Marcello Mastroianni, who died in Paris in December 1996 at age 72, could not have had a finer valedictory to a great career than Manoel de Oliveira’s “Voyage to the Beginning of the World.”
When Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960) established Mastroianni as an international star, he came to embody the archetypal European male--handsome, charming, gallant and not just a little world-weary--in a wide-ranging series of roles, many for Fellini, for whom he became an alter ego. Mastroianni was at once a romantic leading man, a gifted comedian and a superb character actor who gave pleasure to audiences around the world.
In “Voyage,” Mastroianni’s 171st film, he again becomes an alter ego for a great director, Portugal’s De Oliveira, who made his first feature in 1929 and who turns 90 this December. As Manoel, Mastroianni plays a renowned Portuguese film director shooting a Franco-Portuguese co-production. One of the stars of his film is a well-known French actor, Afonso (Jean-Yves Gautier), whose father emigrated from Portugal.
Afonso is eager to visit his late father’s hometown, a remote mountain village, meet his father’s sister and see his grandparents’ graves. Manoel decides he and two of his other actors, Judite (Leonor Silveira) and Duarte (Diogo Doria), should accompany Afonso on his journey and serve as interpreters for him. (The film was based on an actual incident that occurred in 1987 to French actor Yves Afonso.)
The first part of the film belongs to Manoel, for in the course of the journey, he and his colleagues drive through a beautiful, rugged region the director knew in his youth. Though debonair and brave, Manoel is clearly frail, and as memories begin to sweep over him, making him all the more aware that he is an old man, he is confronted with a sense of his own mortality, which Mastroianni, in failing health, surely was experiencing himself.
In his last years, Mastroianni came to believe that if he could keep on working, he could go on living, but he must certainly have realized that “Voyage” could well be his farewell. In any event, there’s enormous resonance in Mastroianni’s portrayal of Manoel, a man who wryly observes that “nostalgia happens when you start losing your sense of irony.”
There’s a deceptively casual, random air to “Voyage,” but it begins to build powerfully once the travelers arrive at their destination, a small mountain village of ancient stone buildings and narrow streets, a place where farmers and shepherds have been living much the same way for thousands of years.
What gives “Voyage” an unexpected punch is that Afonso’s Aunt Maria (Isabel de Castro, an actress of amazing resources), a handsome peasant woman, resists acknowledging her nephew because he doesn’t “speak our language” and because she regards her brother, who ran away from home at 14 only to become caught up in the Spanish Civil War, as a deserter who was interested in his family only when he needed money.
As Maria’s resistance gradually wears down, all that concerns De Oliveira comes into play--the futility of war, a peasant way of life on the verge of extinction and the contrast between Afonso’s and Manoel’s relations to the past. Afonso, though he has no memories of his own, has the possibility of making a real connection with the past through Maria, whereas Manoel is rich in memories but has outlived all the friends and relatives of his youth. “Long life is a gift from God,” Manoel observes, “but it has a price.”
Perhaps inevitably, “Voyage to the Beginning of the World” recalls the 1957 Ingmar Bergman classic “Wild Strawberries,” in which an elderly professor, returning to his native region to receive an academic honor, is overcome with memories and faced with his shortcomings. “Voyage” is a less formal, less literary work yet has much the same impact.
It also has a wonderful symbol of the human predicament: an old stone statue of a man stuck throughout eternity with a heavy wooden beam resting on his left shoulder--a statue by the roadside remembered well by Manoel from his youth and surely not to be forgotten by his friends.
Mastroianni was an actor who gave his all to every part he ever played. His Manoel is as wise as he is brave and is as fine a performance as Mastroianni ever gave. As long as there are movies, surely Marcello Mastroianni will not be forgotten either.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has complex, mature themes.
‘Voyage to the Beginning of the World’
Marcello Mastroianni: Manoel
Jean-Yves Gautier: Afonso
Isabel de Castro: Maria Afonso
Leonor Silveira: Judite
Diogo Doria: Duarte
A Strand Releasing presentation of Franco-Portuguese co-production: Gemini Films (France)/Madragoa Filmes (Portugal) with the participation of Ipaca, RTP and Canal Pluc. Writer-director Manoel de Oliveira. Producer Paulo Branco. Cinematographer Renato Berta. Editor Valerie Loiseleux. Production designer Ze Branco. In French and Portuguese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 274-6869.