"Dark Eyes" may not be a Federico Fellini film, but for Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov and his Italian star Marcello Mastroianni, it is part homage to the Italian film maker's work.
The very presence of Mastroianni--whose performance won the Best Actor award at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival--brings to mind his unforgettable roles in Fellini's "8 1/2" and "La Dolce Vita."
Working with Mastroianni was a culmination of Mikhalkov's ever-deepening love for Fellini. The director admitted during an interview in his New York hotel: " '8 1/2' is my favorite movie, and Marcello is the true incarnation of childhood and nostalgia. Every time I begin a new film, I see '8 1/2' again with my whole team."
Mikhalkov, best known in this country for "Slave of Love" (1976) and "Oblomov" (1979), wrote the script of "Dark Eyes" for Mastroianni after the actor expressed a desire to work with him. Mastroianni had long wanted to play the role of Oblomov, and came upon Mikhalkov's film adaptation of Goncharov's novel a few years ago. "I was furious that he made 'Oblomov' without me," the 63-year-old star said in New York.
Mastroianni subsequently told Italian producer Silvia D'Amico that he'd like to collaborate with Mikhalkov. She wrote to the Moscow-based artist, and the three met in Paris and then in Russia. They agreed that the point of departure for an Italian production would be stories by Chekhov--in Mikhalkov's words: "a way of retaining the Russian reality I know." The main source was "The Lady with the Little Dog," and additional inspiration was provided by "My Wife," "The Birthday Party" and "Subjugated Anna."
"Dark Eyes" tells the comic but poignant tale of Romano, a gentle parasite in the home of his wealthy and beautiful wife (Silvana Mangano). He briefly leaves home and mistress (Marthe Keller) to vacation at a spa where he meets a young Russian woman, Anna (Elena Sofonova). When she returns to her homeland, Romano's love leads him to seek her out.
The scene in which he is first drawn to Anna and her little dog is particularly redolent of Fellini--wealthy guests are briskly wheeled to mineral water and mud baths while the Grand Hotel Orchestra--whose female singer is appropriately corpulent--plays waltzes.
When asked about his blend of Fellini and Chekhov, the 41-year-old director replied: "I'd like to think that Fellini's influence has been great. . . ." He went on to cite other influences.
Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game," he said, "is very important to me. . . . I also like the paradox of action in Hitchcock, the lightness of Fellini, the psychological depth of Bergman, the national originality of (Alexander) Dovzhenko and the scale of Kurosawa." (Given this international array, it seemed appropriate that the interview was conducted in four languages--with the director, his translator and the journalist constantly blending Russian with at least one other tongue.)
Mastroianni observed that during the 13-week shoot (seven weeks in Russia and four in Italy), he found little difference between the direction of Fellini and Mikhalkov:
"His technique is similar to Italian directors; for example, he used to give suggestions to the actors while the scenes were being shot," Mastroianni said in English.
"I think that here, in America, it's different," he continued, "that when actors act, the director doesn't speak--like in theater. Mikhalkov is in the scene with the actors--he says: 'strong, less, look there.' I felt at home.
"There was also a certain confusion and lack of money, like in my country. (In fact), the only difference was the language and the countryside. This is one of the interesting miracles in cinema; we understand each other. There are no frontiers. Mikhalkov speaks Spanish because he had a Spanish nurse when he was a child; I can understand Spanish, so no problems at all," he said.
Mastroianni rejected the idea of having to prepare for a role like Romano: "Don't believe that actors study, with books. It's a disgusting legend. An actor is an animal, a chameleon . . . a kind of child. An actor is a child of about 60. To go into the character, it's like you have to undress or become pure and--helped by the director and the story--you are in the character or the character is in you.
"Mikhalkov is always joking and prompting the actor in a tremendous way," he said. "Such an extraordinary seducer reminds me of Fellini: With them, the actor is spellbound, and experiences the same feelings of creative fantasy."
Mikhalkov is himself an actor, who has appeared in more than 25 films--notably those of his older brother, director Andrei Konchalovsky (who is now working in Hollywood). Mikhalkov professed a love for improvisation, explaining in Russian: "For me, a screenplay is only a pretext to develop a film. I like what might be called well-prepared improvisation.