The star of 'La Dolce Vita' embodied Italian charm both on the screen and off

If you want to hold the ragged silk paradoxes of Marcello Mastroianni in one hand, consider this wish, stated to an interviewer in 1987: ”You know who I’d like to play? Tarzan. Can’t you see me, at 75, naked? Beating my chest and roaring feebly as I hobble through the jungle in pursuit of some gorgeous young thing? It could be a blockbuster, no? And finally, finally, I would win an Oscar!”

Right there is the balancing act that Mastroianni, who died Dec. 19 in Paris of pancreatic cancer at 72, pulled off throughout his long career. From beginning to end, he both embodied European virility and maintained a self-mocking distance from it that was, by turns, puckish, prideful, helpless, and honest. He professed that he was the laziest man on earth, yet he made over 120 movies. He maintained only contempt for the ”Latin lover” stereotype, but he had a daughter with Catherine Deneuve (both of whom were at his deathbed) and a tempestuous two-year dalliance with Faye Dunaway, all during a 46-year marriage to Flora Carabella (which produced daughter Barbara, 45). Handsome and unsure, he was a key star for the generation that came of artistic age around 1960. The great Federico Fellini cast him as La Dolce Vita‘s morally unmoored tabloid reporter because the director wanted ”a face with no personality.” Nice justice: The film made the actor recognizable the world over.

It also made him synonymous with Rome itself, and it was there that the world’s mourning centered. Millions watched on TV as everyone from common Romans to the Italian prime minister to the actor’s greatest on-screen lover, Sophia Loren, paid tribute at an outdoor funeral. And in an appropriately Felliniesque touch, Nino Rota’s circuslike score for 8 1/2 wafted out of loudspeakers into the warm, sunny air. A festive funeral? Call it Marcello’s last paradox.