Marcello Mastroianni was one of Italy’s most famous and greatest actors of film. His career spanned over six decades, appearing in well over 100 films. Acclaim for his performances have been similarly widespread, with Mastroianni being nominated for three Academy Awards, among other prestigious accolades.
He has worked with many famous Italian directors such as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti, as well as American directors like Robert Altman. Mastroianni’s skill, charisma and versatility made him not only an Italian sensation, but an international star and acting legend.
Born in a small Italian village in 1924, Mastroianni grew up in Rome and Turin with his parents who ran a carpentry shop. During World War II, he was imprisoned in German camp, from which he escaped to Venice. He then started his film career, appearing as an extra in Marionette when he was 14, slowly building his reputation and fame. Finally, in the late 50s, Mastroianni struck it big with Big Deal on Madonna Street, a hit crime comedy, and then continued to propel his career with famous films like La Dolce Vita in 1960.
Through both the characters he portrayed and his personal life, Mastroianni became known as a playboy. He often played adulterous and promiscuous roles, trying to sleep with every pretty women he met.
In real life, Mastroianni also had several partners, including famous actresses like Faye Dunaway, Sophia Loren and Catherine Deneuve. This image he created often led to him portray the suave and handsome, yet conflicted leading man, playing parts less noble than typical leading men choose.
The following 15 films feature Mastroianni’s best performances and represent the breadth and versatility of his career.
15. La Grande Bouffe (Marco Ferreri, 1973)
La Grande Bouffe is an absurd, satirical comedy that follows four men, Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Ugo Tognazzi and Phillippe Noiret, who are fed up with their lives and decide to end their lives. Each of the four main character embodies something wrong with the elite, such as being too prideful or too greedy.
The suicide pact these men enter in together, however, is atypical, as they plan to eat themselves to death with a week of endless feasting. They are joined by prostitutes that they hire and a schoolteacher who was passing by. The film is quite disgusting, filled with scatological humor and bloated sex, often making it hard to watch, but of course, this is the intention of the film.
This film is blatant satire on the gluttony of the bourgeois class with little attempt to hide this motive. For instance, one character farts himself to death, and at another point a toilet explodes literally covering the characters in filth which shows the lack of subtlety Ferreri took when approaching his satire.
These archetypes of the upper class become so depraved that they even scare off the prostitutes who are typically considered the bottom dwellers of societal class. If the viewer can handle a few disturbing scenes, La Grande Bouffe is a funny, and thought provoking condemnation of the upper class.
14. Ginger and Fred (Federico Fellini, 1986)
This moving film stars Marcello Mastroianni and Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina as old dancing partners Pippo and Amelia, who once were famous for their Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers act. They reunite in their late years to perform their old routine on a television show that showcases musical performances.
This does not come without complications, however, because as the pair have grown older, they have become more out of touch with the times, as well as less physically agile. Despite the odds, through their performance they are able to recapture a small portion of the fame they once knew.
Ginger and Fred is not Fellini’s most ambitious work, but it is one of his most sincere. With the help of Mastroianni and Masina’s understated performances, he manages to convey the essence of nostalgia and past goals, which are the central themes in the film.
Their uplifting characters who manage to reclaim their youth is touching to say the least. Fellini also uses the film to criticize the Italian television industry, which, in the film, is shown to be outlandish and shallow, filled with overblown and useless material. Though not quite as important or philosophical as his more famous films, Ginger and Fred is an accessible and very underrated film in Fellini’s work.
13. A Special Day (Ettore Scola, 1977)
The titular day in focus is May 8, 1938 when Mussolini was visited by Hitler in Rome and the entire city went to watch the parade to welcome him. The film follows the only two people in an apartment building to stay at home on this day.
Gabriele, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a homosexual, anti-fascist broadcaster who is to be exiled soon. He meets Antonietta, played by Sophia Loren, who is a housewife left behind to perform household chores while her family is away at the parade. They spend the day together, learning about the each others’ lives and opinions until the end of the day when Gabriele is taken away and Antonietta goes back to her family.
The funny and emotional connection that these two, dissimilar strangers share is important in showing the purity of human relations in the midst of such excitement and spectacle. The film is realistic, but the characters are allowed to detach enough from their surroundings to be honest and allow themselves to open up to the other.
Mastroianni and Loren are both convincing as real people and emotionally stirring. Their performances give the film its powerful substance, showing the pure enjoyment and satisfaction that little moments can provide in a person’s life. Nominated for both Best Actor and Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, A Special Day is a period piece with an unusually small scope, deeply exploring the human condition of those involved.
12. Jealousy, Italian Style (Ettore Scola, 1970)
Alternatively titled “The Pizza Triangle”, this drama-comedy features a relationship between a married construction worker Oreste, played by Mastroianni and a beautiful florist Adelaide, played by Monica Vitti. As their affair develops, a pizza chef Nello, played by Giancarlo Giannini, becomes enamored with Adelaide creating a rift in the relationship.
After an initial fight, the three agree to live together, which, predictably, leads to increased tensions between everyone. Jealousy between the two men soars and Adelaide becomes extremely conflicted, leading to her leaving for a third man. Oreste and Nello, who are still in love, continue to follow her, culminating in a darkly comic ending.
Jealousy, Italian Style criminally under watched entry in the Italian Style comedy genre is both hilarious and depressing, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of the film movement. Mastroianni and Giannini play the opposing, fourth-wall breaking, lovers of Adelaide who each take on a differing persona.
Mastroianni plays the committed, mature boyfriend while Giannani’s character is much more intrusive and eager, practically suffocating the couple until Adelaide accepts him. They both, however, show their obsession over her, similarly, and their violent transformations are frightening.
Filled with passionate melodrama and twisted comedy, Jealousy, Italian Style is a uniquely wonderful film, and although it is not as well known as the other films on this list, is worth watching if you can find it.
11. City of Women (Federico Fellini, 1980)
Possibly Fellini’s most bizarre film, City of Women is an exploration of feminism and chauvinism, taking place in a fantastical universe. Marcello Masroianni plays the womanizer Snaporaz, who, after following a woman into the woods, ends up at a lavish hotel. In the hotel, however, is a feminism convention attended by scores of women who judge and torment him.
He tries to escape only to be surrounded by more spiteful and unusual women, eventually being tried for his masculine crimes. Fellini is not advocating either extreme of the spectrum, showing both one-sided mindsets to be harmful and ridiculous.
Mastroianni does a wonderful job playing the bewildered playboy stuck in his worst nightmare, while the cast of women are effective in continually scaring him. The most memorable aspect of the film however is the unconventional structure and wacky scenes. The many sections are very different in terms of film style, with some being overblown Fellini-esque circuses and some being haunting techno-oriented scenes.
The lack of cohesion between scenes can be a bit polarizing, and distracts from Fellini’s message but is perhaps necessary in order to maintain interest due to the lack of clear plot. While certainly not one of Fellini’ greatest films, City of Women is an interesting film in terms of art direction and the exploration of gender roles, revolving around Mastroianni’s brilliant self-critical performance.
10. Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958)
Mario Monicelli, one of the greatest comedy masters of Italy, directs this hilarious heist film featuring a group of bumbling crooks who try to break into a pawn shop. Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman and Renato Salvatori among others, the film shows how each character’s current situation could convince them that robbing a store, while having no exerience doing so, would be a good idea.
Mastroianni’s character, for instance, is a father who has to provide for his child while his wife is in jail. Their plan is to access the shop through an apartment next door, but when they discover the apartment is inhabited by two old ladies, conflict rises and comedy ensues.
Big Deal on Madonna Street was one of the most popular films of the year in Italy, rising Mastroianni to star status. While the role was not his most complex or challenging of his career, it showed him as very funny and likable to the public.
Along with the great acting and production, the film’s success was also due in part to it being a slight parody of heist films such as Rififi which had come out recently. Not only a landmark in Mastroianni’s career, Big Deal on Madonna Street is a classic Italian comedy guaranteeing many laughs.
9. Dark Eyes (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1987)
In this Russian-Italian film, Marcello Mastroianni plays Romano, an aging, tired old man telling a story to another man in a ship’s dining hall. He tells of his complicated life and romances, mainly his affair with a Russian woman. Romano is content with his wife, but finds himself falling in love with his new partner.
When he and the Russian woman are planning on getting divorces to be with each other, however, he discovers his wife has lost all her money and decides to stay with her, letting the Russian go. This sparks a debate on love, leading to a terrific final sequence that leaves the viewer thinking, well after the film ends.
In an Academy Award nominated role, Mastroianni performanc of the the passionate and free-spirited character’s transformation into the exhausted man shows the toll that love can take on a person, especially love that has been lost. This explores the main philosophical conflict of the movie which regards whether Romano’s actions were morally acceptable or cruel to his Russian lover.
Because the tale is told as a story inside of the film, however, Mikhalkov is telling us that the outcome is predefined, and it is unimportant what might have happened if Romano did things differently. This debate, present in both the themes and the plot, elevates the film from a simple love story to a thought provoking work of substance.