By Peter Castro
January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

THE THOUSANDS OF MOURNERS STANDING elbow-to-elbow in Paris’s cavernous 17th-century St. Sulpice Church grew hushed as actress Catherine Deneuve hesitated by the simple oak coffin that bore her onetime lover, Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni. Fighting back tears, she rearranged a single rose across the dark grain of the oak and returned to her seat. Moments later, the massive church doors swung open to reveal a wall of paparazzi, as well as a TV anchorman, in a white trench coat, broadcasting live to Italy. As Mastroianni’s coffin was carried to a hearse, more than 3,000 admirers jamming the square and adjacent streets burst into applause, and cries of “Ciao, Marcello!” drowned out the sobs.

Perhaps it was only fitting that Mastroianni, who died Dec. 19 of pancreatic cancer at 72, would have such a Felliniesque farewell. It was his work in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8½ as well as starring roles in such other classic films as Divorce—Italian Style and La Notte that secured his reputation as the quintessentially dashing (and, when the script called for it, comical) European lover. Only Mastroianni, who played opposite such exceptional beauties as Sophia Loren (11 times), Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale, would ever object to that image and all it implied. “I am not a sex addict,” he once said on American television. For that matter, he claimed during the height of his fame in the late ’60s, he was not even handsome: “I have a common face, anonymous—a little peasant face.”

In fact, Mastroianni was never aristocratic. He was born in the impoverished village of Fontana Liri near Rome to a cabinetmaker father who went blind from diabetes and a mother who suffered from arteriosclerosis and grew deaf. “They liked movies,” Mastroianni told PEOPLE in 1987. “He would ask her what they were doing on the screen, and she would ask him what they were saying.” While drawing maps as a teenager for the Italian army during World War II, Mastroianni was sent as a prisoner to a Nazi labor camp in 1943. Though he escaped, he spent the rest of the war in hiding in Venice. It was after the war, when he joined the University of Rome’s theatrical company, that he met Fellini.

In 1950 he married fellow student Flora Carabella, but they separated some 20 years later because of his affairs. “At the beginning, I suffered from jealousy and was infuriated,” Flora has said. “[But] from an offended wife, I transformed into a friend.”

And a very understanding one, for Mastroianni’s love life was as hectic as his frantic several-pictures-a-year work schedule. Over the course of making more than 130 films in 50 years, he took lovers, including actresses Anouk Aimée, Ursula Andress, Lauren Hutton, Cardinale and Deneuve. Faye Dunaway, with whom he costarred in Vittorio De Sica’s 1969 film A Place for Lovers, also captured his heart. Dunaway wanted to marry and have children, but Mastroianni, a Catholic, refused to divorce Flora. In 1971, after three tempestuous years of waiting for Mastroianni to change his mind, Dunaway left him. “I am sorry I lost her,” he said soon after the split. “I will always be sorry.”

It was not long afterward that Mastroianni began living with Deneuve, now 53. But after three years and a baby (daughter Chiara, 24), she too dissolved the relationship. “For a time you succeed in subtly dictating your game,” Mastroianni once confessed. “Then one day they told me, ‘You appear sweet and gentle. Instead, you’re a monstrous egotist. You play according to your own rules.’ And it’s mostly true.” Yet at his side last month as he lay dying in his Paris duplex were Deneuve and Chiara, as well as Barbara Mastroianni, 44 (his daughter with Flora), and director Anna Maria Tatò, Mastroianni’s fortysomething companion since the ’70s.

Last summer, shortly before finishing his final film, Manoel de Oliveira’s Journey to the Beginning of the World, in Portugal, the dying Mastroianni gave an interview to the French magazine Paris Match. “I’ve loved [life] so much,” he said. “When you get to my age, you realize life has slipped by…. I just got here, and already I have to leave. It’s absurd.”