English Title: Dark Eyes
Original Title: Oci ciornie
Country: Italy, Soviet Union, USA
Language: Italian, Russian, French
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Suso Cecchi D’Amico
inspired by the stories of Anton Chekhov
Music: Francis Lai
Cinematography: Franco Di Giacomo
In Venice 73’, a tribute to Marcello Mastroianni, we watched a screening of this vintage Italy-USSR-USA co-production directed by Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov in mint condition, restored with an approximately 20-minute additional footage to its original theatrical and DVD length of 117 minutes, including additional scenes of Isabella Rossellini, who plays the daughter of our principal character Romano (Mastroianni).
DARK EYES won Mastroianni his second BEST ACTOR prize in Cannes, and reaped a third Oscar nomination for him, all his three nominations are from foreign language pictures, which is a second to none achievement in the Academy history, presently only Javier Bardem and Marion Cotillard seem to have the chance to match that record.
This story is told in flashback, on a steamer, Romano, a middle-aged Italian man recounts to a Russian passenger Pavel (Larionov) his hopeless infatuation to a Russian lady Anna (Safonova), whom he has first met in a convalescent sanatorium. What we sees of Anna is a beautiful and well-bred lady, but also mousy and withdrawn under Safonova’s marginally evasive interpretation, however, love is such a strange thing, in the eyes of Romano – the carefree, “kept” husband of a rich aristocratic heiress Elisa (Mangano), Anna is the true north of his pursuit. After a string of hilarious episodes in that magnificent sanatorium, Romano successfully woos her into bed, But the next day, Anna departs abruptly with a letter written in Russian, she is ashamed of their adultery, fleeing is the only thing she can do at then.
Losing Anna like this leaves a big hole in Romano’s hollow life, he must see her again, on the pretext of scouting places to build a factory to manufacture a type of unbreakable glass, Romano arrives in Soviet Union with zeal, when he finally reaches the town where Anna lives, he is hailed by the locals as the first ever foreigner in their land, and greeted by Elisa’s husband, the Governor of Sysoyev (Smoktunovskj, carrying a distinctly comedic bearing). The reunion sets their hearts on divorcing their respective spouses and spending the rest of their lives together. So, driven by an unprecedented spur of hope and devotion, Romano returns home to divorce Elisa, only to find the latter is in a dire financial pickle, she must sell her palatial villa due to bad investment, the regal Mangano is exquisitely vulnerable and simpatico in her final screen role (she would die of lung cancer two years later), so, maybe, it is not a convenient moment for Romano to announce his decision (pouring oil on the fire from a good-for-nothing husband), but when will be the right moment? What about Anna? Romano’s narration stops right there and a newly-married Pavel talks about his wife, then it is time to lunch, Romano turns out to be a waiter on the steamer, and Pavel is so eager to introduce his wife to him, guess who is coming to lunch? The film cheekily draws to a close.
That final revelation is somewhat jumping-the-shark, Chekhov certainly would not approve of such levity, but for the most part, DARK EYES is coruscating with hearty humor and imposing period decor and props, and after all, it is a top-shelf Mastroianni vehicle, entering the twilight year of his life, Romano is a signature role he has been playing for decades – a happy-go-lucky roué stumbles upon a once-of-a-lifetime romance, he totally emancipates himself in relishing Romano’s fortune and misfortune, runs the full emotional gamut with pyrotechnics (poignancy and laughter are sound evidence), what a charismatic cinematic icon! It is proper my honor to watch this curio on the big screen, and sets the seal on my very first, quite satisfactory Venice vacation.