[)ark Eyes is a thoroughly delightful and civilised entertainment gleaned from the pages ofseveral short stories by Anton Chekhov and adapted for the screen by Soviet director Nikita Mikhalkov. Like many works to emanate from the medium of film it owes its being to a happy combination ofchance and circumstance.
Marcello Mastroianni and producer Silvia D'Amico had just completed their toil on Big Deal on Madonna Street: Twenty Years Later . a somewhat belated sequel to one of the Italian actor‘s biggest early successes. confusingly released thirty years after the original. Mastroianni expressed a desire to play ()blomov in a film version of Ivan (ioncharov‘s 1858 novel about a civil servant and absentee landlord who succumbs to general inertia by retiring permanently to his bed. D‘Amico explained that Nikita Mikhalkov had already made a perfectly fine film of the novel and there seemed little point in embarking on the project. perhaps he could suggest something else? The inspired solution was a decision to contact Mikhalkov and ascertain whether there might be something that the two men could work on together. At first Mikhalkov was sceptical about the proposal: ‘It wasn‘t the first time I had been asked to direct abroad. I‘ve been offered films based on Tolstoy‘s Anna
FRUITS 0F PASSIO
A shared love for Chekhov led to the making of Dark Eyes - the film thatwon Marcello Mastroianni Best Actor at this year’s Cannes. Allan Hunter talks to the
Karenina or Lcskov‘s Lady Macbeth ofSiberia. but I understood only too well that people were after some ‘refined' exotic product. With this film I was attracted by the idea of working with an actor as good as Mastroianni. and ofdealing with themes and problems that are very important to me. I wasn‘t motivated by the idea ofworking outside the Soviet Union just for the sake of it. or ofobtaining foreign currency.‘ Initially. a number of Italian subjects were considered as the basis for their proposed collaboration including The Captain but Mikhalkov was adamant that his talents were best suited to material that was close to his own experience and sensibilities. ‘I didn‘t feel free to direct an Italian film about Italian people. I don‘t like American actors playing Russian parts or vice versa. though it‘s often done. and I‘m not prepared to do it because the result is often mediocre and sometimes hysterically funny.‘ The search continued until the men discovered that they shared a passion for Chekhov. It was decided to use elements from several of his stories. notably The Lady Willi the Little Dog. to create a ‘Chekhovian environment’ on screen that may not have respected the very letter of his work but was eminently faithful to its prevailing spirit. Mikhalkov is fulsome in his praise of enthusiasm for the project and application.‘ In
the past I thought only Russians could act Chekhov. now I think even foreigners can. Chekhov is difficult because the characters only develop in relation to the words. I needed to find an actor who pauses. Marcello is quite a Chekovian actor because he knows the art of semi-tone and understatement and is capable of conveying three pages of a book in just a glance.‘ Mastroianni responds to these generous words at the filtn‘s I987 Cannes press conference with a few good-humoured observations of his own. ‘I‘m Russian. everyone knows that. My real name is Mastronfksi. No. Neapolitans are very like Russians. Chekhov is my favourite author because everyone can recognise themselves in his work. Ile talks ofeveryday life and that makes his greatness. Nikita knows Chekhov very well. Directors tend to stress his dramatic side. but Nikita underlined the humorous side and we laughed a lot. 'I‘hat‘s unusual with any director.‘
The title of the film comes from the Chekhov short story Champagne in which the hero states: ‘I)ark eyes. passionate eyes. I met you when I was so sad.‘ A tragi-comedy. rich in ironic detail. Dark Eyes uses notions from My Wife. The Birthday Party and Subjagated Anna to create a wonderful showcase for the talents of Mastroianni who gives a tour de force performance as a man whose own spineless inability to deal in
honesty loses him a great love. j ‘Romano is a rather typical Italian. he claims. ‘Very imaginative. somewhat superficial. but not wicked. The young Russian lady he meets in a spa may be the first woman who doesn‘t ask anything of him. But he‘s also a weak man who can‘t go all the way once he has decided to do something. In spite of his love for Anna and in spite of the effort be put into finding her. when he‘s back in Italy even though he‘s overjoyed and on the threshold of an entirely new life. and despite being ready to tell his wife everything. at the last minute he is trapped in the old routine of lies and weakness.‘ Mikhalkov perceives mendacity as being the film‘s central theme. ‘The film‘s main issue. and it is a serious one. is that men always have the opportunity to tell the truth. He who doesn‘t tell the truth. doesn‘t trust other people. This is the story of a man who. after his first lie. has to go on lying; so he postpones his life. forgetting that you only live once. and when his happiness depends only on his capacity to trust someone else. he is no longer capable of doing so. Thus he loses his happiness along the way. In my opinion. this tragi-comedy is typical ofChekhov.‘
At the time oftalking. neither Mastroianni nor Mikhalkov knew that their collaboration would result in the actor‘s third Oscar nomination and the receipt ofa richly deserved Cannes prize as Best Actor. Ilowever. their comments indicate the pleasure each had found in the partnership and the possibility that it maybe repeated in the future. ‘I did find a certain similarity between Mikhalkov and Fellini.‘ Mastroianni noted. ‘Not in the type ofstories they want to tell but in the way they direct. They have the same sense of humour and fantasy. It‘s good to work with someone who becomes a friend or accomplice: it‘s like being at school.‘
Mikhalkov is currently pursuing a project that has attracted the interest of Meryl Streep. the possibility of Mastroianni also being involved would delight connoisseurs of fine acting the world over. Meanwhile. the actor continues to amass a prolific and distinguished list of credentials remaining faithful in his policy ofchoosing work according to the calibre of the director. ‘It‘s always the personality of the director. He makes the film. creates it; if he‘s good. the film will be good. He must be intelligent and capable. I have made films with directors without even reading a screenplay.
A screenplay is important ifyou don‘t know the director or his work. but its not indispensable. Knowing their sensibilities and being really comfortable with them is often better than reading a script.‘ The results so far bear eloquent testimony to the efficacy ofsuch a simple. golden rule and Dark Eyes can join an already distinguished roster of Mastroianni marvels.
Dark Eyes opens at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on July 31. See Film Listings for Details.
10 The List 32 July —- 4 August 1988