Italian taboos and controversial social issues (self-cuckoldry in a society that values virility and masculine dominance), and an emphasis on middle-class settings.

His sensational role in the 1960 Palme D’or winning Fellini film La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), as the inherently stylish and suave entertainment columnist Marcello Rubini, encapsulates how he functions within a post-fascist environment. The world Fellini creates revolves around Marcello and his search for self-fulfillment in nightclubs, religious spectacles, and debaucherous parties. Primarily introduced in a lavish nightclub sequence, the audience dives into the world of Marcello Rubini and his overstimulation of spectacle. His partner is kicked out for taking an unsolicited photograph and Marcello is called over to the table of the embarrassed woman. Mastroianni’s signature use of mannerisms and physicality is displayed: playfully as he leans over to speak to the table and deliberately as his sunglasses become a form of protection and a tool of avoidance. Paired with Mastroianni’s good looks and alluring nonchalance, Marcello Rubini is the personification of the masculine ideal according to Italy by 1960.

However, the true ingenuity of Mastroianni’s La Dolce Vita performance is how he personifies the pitfalls of masculinity and virility. The film ends as Marcello Rubini is left unfulfilled, devoid of mature romantic relationships and, in an outcome contrary to his constant questioning regarding the merits of spectacle and intellectualism, he becomes a publicist. His numerous sexual endeavors, outspoken wit, and repression of anger & frustration at life all made his search for understanding futile. As Marcello Rubini, Mastroianni displays his awareness of the psychological dimension of his characters and how it relates to his style. The calm, relaxed persona created by Marcello Rubini is a façade masking emptiness, and Mastroianni uses it to create one of his most exciting and riveting performances. Fellini’s film is inseparable from the shifting post-war landscape of the fifties and sixties, between the older and more traditional Italy and the emerging urbanized, overstimulated aristocracy. Mastroianni, playing with a typical Italian machismo and suaveness, presents the cultural dominant, the active and sexual male, lost in a shifting landscape and unable to reconcile his place in the world, between intellectual and spiritual fulfillment and hedonistic pleasures. The end of the journey results in meaninglessness as Rubini, straying from a subsiding orgy, is unable to understand and communicate with the world around him, evidenced by the sea monster washing up on the shore and his inability to understand the woman calling to him across the beach. All he can do is shrug at his incomprehension and continue to live a nihilistic existence.

To subvert his now-established persona and avoid typecasting, Mastroianni plays as the antithesis to his La Dolce Vita role in 1961’s Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce, Italian Style). Pietro Germi’s satire of Italian marriage and society, Divorzio all’italiana focuses on Ferdinando Cefalù, a Sicilian nobleman in love with his cousin and begrudgingly married to the comically devoted Rosalia. Cefalù is played like an idiot compared to Mastroianni’s prominent roles: his thick mustache, silly hairstyles, bulkier body, and clicking tic stray from Mastroianni’s established style. Cefalù is pathetic and devious, but an incredibly funny character elevated by the devotion to physical screwball comedy of Mastroianni. As Cefalù’s family leaves for the cinema, Rosalia stays home and Cefalù scurries around the house, planting evidence to frame his wife for having an affair, in a way juxtapositional to the fake earnestness he had for his wife a moment prior. Cefalù conjures another side of Mastroianni, in which he is not the suave womanizer but the pitiful scoundrel who becomes the victim of sexual desire. 

One of the opening scenes depicts the performative nature of Sicilian society, each space and location being an opportunity for supporting or establishing a societal persona. Daily interactions become an exertion of class and status, as wealthy barons are greeted by passing onlookers, women are confined to domestic lives, and church masses are used as communist propaganda. The totality of which is a conservative society that is easily exploited and manipulated for personal and taboo agendas. The Sicilian society depicted in Divorzio all’italiana is marked by communal evaluation and the need for extrapersonal perspectives. Cefalu can achieve his goal only when he is spit on by Signora Patanè, in which his family honor is dishonored and his masculinity and self-identity, from the communal perspective, threatened. Even when Cefalu achieves his goal and his wife is killed, he is distraught by the fact that he hadn’t killed her, worried that others will not accept the redemptive cuckold narrative. The disparity between the cultural dominant and Cefalu’s individual experiences is reflective of the shifting gender dynamics of the sixties, most notably the growing acceptance of divorce and its introduction into the national legal system in 1970. Mastroianni is then the personification of the shift in Italian masculinity manifested in popular culture, between the caricature and tradition of the fascist era and the rising criticism of post-fascism heteronormativity.

Ettore Scola’s Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day) finds Mastroianni subverting the heterosexual persona present throughout his career. Taking place on the day Adolf Hitler visits Benito Mussolini, Gabrielle (Mastroianni) stays in his apartment, along with a neighboring housewife (Sophia Loren), as Hitler’s motorcade travels through Rome. Mussolini’s fascist rule over Italy values heterosexual working husbands and ostracizes heterosexual men, the aversion towards homosexuality displayed in Gabrielle’s interactions and impressions with other characters. As when Gabrielle and Antoinetta collect laundry from the roof, the weight of protective secrecy weighs over their conversation, Gabrielle having to distance himself physically when they discuss the character’s sexuality. The moment that Gabrielle comes out to Antoinetta, Mastroianni employs his signature world-weariness, creating a fatigued seriousness and reluctant admission as Gabrielle opens up and reaches a social vulnerability.

As noted in Jaqueline Reich’s book Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Scola’s film portrays homosexuality by “showing that homosexuals are, in fact, like everyone else”, abandoning the traditional filmic markers of homosexuality like perversion, flamboyance, femininity, and hypersexuality. In the same vein, Fascism isn’t vilified, with the expected virility and rigid gender norms becoming a constraint on Gabrielle’s existence rather than an antagonistic force. Gabrielle is never in direct conflict with fascist authorities, but rather with the people that adhere to fascist hegemony. The result is an authenticity that empathizes with the common homosexual man, abandoning the sexual and gender binaries supported by fascist ideology.

Upon reflection of his extensive filmography, Mastroianni seems to have a diminished cultural and social relevance in modern times compared to some of his contemporaries, such as Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon (the latter of which was the center of a Christian Dior ad campaign in 2010). While Mifune and Delon aren’t acting anymore, they have a legacy in how male actors shape their persona and filmography, Mifune’s bestial and gruff athleticism adopted by a wide range of action stars, and Delon’s debonair sexiness the basis of an assortment of cinematic sex symbols. This raises a question about Mastroianni’s influence: where is it? Who is the “modern Mastroianni”? There are many complicating factors in answering this question, one of which being the postmodern shift of cinema, the shift from modernist icons like Mastroianni and his frequent collaborators (e.g. Federico Fellini) to a more globalized and anti-foundationalist industry. Mastroianni’s career has been noted for a subversion of his leading persona, but we live in a period in which the heteronormative male persona is constantly redefined and challenged. Relative to Mastroianni’s prime, contemporary stories and storytellers are increasingly varied in what male perspectives are shown on the silver screen, with a growing demand for actors of different racial, gender, and sexual denominations straying from the typical Western hegemony. While this is far from a troubling trend for global cinema, it does limit which actors can have a career similar to Mastroianni. There is also a greater demand for female stories, another trend beneficial for cinema that lessens the need for the inclusion of heterosexual white males. The result of this anti-foundationalist shift is that there isn’t a need for another Mastroianni, for someone who represents multiple denominations in his filmography, as there is for those denominations being vocal and authentic in film production.

Marcello Mastroianni died in Paris in 1996, but his reputable career still has an adoring audience. His frequent collaborations with distinguished filmmakers and actors and his drive for a diverse acting filmography seals Mastroianni as a film legend. His ability to control his bodily actions and mannerisms, effortlessly charm, and have a stylistic awareness affirms Mastroianni as one of the great leading men in cinema. In an LA Times interview, Marcello Mastroianni describes what separated him from other leading men:

“They knew where they were going—or at least, we presumed they knew. I haven’t any idea. If they were heroes, then I’m a non-hero.”