Drawn from "The Lady With the Little Dog" and other stories by Chekhov, "Dark Eyes" comes with an impressive pedigree. Added to that is the prize-winning performance of Marcello Mastroianni and the epic artistry of Russia's highly touted director Nikita Mikhalkov. Alas, it is an embarrassment of riches, as these cinematic aristocrats attempt to make "Doctor Zhivago" from a mannered little love story.
Like so many Soviet moviemakers, Mikhalkov works in a tempo meant for patient, stalwart audiences. He lingers over his ornate sets, photographing the furniture as if he were shooting a House & Garden center spread. And not a rosy landscape goes unswept as the director scans Mother Russia's misty panoramas; the sparse story looks overdressed, like Elizabeth Ashley in Elizabeth Taylor's earrings.
That's not to say that it's less than lovingly composed, with Mikhalkov's baroque framework reflecting the foolhardy romanticism of the hero Romano. The Italian lady-killer, a pampered husband of a rich wife, falls in love with a dark-eyed Russian, Anna, while vacationing at a prissy health spa. The attendants toss flowers into mud baths while the out-of-sorts elite splash gaily in the muck. The world-weary Romano finally charms the reluctant Anna by ruining his white suit to reclaim her windblown hat from the ooze. He had intended to romp and run, but falls in love with his conquest's sweet spirituality.
Mastroianni won the best actor's prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival for his work as this sad, worn Romeo who throws away his last chance to make something of himself when he abandons Anna to return to his wealthy wife (stunning, crisp Silvana Mangano). He had wanted to be an architect, to build buildings, but he has built nothing, not even a relationship with his tolerant wife.
The ruined Romano, pasty-faced and puffy-eyed, is the picture of a grieving gallant as he tells his life story to a patient Russian passenger (Vsevolod Larionov) in the empty dining room of an ocean liner. We flash back to the leaner, midlife Romano's affair with Anna, the high point in his indolent, ineffectual and empty life.
Anna, an elusive beauty as played by Russian actress Elena Sofonova, leaves Romano behind at the spa, running back to Russia to rejoin her rich husband. Romano pursues her, blocked by all sorts of bureaucrats and ecologists along the way -- an apparent political statement that really has no bearing on the lovers' story. If it was slow going before, this is like barge-time on the Volga.
The whole thing is precisely acted, with Marthe Keller pert as a Neapolitan Goldie Hawn in the role of Romano's other mistress, and Larionov immensely likable as the passenger sympathizing with Romano's pitiful autobiography. Skilled as the cast is, however, there's a chilly chemistry, as if the actors had just met at a cocktail party. Even the appearance of a caravan of gypsy dancers can't heat things up.
The screenplay, thoughtful, but skimpy, is written by Mikhalkov, his close colleague Alexander Adabachian, and Suso Cecchi D'Amico, coauthor of such landmark movies as "The Bicycle Thief" and "The Leopard." This trio of wild romantics can't resist a contrived and easy ending. Or dialogue like this: "The boat will rot. The sea dry up. But the good and evil we have done will always exist."
Romano and the passenger share this somewhat silly philosophy by way of rounding off the tale. "I have had everything and nothing," moans Romano. "I have no memories." Well, that's the point, we suppose, of this cautionary tale for aimless househusbands, gigolos and jigglettes.
Dark Eyes, at the Outer Circle, is unrated but contains no offensive material. It is in Russian and Italian with English subtitles.