In Fellini’s Casanova, the viewer follows the legendary seducer, played by a young Donald Sutherland, jumping through several episodes in his life, in a whirlpool of memories, impressions and sex. This film is a journey that takes us to a Venetian prison, to French palaces, to a London frost fair and to the Swiss Alps. And the people Casanova meets, from a giant woman to dwarfs, from magicians to artists, are amazing. It’s Federico Fellini’s vision of Giacomo Casanova’s life and it’s completely unique.
The film’s themes aren’t love or the art of seduction, as the name Casanova tends to evoke, but lust and desire as basic human urges. Fellini didn’t like Casanova; for the Italian filmmaker he was just a soulless lover, a greedy social climber interested only in adding points to his score of amorous conquests and serving the nobility. So viewers will only find a sex machine moving from coitus to coitus, with little concern for the women he beds.
The narrative, like in many of this director’s films, is fragmentary, and Fellini and his co-screenwriter, Bernardino Zapponi, freely adapted Casanova’s autobiography. In defense of Fellini, though, Giacomo Casanova’s The Story of My Life contains around 3,500 pages, so a few cuts were necessary. Of course in a Fellini film the narrative isn’t as important as the visuals and the way each scene is constructed. Visually, this is a beautiful movie. It’s not only a masterful achievement by costume designer Danilo Donati, who deservedly won an Oscar for his work here; it’s also unique because of the stylistic choices Fellini employs. For instance, for a scene of Casanova rowing in a little boat in the middle of a sea storm, Fellini chose to use black plastic sheets to replace the water; this choice may seem meaningless until we realize that artifice, appearances and illusions are running themes.
Another interesting stylistic choice is the way Fellini shoots exterior scenes. Usually landscapes are covered in mist or snow, the sun barely visible. Our vision is limited to the foreground while the horizon remains hazy. By contrast, the interior scenes, the magnificent ballrooms, gardens and bedchambers, where most of the action takes place, are exuberant, a sensory overload of colors, sounds, shapes and movements.
Donald Sutherland, one of the most underrated living actors, shines as Casanova. He is practically unrecognizable here: with his hair cut, wearing a prosthetic chin and nose, and covered in make-up, Sutherland displays a strange, androgynous look. He’s also, apart from the women he seduces, the only handsome person in the film. Fellini must have handpicked the ugliest actors in the world to populate this film, who, with their rotten and missing teeth, wrinkled faces and long, sharp noses, are in total opposition to the beautiful world that surrounds them.
The action takes place during the Enlightenment, but reason doesn’t make an appearance here. What for some was one of the greatest eras of human achievement, for Fellini was an era of debauchery, aloofness and superstition. Suffice to say that an aristocratic woman asks Casanova to impregnate her so she can pass her soul, through a ridiculous pagan ritual, to the fetus. Casanova and his contemporaries are vapid people who believe they’re exceptional. Only Casanova, gradually, loses his illusions and the ending is a moment of epiphany for the seducer who, aged, only has his memories to keep him company.
There’s a small caveat: Donald Sutherland’s voice was originally dubbed by Italian actor Gigi Proietti, so his fans may want to look for a version that has the English audio. I wouldn’t consider this a major loss, since this is one of those films where the dialogue is practically irrelevant. Sutherland’s body language expresses a lot more than the platitudes his character tends to spout. But viewers used to actors’ original voices may find this off-putting.
Fellini’s Casanova is long and requires more patience than attention. The narrative’s aimlessness may quickly induce boredom if the viewer isn’t used to Fellini’s style. Fellini makes up for this by giving every sequence some humour and titillation (the sex scenes may not be the best but are certainly the funniest ever filmed for cinema). In this regard this movie is very similar to Amarcord, which also seems like an endless collection of unrelated gags. Perhaps this film isn’t one of Federico Fellini’s essential masterworks, like 8½ and La Dolce Vita, but it’s a sexy, tragicomedy still capable of entertaining and inspiring awe.
Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Giacomo Casanova (The Story of My Life), Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Tina Aumont, Dan Van Husen, Sandra Elaine Allen
Runtime: 164 min