It was the major coup of the second Rome Film Festival: Terrence Malick, the great recluse of US cinema, would be appearing on stage for one of the high-calibre 'conversations' about film. Malick is the JD Salinger of the film world: he's famous for not giving interviews (the last was in 1975), for not allowing people to take photographs of him, and for having made only four films in the past 35 years.

The atmosphere in the Sala Petrassi concert hall, where the talk was taking place, was electric. When Malick finally shuffled in 20 minutes late, accompanied by festival co-director Mario Sesti and film critic Antonio Monda, he was met by a standing ovation.

Stooped and balding, the legendary director was wearing a long black raincoat over mud-green corduroy trousers: he looked like the kind of dodgy geezer most of us would avoid standing next to on the tube. He nodded embarrassedly at the packed auditorium and sat down between his two minders. Sesti reminded us about the photo ban, and added that the audience should "pretend we weren't there" so that Malick could be coaxed out of his shell by the illusion that this was a private talk between friends.

A wall of Italian mirrors

Malick had agreed to turn up on condition that the conversation hinged on Italian cinema rather than his own works. The extracts he had chosen to comment on were surprising, perhaps, for a director whose films are so often read as solemn, spiritual commentaries on the mysteries of life and death.

First we were shown outtakes from a couple of films featuring the Neapolitan comic actor Toto. Then came a scene from Pietro Germi's marvellously arch social comedy Seduced And Abandoned, followed by extracts from Federico Fellini's The White Sheik and Ermanno Olmi's first film Il Posto. Made between 1951 and 1963, these films all held an ironic mirror up to the curious mixture of insecurity and swaggering pretension that marked urban post-war Italian society - many miles, at first glance, from the raw frontier lands and cosmic themes of Malick's films.

The director talked haltingly about his selections, and at first his glosses were not particularly illuminating. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps Malick really is paralysed by the idea of speaking in public, but comparing Toto with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, or saying that European films "opened a window on the world" for young US cineastes of his generation, was hardly designed to set us alight.

Getting to the pinpoint

But Malick gradually warmed to his subject. Commenting on Germi's glorious parody of Sicilian family honour, he pointed out that "as social customs loosen, it becomes increasingly difficult to make comedy - or tragedy for that matter - because nothing so grave is at stake". What most struck him about Olmi's bittersweet study of a rural innocent caught in the bureaucratic cogs of a big city office job was the way that "all of us feel like the young man in the film, and can remember when the world first began to close in around us".

It looked like we were going to have to settle for allusive references to Malick's own creative preoccupations. But then Sesti and Monda revealed their trump card: they had actually talked the director into discussing two scenes from his own films: the first from Badlands, the second from The New World.

Alas, revelation was not forthcoming. Malick froze as if caught in the headlights, stating that he could "barely remember the characters" from Badlands (though a throwaway line about Martin Sheen's bravura in portraying a "moral idiot" suggested otherwise), and shrugging off his famous tendency to place frail human figures against sweeping natural backdrops with the comment that he hoped we got "a sense of something greater surrounding these people".

Meeting one's heroes is always liable to be a disappointment. But I ended up admiring the old-world politeness with which the 63-year-old director wriggled on the pin of public scrutiny. He never actually put it into words, but Malick made it abundantly clear that what he really had to say was up there on the screen.