Marcello Mastroianni

Photo by Carmela Gross


Commentary on the model of interpretation of the Italian actor.

scenic aura

Coincidence, symbiosis, our fantasy or what? The quality of Mastroianni's figure in Fellini's films suggests the myth of the actor without a mask, of fiction that is the thing itself, making us speculate: what is the limit between the actor and the character?

So much naturalness is an art, and its history belongs to Fellini's constant connection with comics over 50 years. The link comprises famous names and the procession of anonymous figures in which Fellini saw the expressiveness that distinguished him as a director of actors and creator of types and figures. Fabrizi topped the list; for him, Fellini made gags e scripts before 1945, and took him to Rossellini to be the protagonist of Rome Open City (Rome, Open City, 1945). Peppino de Filippo followed in 1950; Leopoldo Trieste, in 1952-3; Alberto Sordi, around the same time; Giulietta Masina, who had already appeared in a supporting role in The Sceicco Bianco (abyss of a dream, 1952), but became the protagonist in 1954… Benigni, in 1989, was the last. What place did Mastroianni have in that role?

All these comics, except Masina and Mastroianni (whose debut on stage, in 1948, was with her), came from the popular vein of Italian theater. In Fellini's work, traces of the so-called "Italy“: the provincial nation, under the clergy and immersed in family life, which creates sacrificed women, men with vanities and whims – all forever infantilized by the despotism of omnipotent patriarchs and matrons. Deepening the description, Fellini's films that came after 1968 (The Clowns, Roma, Amarcord) attributed the sociability that generated fascism to such matrices.

In the gestures and verve of these actors (as in Totó, Anna Magnani, Tognazzi, Gassman, Manfredi…) we see traces of the direct relationship between the popular actor (from the circus, revue theater, etc.) with the audience – however without mediation technique that cinema would bring, causing several changes in the way of seeing and acting.

Late and accelerated modernization: La Strada

Significant changes occurred in Fellini's work, with La Strada (The Road of Life, 1954), and they decisively went through the choice of actors. Americans entered the scene in the role of Italians: Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart. And the main role was entrusted to Giulietta Masina, who will also star in Le Notti di Cabiria (nights of cabiria, 1956). The other crucial actor in these changes was Marcello Mastroianni, from La Dolce Vita (The sweet life.

Fellini fled in this way from the sources of traditional Italian comedy. Would he look for a comic opposite to the baroque and Italian way of acting, excessively emphatic and reiterative? The fact is that Chaplinism worked at the time as the shortcut at hand. The choice had immediate consequences. In La Strada, the construction of the role of Masina (Gelsomina), according to the imported model, involved aspects specific to the idea of ​​cinema and its social function, which distinguished Chaplin, among many other ebullient comics of silent cinema.

Chaplin's work – containing social criticism and political satire – and his anti-Nazi militancy placed him as an “engaged” and aroused McCarthyist ire; for this reason Chaplin, as is known, was forced in 1952 to leave the USA and go into exile in Switzerland. In the heat of the moment and in such a Cold War context, to base oneself already in 1953-4, in the case of La Strada, for Chaplin (newly exiled and in the year following his expulsion), was to take sides (in international and national disputes – in fact, Italy was notoriously, at the time, a focus, and one of the most burning, of strategic disputes in the West) . La Strada thus it also operated as a manifesto and a program.

On another level, Chaplin's gestures and syncopated mime transferred to the body the law of the filmic sequence of images, structured on the basis of “shocks”, just like modern perception.[1] Thus, in Chaplin's essential mimic economy – as in that of Buster Keaton – a response was forged, in the expressive sphere, to the new division between man and machine. In this way, cinema obtained, in the comedies of these two interpreters-creators, a rhetorical economy at the level of the new gestural rationality and showed, with irony, through the game of scene, and mainly the way of acting of one and the other, the new man-machine relationship, polarized and cadenced by it.

Therefore, by re-elaborating Chapin's lessons in the Italian context, La Strada it signaled the growth of Fellini's dexterity with cinema. Parallel to Chaplinism, beautiful and expressive traveling shots – essentially cinematographic mode – not used by Fellini in his previous films. Finally, the theatrical narrative model, previously used by Fellini, was left behind, and the process also advanced on the plot as a whole. The character of Zampanó – whose repetitive gestures, breaking chains, evoked (as in the Chaplinesque figure of Modern times, [1936]) the man rhythmed by the machine – parodically alluded to the fact that Italy was industrializing at an accelerated pace, and rebuilding itself from top to bottom in the course of a tree originated in the steel industry (pulled not only by local modernization, but by the expansion of the North American military effort, in the Korean War [1950-53]). In short, Fellini's work carried out, in La Strada, a strategic leap, supported by new actors and intervening in two fronts simultaneous, to overcome the populist content and naturalistic mimetic form of neorealist discourse. In this way, it evolved into a radical critique of the image, which combined – with a Brechtian edge – parody, reflection and structural analysis of society (in a process of late and accelerated modernization).

Modern masks and cinematic animals

In summary, Fellini set up, in these terms, a critique that will target – in the new analysis of the image – the production and reception of the spectacle, and the modernization, which reconfigured relations according to the hedonistic and narcissistic imaginary of consumption. La Dolce Vita was the first act on this new level. The film introduced Italian culture to the era of pop art. He prepared the public for Antonioni, who, throughout the 1960s, would examine, like Godard, the recesses of objectified subjectivity.

Mastroianni was one of the factors in the affirmation in Italy of the modernity of cinema in the face of other language systems. Thus, the actor soon came to be incorporated into La Notte (At night, 1960) by Antonioni, who also sought – without success – Masina’s competition for the role that would later go to Jeanne Moreau. Meanwhile, Antonioni had Monica Vitti for analogous use.

In the end, what was the contribution of these actors, in favor of the autonomy and innovation of the cinematographic language, then in progress? They did not cease to be Italian comics and, as such, to draw – like the previous ones – from the rich Italian popular tradition. However, Mastroianni, Masina and Vitti responded, as actors, to a new historical cycle, in which mechanized and reproducible work restructured the world economy (including the Italian one), and took productive effort, including human work, to a new level. unprecedented.

As comics, Mastroianni, Masina and Vitti elaborate a modern and versatile way, which gave the Italian scene greater cosmopolitanism and universality. What did his new comedy correspond to? As for form, Masina, Mastroianni and Vitti were “cinematic animals”. They knew “instinctively” that cinema, through various artifices, works like a magnifying glass or microscope, which enhances perception, offering it what goes unnoticed, under the summary action of the perceptive routine.

From this angle, the film actor, following the lesson of Chaplin and Keaton, should act lightly, leaving the rest to the machine. It was a similar adjustment to that advocated, in architecture, by the formula (by Mies van der Rohe): “less is more (less is more)". Otherwise, the film actor falls into the so-called overacting, turns theatrical or histrionic. Mastroianni was absolutely clear about what he was doing: “I have always tried to take away more than to add, in terms of expression, gestures, intensity. Because cinema expands, dilates. I even believe that the less a person does, the better he is. I think I was like that at the beginning of my career. I believe that simplicity is absolutely a goal (…) to be achieved” (The State of S. Paul, 3/11/1996).

The Dialectical Comicity of the “Second” (or Nth) Nature

The search for simplicity distinguished the three aforementioned actors from the previous generation. In terms of the song, Roberto Murolo, Chet Baker, Johnny Alf, João Gilberto, Nara Leão, etc. played a similar role. They were unified by the awareness that technical mediation had become crucial at all levels of production, and, consequently, that the social circuit of art had become another in atomized society.

In fact, the circuit often became that of reception in a compact environment and by devices for individual use. Soon, art began to be combined, preferably, with the tone of voice in the first person, with the inner dialogue, with the autonomous redoubling of self-awareness.

In terms of humour, another aspect of this renovation was the thematic one. Human suffering, which generates the raw material of humor, was no longer mixed with personal relationships of servitude – which, by the way, Totó ironized, with unforgettable verve. With modernization, impersonal situations began to prevail, reproduced according to an abstract logic – society, according to Weber, was rationalized; the mood, ditto.

In this sense, Kafka forged the new comic. In the automatic and unreflected order diagnosed by him, the antidote, the radical way, took on traits of self-irony, self-denial, self-delimitation. The most comical thing, in the new picture, came along with the act of free reflection, against the grain of automatic mode. That's how much is left for all the crushed beings that comedy always defends.

Hence the new fluency of Mastroianni and his peers, who made – from no to yes and from yes to no –, taking irreducible precision from uncertainty and not knowing. Thus, they represented both affirmatively and negatively, incorporating the opposite in the act itself. In short, they passed to dialectical comicity. The new naturalness consisted in the practice of permanently oscillating between opposites; combined docility and incessant reflection or criticism about each limit.

Thus, the basic mode of this comedy was defined as essentially reflective. And the New Yorker Woody Allen, for some time now, exemplary protagonist of the genre and chief ironist – of current good and ill-being –, appropriately adopted Mastroianni's symbol glasses as genetic data.

"Final”, still with the magic of opposites

Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, once again conducted by Fellini, offered, in Interviews (Interview, 1987), a courageous example of this coming and going between opposites, giving us a visual synthesis of the human condition. It was in the sequence in which the two actors, at that time aged and deformed, confronted themselves with their iconic images, of how they were 28 years earlier, on the set of the Fontana di Trevi in La Dolce Vita. For such an aptitude for self-irony, Robert Altman (with whom the actor worked on Ready-to-Wear, 1994) coined a couplet for Marcello: “It was the last of the great clowns"(La Reppublica, 20/12/1996).

*Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of the graduate programs in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of Conflict and Interpretation in Fellini: Construction of the Public's Perspective (São Paulo, Edusp, 1994).

Review and research assistance: Gustavo Motta.

Edited from the text originally published under the title “With Fellini, He Suggests the Myth of the Actor Without a Mask/ Mastroianni Was the Last of the Modern Clowns”, Notebook 2, The state of Sao Paulo, February 4, 1997.


Federico Fellini. La Strada (The Road of Life), 1954, b/w, 35 mm, 108'.

_________, Le Notti di Cabiria (nights of cabiria), 1956, b/w, 35 mm, 110'.

_________, La Dolce Vita (The sweet life), 1959, b/w, 35 mm, 174'.

_________, The Clowns (The clowns), 1970, color, 35 mm, 92'.

_________, Roma, (Fellini's Rome), 1972, color, 35 mm, 120'.

_________, Amarcord, 1973, color, 35 mm, 123'.

_________, Interviews (Interview), 1987, color, 35 mm, 107'.


[1] See Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Time of its Technical Reproducibility (second version), presentation, translation and notes Francisco de Ambrosis Pinheiro Machado, Porto Alegre, ed. Zouk, 2012.


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